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For Victims Of Reproductive Coercion Like Me, 'Heartbeat' Abortion Laws Could Be A Death Sentence

This month, several states signed new anti-abortion legislation into law. Georgia’s new law is among the most restrictive, making it illegal for women to obtain an abortion after a fetal heartbeat has been detected, usually around six weeks into pregnancy.  

When I was 24 years old and entangled in an abusive relationship, I believe a law like this could have killed me.

Warning to readers: This article contains an account of sexual assault that may be upsetting.

***

“I don’t want to do this.” I told my fiance again. Just moments earlier I had found the weight of his body against mine comfortable and familiar, but now it seems heavy and suffocating. He leans back to give me a look that says, “I’m not the bad guy here, but I can be, if that’s what you want.”   

I know this look well, it’s the one that comes before all of the oxygen gets sucked out of the room. It comes before the questions start, before the wild and unpredictable accusations fly out of his mouth. I know after that will come an argument, and if I can’t shut that down, a violent outburst will follow.

I know this chain of events like I know the pattern of brushstrokes embedded in the paint on the ceiling above my bed. I know this, because it’s been playing on a seemingly endless loop over the past few weeks.

But now, in this moment, something’s different. I’m worried that this fight will escalate to a new level. That he’ll twist my rejection of sex without a condom into a rejection of him. What if he doesn’t listen, I worry, What if he doesn’t stop? What if he takes things too far? What then?

Over the past few months I’d come to think of our relationship as alternating between force and finesse. In the beginning, he’d employ the finesse to get what he wanted ― the sweet-talking, the compliments, the way he would hold my hand and stroke my wrist while looking me in the eye ―  it was charming. I was charmed.

The charm is why I believed him when he told me he didn’t mean it the first time he hit me. And the charm was why I held out hope after the second time, when he told me it would never happen again. The charm and the finesse is how he got me into bed in the first place.  

“Come on,” he says, “I love you, you love me, let’s do this. Let’s have a baby.” At the word baby, my heart starts to race, but he doesn’t wait for me to respond before beginning to unbutton my shirt.

“Even if it doesn’t work this time, it will still be good practice for when we’re really trying.” He continues trying to undress me while I lie there thinking about the empty birth control pack in my nightstand that he wouldn’t let me refill, and the condom on the edge of the bed that he refused to put on. “If it happens the first time, great. If not, we’ve got a head start.”

This is not the first time he’s brought up the subject of having a baby. I’ve made my argument against it several times over the past few weeks ― we’re not ready, our jobs aren’t very stable right now, we only just got engaged ― but something’s different this time. He’s no longer hearing the words I’m saying, or else, he no longer cares.

I reach for the condom again, but he takes it out of my hand and puts it back on the bed. When I open my mouth to protest, he kisses me. I try to gently push him away for a moment so I can say the words, “I don’t want to have sex if we’re not going to use a condom” again, but he gently pushes back into me, letting me know that the conversation is over.

I know that I could protest more if I wanted to, I know that there is a loud voice inside of me that I could use to yell out for him to stop, but wondering if he actually would stop keeps me from using it.

Force or finesse, I think, force or finesse.

Instead of finding out which it will be, I lie there and think about what could come next ― the positive pregnancy test, and whether my growing belly will become a target for his violence. I would love to have a daughter, but what if she grows up thinking that this is what a normal relationship looks like? Or a little boy, but will he grow up to be like his father and hurt the woman that he loves some day? We’d go from just the two of us to becoming our own little family, and that would be it, I’d never escape. I try to hold back my tears.

I didn’t know it at the time, but there was a term for what he was doing: reproductive coercion. It’s another form of domestic abuse, where an abuser exerts control over their partner’s ability to make their own choices when it comes to reproductive health. It affects both men and woman, and it can lead to unwanted pregnancies that leave people trapped in relationships that they would otherwise leave.

Back then I thought it was an isolated incident that didn’t exist outside of the four walls of our bedroom, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth. According to a 2011 study conducted by the National Domestic Violence Hotline, out of 3,000 callers questioned about birth control sabotage and pregnancy coercion, 25% reported that they had experienced some form of this type of domestic abuse. This includes actions like forced sex, pressuring a woman to become pregnant against her will, or sabotaging birth control by flushing pills down the toilet or poking holes in condoms.

The day after my fiance refused to use a condom, I go to Planned Parenthood. I tell the doctor the lie I’d rehearsed my entire way there. “The condom broke.” I say with a sheepish smile and a little shrug that I hope says, What can you do? While I wait for the nurse to bring me the first dose of emergency contraceptive and a refill on my birth control, I see a flyer for the local domestic violence shelter.

I think about my escape plan. If he gets me pregnant, I believe I’ll never be able to leave, and I think he knows it. I think that’s his anti-escape plan, to make it impossible for me to do anything other than spend the rest of my life with him.

It takes me another month to work up the nerve to leave him for the first time. A few months after that, I’m finally able to leave him for good, due in no small part to the availability of resources in my area like Planned Parenthood.  

It has been more than a decade since I sat in the exam room of Planned Parenthood waiting for the emergency contraceptive that would help clear the path to my escape. I have given birth to two very much wanted, and very much loved children since then. I think back to the day I found out I was pregnant with my first and I remember the range of emotions my husband and I felt ― the joy, the anxiety, the hope, the worry ― and I think about how different those emotions would have been with my abuser. The terror, the panic, the resignation that we would never be free.

I can feel still feel the panic of being a trapped animal when I was alone with him and his blind rage today ― especially as I watch states implementing ultra-restrictive “heartbeat” bills, that will make it nearly impossible for women to have access to safe and affordable abortions. I see myself in their shoes.

In states like Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio, and Georgia, a positive pregnancy test could have quite literally been a death sentence for me. The violence and abuse within my relationship was escalating. With a baby to tie me to my abuser, I believe it would have only been a matter of time before he killed me.

Before signing Ohio’s six-week abortion ban, Gov. Mike DeWine said the measure would help “protect those who cannot protect themselves,” ignoring the fact that legislation like this can also take away a woman’s ability to protect herself.

There are so many ways that laws like these leave vulnerable women in dangerous positions. And women in abusive relationships are especially vulnerable in pregnancy. The National Institutes of Health have reported that every year approximately 300,000 pregnant women are victims of domestic violence.

Laws like the ones signed into effect this month don’t serve to protect those who can’t protect themselves. They take reproductive control away from woman who deserve it. And sometimes, they put it right into the hands of men who don’t, giving abusers just one more way to exert power and control over their victims.

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Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

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