Partner Violence and Unintended Pregnancy: Time to Make the Connections

Elizabeth Miller MD PhD and Jay Silverman PhD

Violence and abuse are more closely associated with unintended pregnancy than with pregnancies that are intended. Forced sex, fear of violence if she refuses sex, and difficulties negotiating contraception and condom use in the context of an abusive relationship all contribute to increased risk for unintended pregnancy as well as for sexually transmitted infections including HIV. Newer research now also points to the influences of male control of contraception and pregnancy pressure on unintended pregnancy.

We have known for many years that
violence and abuse are more closely associated with unintended pregnancy than with
pregnancies that are intended. Forced sex, fear of violence if she refuses sex,
and difficulties negotiating contraception and condom use in the context of an abusive
relationship all contribute to increased risk for unintended pregnancy as well
as for sexually transmitted infections including HIV. Newer research now also points
to the influences of male control of contraception and pregnancy pressure on
unintended pregnancy.

We are lead researchers of a new
study, which appeared in Contraception
online
in late January. The research
report, “Pregnancy coercion, intimate partner violence and unintended pregnancy,”
highlights a phenomenon we labeled reproductive
coercion
to describe explicit male behaviors to promote pregnancy.  Particularly for women with a history
of partner violence, these behaviors are significantly linked with unintended
pregnancy.

Such reproductive coercion takes
many forms, but frequently involves a male partner’s direct interference with a
woman’s use of contraception (‘birth control sabotage’). It includes removing condoms during sex
to get her pregnant, intentional breaking of condoms, and preventing her from
taking birth control pills.2,3  

In addition, a male partner may
utilize threats and coercion to pressure a woman to get pregnant (‘pregnancy
coercion’), such as telling her not to use contraception and threatening to
leave her if she doesn’t get pregnant.

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Our previous qualitative research
has pointed to a range of reasons that a man might engage in such behaviors
including wanting to leave a legacy, desiring to keep a woman connected to him
in some way, as well as need for control in the relationship.  Clearly, much more research with men
and boys needs to be done to understand male involvement in unintended
pregnancies and how to positively engage men and boys in discussions of healthy
relationships.

Our new study included English-
and Spanish-speaking women ages 16 to 29 who sought health care at five
reproductive health clinics in California.  The reasons the women sought care included annual physical
exams, contraception, pregnancy testing, and testing for sexually transmitted
infections.

Participants completed a
confidential computerized survey (with questions read to them via headphones)
before their clinic visit; the clinic providers did not see the responses. More than half of the respondents (53
percent) reported experiencing physical or sexual violence from a male partner,
or someone they were dating or going out with some time in their lives. A quarter (25 percent) reported that
they had ever experienced ‘reproductive coercion,’ with 19 percent reporting
pregnancy coercion and 15 percent reporting birth control sabotage. Women who reported experiencing both
partner violence and reproductive coercion experienced a 100 percent increase
in their risk for unintended pregnancy.

Unintended pregnancy is clearly a
complex phenomenon. It can be
caused by a number of factors including: a mismatch of intentions and behaviors
for both males and females (i.e., not wanting to get pregnant, while not using
contraception or a condom, often called ‘contraceptive and pregnancy
ambivalence’); limited access to contraception; lack of knowledge about the
range of contraceptive options; stigma associated with asking a partner to use
a condom; as well as substance use such as alcohol accompanying intercourse.

Our study adds another important piece
to this puzzle: Male partners interfering with women’s reproductive
autonomy. Moreover,
the effect of male partner reproductive coercion on unintended pregnancy is likely
to be greater in the context of partner violence, given the clear threat of
violence if she tries to resist her partner’s wishes.

