Abusive partners can sabotage contraception

While researchers don’t know exactly how common it is, the nation’s leading group of obstetricians and gynecologists says women should be screened for ‘reproductive coercion.’

When a husband hides a wife’s birth control pills or a boyfriend takes off a condom in the middle of sex in hopes of getting an unwilling girlfriend pregnant, that’s a form of abuse called reproductive coercion.

While researchers don’t know exactly how common such coercion is, it’s common enough – especially among women who are abused by their partners in other ways – that health care providers should screen women for signs at regular check-ups and pregnancy visits, says the nation’s leading group of obstetricians and gynecologists.

“We want to make sure that health care providers are aware that this is something that does go on and that it’s a form of abuse,” says Veronica Gillispie, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Ochsner Health System, New Orleans, and a member of the committee that wrote the opinion for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. It’s published in the February issue of Obstetrics & Gynecology, out today.

Reproductive coercion occurs whenever a partner tries to prevent a woman from making her own choices about pregnancy, Gillispie says. That includes trying to get a woman pregnant against her will, through forced sex or other means; it also includes using pressure or threats to get a woman to continue an unwanted pregnancy or end a wanted one.

In studies cited by the committee, “birth control sabotage” was reported by 25% of teen girls with abusive partners and by 15% of women who were physically abused. Some men go as far as to pull out a woman’s intrauterine device (IUD) or vaginal contraceptive ring, the committee says.

“Often, it’s about taking away choices, taking away freedom, control and self-esteem,” says Rebekah Gee, an obstetrician and gynecologist in New Orleans and assistant professor at Louisiana State University. She did not work on the opinion, but has studied the problem.

While it may be rare for men to dislodge an IUD, she says, it’s not uncommon for men to refuse to wear condoms, putting women at risk for both pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. An abusive man may believe that getting a woman pregnant binds her closer to him, Gee says.

The opinion says obstetricians and gynecologists can help women in these relationships by directing them to agencies and hotlines that help abused women, including the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). But it also says doctors can take direct action, by providing women with hard-to-detect birth control methods (including IUDs with the removal strings cut, if necessary) or a stash of emergency contraceptive pills (in a plain envelope).

In clinics where doctors already have started such efforts, results have been encouraging, says Rebecca Levenson, senior policy analyst at Futures Without Violence, a non-profit advocacy group based in San Francisco. In one small study, reports of reproductive coercion dropped 71% among women who got information and questionnaires about such abuse. Some of the information was on a card that “can fit inside a shoe,” she says.

Anne Teitelman, an associate professor of nursing at the University of Pennsylvania, says she often hears about sexual and reproductive coercion from the girls and women she treats as a nurse practitioner at a family planning clinic.

But “if we don’t ask the questions, often patients don’t realize that there’s something they can do to change the situation,” she says. Getting more health providers to ask about such abuse and help stop it is important, she says. But the next step is prevention - programs that help “both young girls and young boys” avoid abusive relationships in their futures, she says.


Kim Painter, Special for USA TODAY

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