Post-Dobbs, Abortion Bans Have Given Abusers a New Power

"Abusers could now use new laws, or confusion about those laws, to harass and threaten their partners,” the National Domestic Violence Hotline writes in a new report about how abusive partners are using abortion bans to keep their victims trapped.

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Post-Dobbs, Abortion Bans Have Given Abusers a New Power

It’s been almost two years since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, and a new survey from the National Domestic Violence Hotline offers a disturbing glimpse into how abortion bans—and rampant confusion about the language of these laws and who they punish—have given abusers more control than ever.

Between October and December 2023, the Hotline conducted a survey on its website and anonymously collected domestic violence victims’ experiences with acts of reproductive coercion, or acts to control their victims’ reproductive decision-making, such as tampering with their birth control or blocking their access to abortion. The survey received 3,431 responses. 

One respondent told the Hotline her partner “knowingly and forcefully kept having sex after [my] consent was withdrawn.” She “became pregnant as a result of rape” and wanted to get the morning after pill, but had no means of transportation to access it and “feared trying to go on my own, of what he would have tried to do if I left.” The window passed for her to be able to take plan B, and she got pregnant. Another wrote that her partner “got me pregnant deliberately against my will after I made it clear I didn’t want kids. I believe he did it to keep me trapped and tied to him.”

About a quarter (23%) of respondents said their current or former partner pressured them into becoming pregnant while 13% said their current or former partner used or threatened violence while they were pregnant. Almost 10% of respondents said abusive partners used or threatened violence if they expressed that they wanted an abortion.

Marium Durrani, vice president of policy at the Hotline, told Jezebel that “sadly,” these experiences reflect “what we already know about how abusers weaponize pregnancy.” But the survey also shines light on a new, horrifying phenomenon that we’re seeing more and more of, now that over a dozen states have enacted total or near-total abortion bans.

The survey found that 5% of respondents—that’s about 172 people—say that abusive partners threatened to report them to police or other legal authorities for considering having an abortion. Another 5% said partners threatened to sue or take them to court if they sought abortion care. “Regardless of the actual laws,” Durrani said, “it’s valid for victims to see them as a real threat.” As we recently saw in Texas, one man attempted to wield the state’s abortion ban to harass their ex-partner after they traveled out of state for an abortion.

“Abusers could now use new laws, or confusion about those laws, to harass and threaten their partners. And the stigma of abortion bans creates a culture where abusers feel even more entitled to control and punish their intimate partners for their reproductive decisions,” the Hotline’s report states, noting that attacks on reproductive rights “put survivor’s lives and safety at risk,” and “[further] harm by revictimizing survivors and emboldening abusive partners.” 

Abortion bans technically threaten to criminalize and imprison only abortion providers and not patients, but many people, including domestic violence victims, are unaware of the specifics of these laws. This, Durrani warned, gives abusers an opening.

In its report, the Hotline also cites one of its previous surveys, which found that 70% of respondents who called the police on their abusers regretted their decision and wouldn’t contact the police again. Between this long-existing fear of police, and how abortion bans have now empowered abusers to threaten to involve law enforcement in their victims’ reproductive decisions, Durrani stressed that all of this is connected: “It shows the legal system, abortion bans, can be used as a tool of abuse. We’re seeing the rise of litigation abuse,” she said, and “it’s terrifying on a whole new level, just the threat of being sued, further entangled with your abuser, in an adversarial system that forces victims to relive all kinds of trauma.”

The Hotline’s report emphasizes that “people have the constitutional right to travel to get abortion care in a state that protects abortion access.” But “getting away from an abuser (and, in some states, also having to pass through immigration checkpoints) to travel outside the state can be impossible.” And that’s another way that post-Dobbs abortion bans are endangering domestic violence victims. The survey found that distance prevented 7% of respondents from accessing reproductive healthcare services. Reproductive health clinics have been shuttering across the country as a direct result of abortion bans—a new study published in May showed laws designed to shut down abortion clinics are associated with an increased risk of intimate partner violence-related homicide.

Further, about a third (32%) of survey respondents said they lack access to a medical professional who focuses on reproductive health or pregnancy. “When that’s reduced, the risk rises,” Durrani said, noting that some respondents called supportive OB/GYNS a “lifeline.” “A lot of clinics have closed down, a lot of victims are trapped and don’t have means to travel. It’s that much more dangerous.”

Self-managing an abortion at home may not be a safe option for victims, either. The Hotline’s survey found 7% of respondents said their partners prevented them from using abortion pills. These respondents said their partners blocked them by threatening to commit suicide, lighting the pills on fire, physically locking them up, or threatening to harm the respondents and their families if they went through with their abortions. “It really shined light on horrifying ways we hadn’t even imagined that abusers exert control,” Durrani said.

 

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In July 2023, the Hotline reported that calls involving acts of reproductive coercion had doubled in the last year since Dobbs. The Hotline’s latest survey offered more specifics, including that a fifth of respondents said their partners prevented them from using birth control (including pills, patches, rings, IUDS, etc.), and some respondents recounted being punished with “heightened abuse” by their partners for going on birth control. Forcing pregnancy on victims is such a desirable goal for abusers, Durrani said, because it offers an opportunity to entrap victims in a long-term way—abortion bans have made this more attainable than ever. (The landmark Turnaway Study found that people who are denied abortion care are at a significantly greater risk of long-term domestic violence.) Oklahoma has the highest rate of domestic violence in the nation, and ever since the state banned abortion in 2022, advocates working in victim services say victims are at substantially greater risk: “We’ve had a few patients come in saying that [their abusers] just keep the patient pregnant so they can’t leave,” a forensic nurse administrator at the Tulsa Police Department told Mother Jones.

Almost half (42%) of survey respondents said they didn’t seek help. One of the respondents said they didn’t associate acts of reproductive coercion with abuse until seeing the survey, which Durrani says is common: “When people think of gender-based violence, they tend to think of rape or physical abuse—there are lots of different ways people don’t realize abuse can take place, whether it’s reproductive coercion or financial abuse,” she said. “There’s lots of different systems survivors interact with that abusers can exploit.” In 2021, the California legislature passed a law that added reproductive coercion to the state’s civil definition of domestic violence. This recognition and broadening of our understanding of gender-based violence, Durrani said, can be “life-saving.”

If you or someone you know are experiencing domestic violence and seeking options to safely access abortion care, you can get support from If/When/How’s Repro Legal Helpline here or call 844-868-2812. 

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