There are many unanswered questions around the interrelationship between
reproductive coercion, partner violence, and unintended pregnancy. Our study provides preliminary findings
indicating a significant connection, but it was limited to lower income women
seeking care in a particular type of family planning clinic in a particular
region. We need to know the
prevalence of reproductive coercion when women are seeking gynecologic care in
other settings such as hospitals or primary care clinics, as well as how
prevalent this is across the general population.How often does reproductive coercion occur in the
absence of partner violence? Does
partner violence precede effective attempts to control a woman’s pregnancy and
the outcomes of that pregnancy? Or do men’s coercive behaviors regarding contraception and reproductive
outcomes precede physical and sexual violence in the relationship? How do men recognize and understand
reproductive coercion? And, perhaps
most critically, why do men engage in such controlling behaviors, and what
strategies will successfully engage men and boys in preventing partner violence
and reproductive coercion?

Beyond answering such research questions, we need to identify effective
strategies to increase awareness about reproductive coercion among both men and
women.  Women may perceive
reproductive coercion and physical violence in a relationship as distinct
issues, and may need support and information to connect the dots between this
range of behaviors and their reproductive health needs.
If family planning practitioners pay attention to and address
reproductive coercion, they may be more successful at identifying clients at
risk both for unintended pregnancy and for harm from partner violence.

Further, such identification is
likely to improve the efficacy of family planning services, because knowledge
of reproductive coercion can inform counseling about contraceptive adherence and
choices (women at risk can be offered methods that are not easily detected by
male partners and are not reliant on male partner consent).  This knowledge that a woman is
experiencing reproductive coercion can trigger more intensive use of prevention
strategies that can reduce unintended pregnancies, including among adolescents,
and promote a woman’s safety. 

It also would be wise to consider
incorporating efforts to reduce reproductive coercion into comprehensive sexuality
education and pregnancy prevention programs.  Making discussions of healthy relationships the foundation
of sexuality education would be a good start.  Then incorporating discussions of abusive behaviors and
partner violence into curricula that discuss contraceptive negotiation would be
particularly helpful in increasing a woman’s success at contraceptive
negotiation and enhancing her reproductive autonomy.  Prevention programs that engage men and boys in reducing
unintended pregnancies should also offer opportunities to discuss
masculinities, gender equity, and reproductive justice.

Finally, vehicles like the currently authorized Violence Against
Women Act’s Health Provision could assist in supporting needed health research
and innovations in practice related to intimate partner violence and reproductive
coercion, including efforts to promote healthy relationships.  We should encourage professional health
care provider organizations to recognize and develop relevant standards and
competencies.  For instance, family
planning standards can be updated to address issues of partner violence and
reproductive coercion.  

Many people were stunned and alarmed by the Guttmacher Institute’s January
report
on teen pregnancy rates in the United States.  It noted a three percent increase in pregnancies among 15-
to 19-year-olds from 2005 to 2006—the first increase in some 15 years.  While teens and young women report the
highest rate of unintended pregnancies, many adult women experience unintended
pregnancies as well. Experts have been
telling us for years that almost half of pregnancies in the United States are
unintended (i.e., mistimed, unplanned, and/or unwanted).

The causes and mechanisms that underlie unintended pregnancy are
numerous and complex, but one thing is clear.  If we are serious about reducing unplanned pregnancies in
this country, we must bridge the gap between efforts
to reduce violence against women and girls and efforts to reduce unintended pregnancy.  We need innovative programs for both
young men and women that address both partner violence and healthy relationships.

1. Miller, E., M. R. Decker, et al. (2010
Epub ahead of print). "Pregnancy Coercion, Intimate Partner Violence, and
Unintended Pregnancy." Contraception.

2. Center for Impact Research. (2000).
"Domestic Violence & Birth Control Sabotage: A Report from the Teen
Parent Project."

3. Miller, E., M. R. Decker, et al. (2007).
"Male Partner Pregnancy-Promoting Behaviors and Adolescent Partner
Violence: Findings from a Qualitative Study with Adolescent Females."
Ambulatory
Pediatrics
7(5): 360-366.

4. Finer, L. B. and S. K. Henshaw (2006).
"Disparities in rates of unintended pregnancy in the United States, 1994
and 2001." Perspectives on Sexual & Reproductive Health 38(2): 90-96.

