Strange Bedfellows: How Anti-Choice Legislators Help Abusers

Under Representative Steve King’s (R-IA) proposed law, “If a heartbeat is detected, the baby is protected.” [1] The pregnant woman is not so lucky.

On Jan. 12, 2017, Rep. King introduced a “heartbeat bill” – the first of its kind at the federal level. [2] The bill seeks to prevent women from accessing comprehensive reproductive healthcare by punishing doctors who perform abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detectable with imprisonment up to five years, a fine, or both. [3] Fetal heartbeat laws amount to total bans on abortion, and have been held unconstitutional in federal court. [4]

Troublingly, not only do bills like Rep. King’s “Heartbeat Protection Act” place an undue burden on all women’s ability to exercise their legal and fundamental right to abortion, they uniquely jeopardize the health and safety of women in abusive relationships.

Nearly a third of all women in the United States will be abused by an intimate partner. [5] For women of color, the proportion is even higher. [6] It is well-established that abusive partners frequently engage in reproductive coercion – including sexual assault, tampering with or restricting access to birth control, and refusing to wear condoms. [7] As a result, survivors of intimate partner violence have a high risk of unintended pregnancy: the rate of survivors of intimate partner violence who are raped by their partners and become pregnant is five times higher than the national average for rape-related pregnancy. [8] Abusers use reproductive coercion to force a woman to become pregnant, and then use that pregnancy, and later her child, as a means to exert power and control over her. While many barriers exist for women to leave their abusers, it is significantly harder for them to do so safely once they have their abuser’s child. [9] For a woman fighting for control of her life and body, abortion presents an opportunity to prevent an abuser from winning that fight.

It is also true that intimate partner violence escalates during pregnancy – abuse victims are three times more likely to be murdered by their intimate partners when they become pregnant. [10] Notably, research has shown that when women in abusive relationships are able to terminate their pregnancies, they suffer less violence over time from the man involved in the pregnancy. But when women in abusive relationships are denied abortions, they continue to suffer violence at the hands of their intimate partner. [11] It is patently clear that abortion provides a critical tool for domestic violence survivors to extricate themselves from abusive relationships.

Bills like the Heartbeat Protection Act trap survivors of intimate partner violence in life-threatening situations. Because of the abuse, they have no control over whether they become pregnant in the first place. If they do become pregnant and choose to terminate their pregnancy, they lack the freedom and financial resources to leave work, find childcare, travel great lengths to get to a service provider ― often having to stay overnight or do so all over again the next day ― all without being detected by their abusive partner. This is a particularly herculean task because heartbeat bills give women only a six week window to access abortion services; this is before many women even know they are pregnant. [12] If pregnant domestic violence survivors cannot overcome these obstacles, they must carry their abuser’s child. Once the child is born, they likely cannot afford to take care of the child without depending on the abuser, who will take advantage of this and continue to subject them to physical, sexual, emotional, and financial abuse. If they wish to escape this situation, they risk their lives and the life of the child. If they succeed, they risk legal action for depriving the father of his legal custody right.

Many women affected by intimate partner violence may decide that terminating their pregnancies is necessary to prevent further abuse and to safely exit the relationship. This is a choice that she, and all women, has a right to make. That right means nothing if it is overly burdened by laws like the Heartbeat Protection Act that function to threaten women’s health. The health of women of color in particular is placed in an unreasonably dangerous position by these restrictions because we are overrepresented among both domestic violence survivors and persons who access abortion services. [13] Because the costs of campaigns to rollback reproductive rights fall disproportionately on the backs of women of color, these laws enforce a social hierarchy wherein women of color are on the bottom rung.

Authors of anti-abortion legislation like Steve King (R-IA), Trent Franks (R-AZ [14], Diane Black (R-TN) [15] and more create unnecessary, and often unconstitutional, dangers in women’s lives. It is unconscionable to restrict a woman from exercising a legal right that her life may very well depend on. By effectively preventing her from acting on her choice to terminate her pregnancy, anti-choice legislators are complicit in her abuser’s system of power and control. It is imperative that those who claim to care about domestic violence, and for that matter, care about women at all, similarly care about abortion access. Indeed, women’s ability to exercise autonomy over their bodies requires both reproductive freedom and freedom from intimate partner violence. Real self-determination for women cannot exist if either is lacking.



[4] Edwards v. Beck 786 F.3d 1113 (2015) ; MKB Mgmt. Corp. v. Stenehjem 795 F.3d 768 (8th Cir. 2015)


[6] Id.


[8] Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole, Brief of Experts and Organizations Supporting Survivors of intimate Partner Violence as Amici Curiae; see also Judith McFarlane, Pregnancy Following Partner Rape: What We Know and What We Need to Know, 8 Trauma, Violence, & Abuse 127, 128 (2007)


[10] Merle H. Weiner, A Parent-Partner Status for American Family Law 331-32 (2015)

[11] Male reproductive control of women who have experienced intimate partner violence in the United States