Commentary Human Rights

Let’s Remind Election Winners: Reproductive Coercion is Wrong

Amy Phillips Bursch

We can all agree that forcing women to undergo abortions or sterilizations is wrong -- but so is forcing women to gestate and give birth to children they don't want. It's time we considered both sides of reproductive coercion.

November 6th was a big night for pro-choicers, but it’s no time to let up on the pressure. So here’s a friendly reminder to every candidate who won: Reproductive coercion is wrong. When women aren’t allowed to choose the number and timing of their children, they’re being treated more like breeding stock and less like human beings.

I’m lucky—I was born late enough that thanks to birth control, my biology wasn’t my destiny. My husband and I don’t want children, and we should be able to make that decision for ourselves without government input.

But many women around the world—and increasingly here in the United States—simply don’t have that choice. These women are victims of reproductive coercion, and what they want doesn’t matter.

Take China. Both people who are pro-choice (like me) and anti-choice (like Republican Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J.) agree: China’s coercive policy limiting many women to having one child infringes upon human rights. Any government that forces women to undergo unwanted abortions and sterilizations is immoral. Period. End of story.

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But here is where I sharply diverge with the forced-birthers: People like Smith will scream all day about coercion in China, but they never consider the fact that their own preferred policies are just as coercive. Enlisting the government to force women to give birth to babies they don’t want is also immoral, and it’s happening across our nation:

  • Montana just passed a parental notification bill that requires teenagers to notify a parent before obtaining an abortion. The bill actually included language saying that “A parent, a guardian, or any other person may not coerce a minor to have an abortion.” Coercing a 13-year-old to give birth, however, is just fine.
  • Nebraska’s next senator will be one Republican Deb Fischer, who believes that rape and incest survivors should be forced to bear their rapists’ children.
  • Smith, who handily won re-election last night, was the main sponsor of a 2011 bill that would have redefined rape in an effort to restrict abortion rights. Under Smith’s legislation, only survivors of “forcible rape” would have been eligible for taxpayer funding for an abortion – leaving out survivors who had been drugged, were mentally handicapped or who were victims of statutory rape. The “forcible rape” language was removed, and the bill passed the House.
  • According to the Guttmacher Institute, in 2011, state lawmakers introduced more than 1,100 bills that would affect reproductive health and rights. 135 of those bills were passed into law. 68 percent of these new laws restrict abortion. Five states banned abortion after 20 weeks.
  • Also in 2011, five states began requiring women to have ultrasounds before abortions, even if their doctors say it’s not necessary. That’s coercive not just to women, but to doctors – dedicated professionals who do not need the government to tell them how to do their jobs.

And yes, they are coming after your birth control. “Personhood” amendments keep popping up in state after state. American anti-choice groups want to overturn the Affordable Care Act’s contraception coverage and are working to kill a bill in the Philippines that would provide Filipinos with less expensive contraception and comprehensive sex education. And a Missouri law lets bosses block contraception coverage from employees’ health plans. In fact, the state actually fined insurance company Aetna $1.5 million for offering coverage of birth control!

So yes: Forcing woman to undergo unwanted sterilizations or abortions is coercive. But so is mandatory motherhood. Both are wrong, and the government should have nothing to do with either policy. That’s the message pro-choice voters sent on November 6.

It’s an old saying, but it’s a good one: My body, my choice. And that should be true whether I’m a young mother in China, or an American woman who doesn’t want a baby, right now, or ever. Because only when every woman has the right to choose for herself – free of government interference, will we truly be equal. Our lawmakers need to remember that.

Amy Phillips Bursch is the media relations manager for Population Connection, at She can be reached at [email protected]

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