News Law and Policy

Texas Lawmaker’s ‘Coerced Abortion’ Campaign ‘Wildly Divorced From Reality’

Teddy Wilson

Anti-choice groups and lawmakers in Texas are charging that coerced abortion has reached epidemic levels, citing bogus research published by researchers who oppose legal abortion care.

A Texas GOP lawmaker has teamed up with an anti-choice organization to raise awareness about the supposed prevalence of forced or coerced abortion, which critics say is “wildly divorced from reality.”

Rep. Molly White (R-Belton) during a press conference at the state capitol on July 13 announced an effort to raise awareness among public officials and law enforcement that forced abortion is illegal in Texas.

White said in a statement that she is proud to work alongside The Justice Foundation (TJF), an anti-choice group, in its efforts to tell law enforcement officers about their role in intervening when a pregnant person is being forced to terminate a pregnancy. 

“Because the law against forced abortions in Texas is not well known, The Justice Foundation is offering free training to police departments and child protective service offices throughout the State on the subject of forced abortion,” White said.

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White was joined at the press conference by Allan Parker, the president of The Justice Foundation, a “Christian faith-based organization” that represents clients in lawsuits related to conservative political causes.

Parker told Rewire that by partnering with White and anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), TJF hopes to reach a wider audience.

“We will partner with anyone interested in stopping forced abortions,” Parker said. “That’s why we’re expanding it to police, social workers, and in the fall we’re going to do school counselors.”

White only has a few months remaining in office, after being defeated in a closely contested Republican primary election in March. She leaves office after serving one term in the state GOP-dominated legislature, but her short time there was marked by controversy.

During the Texas Muslim Capitol Day, she directed her staff to “ask representatives from the Muslim community to renounce Islamic terrorist groups and publicly announce allegiance to America and our laws.”

Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, said in an email to Rewire that White’s education initiative overstates the prevalence of coerced abortion. “Molly White’s so-called ‘forced abortion’ campaign is yet another example that shows she is wildly divorced from reality,” Busby said.

There is limited data on the how often people are forced or coerced to end a pregnancy, but Parker alleges that the majority of those who have abortions may be forced or coerced.

‘Extremely common but hidden’

“I would say that they are extremely common but hidden,” Parker said. “I would would say coerced or forced abortion range from 25 percent to 60 percent. But, it’s a little hard be to accurate at this point with our data.”

Parker said that if “a very conservative 10 percent” of the about 60,000 abortions that occur per year in Texas were due to coercion, that would mean there are about 6,000 women per year in the state that are forced to have an abortion. Parker believes that percentage is much higher.

“I believe the number is closer to 50 percent, in my opinion,” Parker said. 

There were 54,902 abortions in Texas in 2014, according to recently released statistics from the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS). The state does not collect data on the reasons people seek abortion care. 

White and Parker referenced an oft cited study on coerced abortion pushed by the anti-choice movement.

“According to one published study, sixty-four percent of American women who had abortions felt forced or unduly pressured by someone else to have an unwanted abortion,” White said in a statement.

This statistic is found in a 2004 study about abortion and traumatic stress that was co-authored by David Reardon, Vincent Rue, and Priscilla Coleman, all of whom are among the handful of doctors and scientists whose research is often promoted by anti-choice activists.

The study was cited in a report by the Elliot Institute for Social Sciences Research, an anti-choice organization founded by Reardon. 

Other research suggests far fewer pregnant people are coerced into having an abortion.

Less than 2 percent of women surveyed in 1987 and 2004 reported that a partner or parent wanting them to abort was the most important reason they sought the abortion, according to a report by the Guttmacher Institute.

That same report found that 24 percent of women surveyed in 1987 and 14 percent surveyed in 2004 listed “husband or partner wants me to have an abortion” as one of the reasons that “contributed to their decision to have an abortion.” Eight percent in 1987 and 6 percent in 2004 listed “parents want me to have an abortion” as a contributing factor.

‘Flawed research’ and ‘misinformation’  

Busby said that White used “flawed research” to lobby for legislation aimed at preventing coerced abortions in Texas.

