Two thoughts went through my head when I read about a study showing that women seeking abortion experience high rates of domestic violence. The first thought was that this doesn’t surprise me in the slightest, both because abused women might have more unintended pregnancies and because pregnancy often is the catalyst for abusers escalating the amount of violence. And the second is that this really demonstrates how wrong anti-choicers are when they claim that forced childbirth is somehow pro-woman. To be truly pro-woman, you must give women tools to prevent abusers from strengthening their hold over their victims. Forcing an abuse victim to have a baby against her will by her abuser is doing the abuser’s work for him.
The findings of the study conducted by University of Iowa professors and Planned Parenthood of the Heartland is grim but unsurprising to those of us who know something about the parameters of violence against women. Fourteen percent of the women coming in for abortions over an eight-and-a-half month period had experienced domestic violence in the past 12 months. There’s reason to suspect that women in abusive relationships are more likely to experience unintended pregnancy. Sabotaging birth control is a common tactic of abusers seeking to increase their power over their victims and reduce their victims’ own sense of control. Preliminary studies have found that it may be that up to three-quarters of women in abusive relationships experience some form of contraception sabotage.
Once pregnant, women in abusive relationships are quite likely to be more motivated than average to terminate a pregnancy. Domestic abuse often escalates during pregnancy, probably because abusers feel an even stronger need to control their victims. They may also feel like they can get away with more abuse, because the child makes it that much harder for a woman to escape. In fact, homicide, usually at the hands of a male partner, is one of the leading causes of death for pregnant women. I’m not at all surprised that many women sense this danger, and this influences the decision to terminate.
And that leads me to the one silver lining in this research, which is that it seems many of the women getting abortions are not just trying to survive within abusive relationships, but are also taking steps to get out. It’s not surprising that an unintended pregnancy and an abortion can be a catalyst for ending a toxic or even abusive relationship, and the research bears this out. Leaving is a very dangerous time for a woman in an abusive relationship, because the abusers often panic and start escalating the violence or stalking. But with this research in hand, clinic workers might be able to offer resources to women who are in an abortion clinic as part of a larger journey of escaping a bad situation.
Unfortunately, the anti-choice movement could create a large obstacle for keeping women safe. Anti-choicers already hail from the conservative, anti-feminist movement and therefore already inculcate hostility towards feminist efforts to dismantle the culture of male domination that permits abuse to flourish. Indeed, some anti-choice organizations work by stoking the anger of men who were rejected by their female partners after an abortion. I doubt very much that those promoting angry men blaming abortion stop often to think that perhaps these men were rejected because they threatened their partner’s safety. The romantic anti-choice myth of an unintended pregnancy leading to happily-ever-after doesn’t leave much room for acknowledging that sometimes “ever after” is less about being happy and more about being abused and unable to escape.
And since abortion is often a necessary step for many women seeking to escape abusive relationships, anti-choicers who are highly focused on stopping abortion at all costs will show an alarming disregard for women’s safety and well being. Take for instance the documentary "12th and Delaware," which is to be released on HBO in August. The filmmakers recorded a crisis pregnancy center “counselor” trying to talk a woman out of an abortion, even though that woman made it clear that she was in an abusive relationship and felt the abortion was an important step in getting out. The “counselor” suggested that having the baby would mean an end to the abuse. In reality, having a baby with an abuser usually means he has more control and leverage over you, something the pregnant woman in this film knew very well. Thankfully, the anti-choice “counselor” did not talk her out of taking care of herself and her safety.
Because of this basic disregard for women’s well-being, I worried that anti-choicers would immediately start angling to find a way to use this study to try to bully abused women out of getting abortions those women deem necessary. And sure enough, that’s exactly what happened. Life News deliberately lied about the research to make it seem that the abortion came before the abuse for these women, implying that the women brought violence onto themselves by choosing abortion. In reality, of course, the abuse predated the abortion in all of these cases, which were taking the histories of women getting abortions. By implying that the violence came after the abortion, Life News joins forces with wife beaters everywhere by using the threat of violence to control women’s bodies.
And this is why anti-choice claims to be “pro-woman” are so laughable. You cannot be pro-woman while using the threat of domestic violence to control women’s reproductive choices. You cannot be pro-woman while telling women lies about domestic violence and pregnancy in hopes they make choices that will usually end up putting them in more danger. You cannot be pro-woman when you distort the realities of abortion and domestic violence in ways that will, if you’re successful, lead perhaps to fewer abortions but certainly towards more beaten and even murdered women.