“Since she filed her bogus coerced abortion bill—which did not pass—last year, she has repeatedly cited flawed research and now is partnering with the Justice Foundation, an organization known to disseminate misinformation and shameful materials to crisis pregnancy centers,” Busby said.  

White sponsored or co-sponsored dozens of bills during the 2015 legislative session, including several anti-choice bills. The bills she sponsored included proposals to increase requirements for abortion clinics, restrict minors’ access to abortion care, and ban health insurance coverage of abortion services.

White also sponsored HB 1648, which would have required a law enforcement officer to notify the Department of Family and Protective Services if they received information indicating that a person has coerced, forced, or attempted to coerce a pregnant minor to have or seek abortion care.

The bill was met by skepticism by both Republican lawmakers and anti-choice activists.

State affairs committee chairman Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana) told White during a committee hearing the bill needed to be revised, reported the Texas Tribune.

“This committee has passed out a number of landmark pieces of legislation in this area, and the one thing I think we’ve learned is they have to be extremely well-crafted,” Cook said. “My suggestion is that you get some real legal folks to help engage on this, so if you can keep this moving forward you can potentially have the success others have had.”

‘Very small piece of the puzzle of a much larger problem’

White testified before the state affairs committee that there is a connection between women who are victims of domestic or sexual violence and women who are coerced to have an abortion. “Pregnant women are most frequently victims of domestic violence,” White said. “Their partners often threaten violence and abuse if the woman continues her pregnancy.”

There is research that suggests a connection between coerced abortion and domestic and sexual violence.

Dr. Elizabeth Miller, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh, told the American Independent that coerced abortion cannot be removed from the discussion of reproductive coercion.

“Coerced abortion is a very small piece of the puzzle of a much larger problem, which is violence against women and the impact it has on her health,” Miller said. “To focus on the minutia of coerced abortion really takes away from the really broad problem of domestic violence.”

A 2010 study co-authored by Miller surveyed about 1,300 men and found that 33 percent reported having been involved in a pregnancy that ended in abortion; 8 percent reported having at one point sought to prevent a female partner from seeking abortion care; and 4 percent reported having “sought to compel” a female partner to seek an abortion.

Another study co-authored by Miller in 2010 found that among the 1,300 young women surveyed at reproductive health clinics in Northern California, about one in five said they had experienced pregnancy coercion; 15 percent of the survey respondents said they had experienced birth control sabotage.

‘Tactic to intimidate and coerce women into not choosing to have an abortion’

TJF’s so-called Center Against Forced Abortions claims to provide legal resources to pregnant people who are being forced or coerced into terminating a pregnancy. The website includes several documents available as “resources.”

One of the documents, a letter addressed to “father of your child in the womb,” states that that “you may not force, coerce, or unduly pressure the mother of your child in the womb to have an abortion,” and that you could face “criminal charge of fetal homicide.”

The letter states that any attempt to “force, unduly pressure, or coerce” a women to have an abortion could be subject to civil and criminal charges, including prosecution under the Federal Unborn Victims of Violence Act.

The document cites the 2007 case Lawrence v. State as an example of how one could be prosecuted under Texas law.

“What anti-choice activists are doing here is really egregious,” said Jessica Mason Pieklo, Rewire’s vice president of Law and the Courts. “They are using a case where a man intentionally shot his pregnant girlfriend and was charged with murder for both her death and the death of the fetus as an example of reproductive coercion. That’s not reproductive coercion. That is extreme domestic violence.”

“To use a horrific case of domestic violence that resulted in a woman’s murder as cover for yet another anti-abortion restriction is the very definition of callousness,” Mason Pieklo added.

Among the other resources that TJF provides is a document produced by Life Dynamics, a prominent anti-choice organization based in Denton, Texas.

Parker said a patient might go to a “pregnancy resource center,” fill out the document, and staff will “send that to all the abortionists in the area that they can find out about. Often that will stop an abortion. That’s about 98 percent successful, I would say.”

Reproductive rights advocates contend that the document is intended to mislead pregnant people into believing they have signed away their legal rights to abortion care.

Abortion providers around the country who are familiar with the document said it has been used for years to deceive and intimidate patients and providers by threatening them with legal action should they go through with obtaining or providing an abortion.

Vicki Saporta, president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation, previously told Rewire that abortion providers from across the country have reported receiving the forms.

“It’s just another tactic to intimidate and coerce women into not choosing to have an abortion—tricking women into thinking they have signed this and discouraging them from going through with their initial decision and inclination,” Saporta said.

Busby said that the types of tactics used by TFJ and other anti-choice organizations are a form of coercion.

“Everyone deserves to make decisions about abortion free of coercion, including not being coerced by crisis pregnancy centers,” Busby said. “Anyone’s decision to have an abortion should be free of shame and stigma, which crisis pregnancy centers and groups like the Justice Foundation perpetuate.”

“Law enforcement would be well advised to seek their own legal advice, rather than rely on this so-called ‘training,” Busby said.

Roundups Sexual Health

This Week in Sex: The Sexually Transmitted Infections Edition

Martha Kempner

A new Zika case suggests the virus can be transmitted from an infected woman to a male partner. And, in other news, HPV-related cancers are on the rise, and an experimental chlamydia vaccine shows signs of promise.

This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Zika May Have Been Sexually Transmitted From a Woman to Her Male Partner

A new case suggests that males may be infected with the Zika virus through unprotected sex with female partners. Researchers have known for a while that men can infect their partners through penetrative sexual intercourse, but this is the first suspected case of sexual transmission from a woman.

The case involves a New York City woman who is in her early 20s and traveled to a country with high rates of the mosquito-borne virus (her name and the specific country where she traveled have not been released). The woman, who experienced stomach cramps and a headache while waiting for her flight back to New York, reported one act of sexual intercourse without a condom the day she returned from her trip. The following day, her symptoms became worse and included fever, fatigue, a rash, and tingling in her hands and feet. Two days later, she visited her primary-care provider and tests confirmed she had the Zika virus.

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A few days after that (seven days after intercourse), her male partner, also in his 20s, began feeling similar symptoms. He had a rash, a fever, and also conjunctivitis (pink eye). He, too, was diagnosed with Zika. After meeting with him, public health officials in the New York City confirmed that he had not traveled out of the country nor had he been recently bit by a mosquito. This leaves sexual transmission from his partner as the most likely cause of his infection, though further tests are being done.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s recommendations for preventing Zika have been based on the assumption that virus was spread from a male to a receptive partner. Therefore the recommendations had been that pregnant women whose male partners had traveled or lived in a place where Zika virus is spreading use condoms or abstain from sex during the pregnancy. For those couples for whom pregnancy is not an issue, the CDC recommended that men who had traveled to countries with Zika outbreaks and had symptoms of the virus, use condoms or abstain from sex for six months after their trip. It also suggested that men who traveled but don’t have symptoms use condoms for at least eight weeks.

Based on this case—the first to suggest female-to-male transmission—the CDC may extend these recommendations to couples in which a female traveled to a country with an outbreak.

More Signs of Gonorrhea’s Growing Antibiotic Resistance

Last week, the CDC released new data on gonorrhea and warned once again that the bacteria that causes this common sexually transmitted infection (STI) is becoming resistant to the antibiotics used to treat it.

There are about 350,000 cases of gonorrhea reported each year, but it is estimated that 800,000 cases really occur with many going undiagnosed and untreated. Once easily treatable with antibiotics, the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae has steadily gained resistance to whole classes of antibiotics over the decades. By the 1980s, penicillin no longer worked to treat it, and in 2007 the CDC stopped recommending the use of fluoroquinolones. Now, cephalosporins are the only class of drugs that work. The recommended treatment involves a combination of ceftriaxone (an injectable cephalosporin) and azithromycin (an oral antibiotic).

Unfortunately, the data released last week—which comes from analysis of more than 5,000 samples of gonorrhea (called isolates) collected from STI clinics across the country—shows that the bacteria is developing resistance to these drugs as well. In fact, the percentage of gonorrhea isolates with decreased susceptibility to azithromycin increased more than 300 percent between 2013 and 2014 (from 0.6 percent to 2.5 percent).

Though no cases of treatment failure has been reported in the United States, this is a troubling sign of what may be coming. Dr. Gail Bolan, director of CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, said in a press release: “It is unclear how long the combination therapy of azithromycin and ceftriaxone will be effective if the increases in resistance persists. We need to push forward on multiple fronts to ensure we can continue offering successful treatment to those who need it.”

HPV-Related Cancers Up Despite Vaccine 

The CDC also released new data this month showing an increase in HPV-associated cancers between 2008 and 2012 compared with the previous five-year period. HPV or human papillomavirus is an extremely common sexually transmitted infection. In fact, HPV is so common that the CDC believes most sexually active adults will get it at some point in their lives. Many cases of HPV clear spontaneously with no medical intervention, but certain types of the virus cause cancer of the cervix, vulva, penis, anus, mouth, and neck.

The CDC’s new data suggests that an average of 38,793 HPV-associated cancers were diagnosed each year between 2008 and 2012. This is a 17 percent increase from about 33,000 each year between 2004 and 2008. This is a particularly unfortunate trend given that the newest available vaccine—Gardasil 9—can prevent the types of HPV most often linked to cancer. In fact, researchers estimated that the majority of cancers found in the recent data (about 28,000 each year) were caused by types of the virus that could be prevented by the vaccine.

Unfortunately, as Rewire has reported, the vaccine is often mired in controversy and far fewer young people have received it than get most other recommended vaccines. In 2014, only 40 percent of girls and 22 percent of boys ages 13 to 17 had received all three recommended doses of the vaccine. In comparison, nearly 80 percent of young people in this age group had received the vaccine that protects against meningitis.

In response to the newest data, Dr. Electra Paskett, co-director of the Cancer Control Research Program at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, told HealthDay:

In order to increase HPV vaccination rates, we must change the perception of the HPV vaccine from something that prevents a sexually transmitted disease to a vaccine that prevents cancer. Every parent should ask the question: If there was a vaccine I could give my child that would prevent them from developing six different cancers, would I give it to them? The answer would be a resounding yes—and we would have a dramatic decrease in HPV-related cancers across the globe.

Making Inroads Toward a Chlamydia Vaccine

An article published in the journal Vaccine shows that researchers have made progress with a new vaccine to prevent chlamydia. According to lead researcher David Bulir of the M. G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research at Canada’s McMaster University, efforts to create a vaccine have been underway for decades, but this is the first formulation to show success.

In 2014, there were 1.4 million reported cases of chlamydia in the United States. While this bacterial infection can be easily treated with antibiotics, it often goes undiagnosed because many people show no symptoms. Untreated chlamydia can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, which can leave scar tissue in the fallopian tubes or uterus and ultimately result in infertility.

The experimental vaccine was created by Canadian researchers who used pieces of the bacteria that causes chlamydia to form an antigen they called BD584. The hope was that the antigen could prompt the body’s immune system to fight the chlamydia bacteria if exposed to it.

Researchers gave BD584 to mice using a nasal spray, and then exposed them to chlamydia. The results were very promising. The mice who received the spray cleared the infection faster than the mice who did not. Moreover, the mice given the nasal spray were less likely to show symptoms of infection, such as bacterial shedding from the vagina or fluid blockages of the fallopian tubes.

There are many steps to go before this vaccine could become available. The researchers need to test it on other strains of the bacteria and in other animals before testing it in humans. And, of course, experience with the HPV vaccine shows that there’s work to be done to make sure people get vaccines that prevent STIs even after they’re invented. Nonetheless, a vaccine to prevent chlamydia would be a great victory in our ongoing fight against STIs and their health consequences, and we here at This Week in Sex are happy to end on a bit of a positive note.