By Gretchen Voss, REDBOOK
Child and mother by a window.
We think of bruises, not pregnant bellies, when we hear domestic abuse, but millions of women are pressured to have kids against their will by partners bent on controlling their bodies. Gretchen Voss meets some of them, and learns what we can all do to stop it.
Like the beginning of some bubbly Hollywood rom-com, Sara* and Mark met in a postgrad science class. They hit it off early in the semester, but Sara-who, at 36, was more than a decade older than Mark-was hesitant when he asked her out. He won her over, and very quickly the two shared their dreams of becoming doctors and starting a family together; in fact, Mark talked excitedly about having kids with Sara just months into dating. After he proposed, Sara says, he became obsessed with getting her pregnant: He called her "the baby maker." When she confided that one of her fallopian tubes was blocked, he insisted that she visit a fertility doctor before their wedding so they could get started as soon as they exchanged vows. She thought his focus on the medical side of conception was a little intense, but sweet. "I had finally met a great guy who was eager to start a family with me," she says. "What woman wouldn't fall for that?"
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Mark's fixation on expanding their family intensified when they returned from their honeymoon. His plans, however, were put on hold when Sara needed emergency back surgery. The baby talk cooled off temporarily, but six months into her recovery, he pressured her to begin in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments, even though her doctor thought that waiting a year would be more prudent. "I wasn't into getting pregnant right then," Sara says. "I wanted to start a family, just not after major surgery-I was in a ton of pain. But I went along with it to make him happy." Soon she was pregnant, but miscarried. When he found out she'd lost the baby, Mark grabbed her by the neck and choked her.
He apologized for the attack and blamed the outburst on his grief. He was so inconsolable that Sara reluctantly signed on for another round of IVF. "He kept saying, 'I've got to get a baby in there,'" she says. His parents also talked nonstop about it, and showered her with cute onesies the moment her next pregnancy test came back positive. Mark spoiled her, buying gifts and making grocery runs at all hours to get organic treats for her. But when she lost that baby too, he grew increasingly controlling of her life, demanding that she quit dancing, her favorite hobby, to focus solely on renovating their home for the baby that he knew they would eventually have. Then he pushed her to start round three of IVF. Sara put him off with any excuse she could think of, telling him that her doctors said she needed to gain weight before they tried again. In response, he demanded that she get on the scale every week, and he stocked the fridge with food to fatten her up. "It hurt that all I was good for was getting pregnant," she says now, crying. "All he wanted from me was to have his babies."
Finally, after Mark screamed at her that he'd replace her with a $10-an-hour maid if she couldn't get pregnant, Sara fought back and told him what she'd known for months: that she no longer wanted to have his child. Mark lost it. He destroyed their bedroom furniture and threatened her with a gun; then he pushed her down the stairs. She fled, eventually ending up at a domestic violence shelter. That's where she first heard about "reproductive coercion," a term recently coined by domestic violence advocates to describe the treatment Sara had endured for years.
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Doctors and advocates are just beginning to untangle the stories of women like Sara, who are victims of this largely overlooked - but by no means new - form of abuse, in which men pressure their partners to have kids or impregnate them against their will. "We often talk about women 'trapping' men, but the opposite is happening more than we realize," says Elizabeth Miller, M.D./Ph.D., a researcher who is leading this new field of study at the University of California Davis School of Medicine. Reproductive coercion comes in a variety of forms: men like Mark, who exert psychological and emotional pressure that escalates into verbal and physical abuse, or men who sabotage their partner's birth control by doing things like poking holes in condoms or flushing her pills down the toilet. And then, of course, there's marital rape.
"Nationally, there is a profoundly high number of women reporting this type of abuse, across every age group and income level," says Miller, who found that well over 75 percent of women ages 19 to 49 who have experienced domestic violence had also endured some type of reproductive control by men. Miller is amazed by the stories women tell. "I've heard everything, from men who have pulled out their partner's vaginal hormone rings to someone ripping out an IUD," she says. "Or he'll prevent her from getting birth control in the first place by cutting off her access to transportation or money - she's due for her Depo-Provera shot and he won't let her get there." In February, the National Domestic Violence Hotline (NDVH) released a survey which reported that one in four callers to the hotline said that their partners had tried to force them to become pregnant. "We're still too focused on the black eyes and broken bones instead of these more subtle forms of abuse," says Mikisha Hooper, the operations manager for NDVH.
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Reproductive coercion, experts say, is another facet of intimate-partner violence, another way for an abuser to exert his power. As one 41-year-old victim puts it: "Now, even though my ex wants nothing to do with this child, he's said to me, 'We're always going to be together because of our son.' It's like he wants to own me from the inside out." For some men, having a host of babies by different women is a status symbol, says therapist Steven Stosny, Ph.D., author of Love Without Hurt. But for most, it's a dangerous response to innate feelings of inadequacy. "Abusers are insecure and feel unlovable," he says. "They think they have to coerce someone to stay with them." Forcing a woman to have their baby is the perfect tie that binds. "He wants to create circumstances that make a woman dependent on him," adds Lundy Bancroft, author of Why Does He Do That? and the former codirector of Emerge, the nation's first education program for abusers attempting to recover. "He'll sabotage her independence so she can't pursue a career and earn enough money to leave." Which explains why Hooper hears from counselors about mothers who have their children roughly five years apart. "As soon as her youngest child starts kindergarten, her husband is pressuring her to have another," she says. "If he wants to stop her from getting a job once the baby is out of the house, he'll try to get her pregnant again."
Michelle, 30, a domestic violence counselor, listens daily to stories of men stealthily slipping off condoms mid-act or women who say they're forced to hide their birth control pills in vitamin bottles. What she doesn't tell these women is that only a few years ago, she was a victim too. "I was adamant about not having children yet," she says. But her boyfriend chipped away at her self-confidence with constant put-downs, saying that her friends were mocking her recent weight gain behind her back. He begged her not to use birth control, claiming that it was making her "fat and crazy." "He'd say, 'Every time you take the Pill I can tell, because you act insane, and it's affecting my day,'" she says now. When he suggested they try the rhythm method instead, she went along with it. Soon after, she says, he abandoned their plan and tried to impregnate her on purpose. He eventually succeeded. Then he forced her to have an abortion.
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"I was devastated, emotionally ruined," Michelle says. "He made me feel like I had no ability to make decisions on my own." This final twist, forcing a woman to terminate a pregnancy, is not uncommon, experts say. "When the reality of the pregnancy hits, some men change their minds about wanting a child," Bancroft says. "He doesn't care - it's all about having domination over the woman and her body."
Advocates are now trying to help women like Michelle see how they're being manipulated by their partners - before they get pregnant. "We've heard stories of men saying, 'Let's make beautiful babies together.' For someone in an abusive or controlling relationship, that can be appealing. They think, Well, if I just did this for him, the abuse would stop," says Miller. But the last thing an abused woman needs is an unplanned pregnancy, says Lisa James, the director of health for Futures Without Violence (the nonprofit that coauthored the NDVH's report), because the most dangerous time for a woman in any abusive relationship is when she chooses to escape. And with a child in the mix, it can be even riskier.
For one study that Miller recently designed, she surveyed women who saw doctors at four Planned Parenthood clinics in Northern California. When women reported partner violence or reproductive coercion, she had counselors offer them new strategies to cope, such as suggesting they use contraception that's harder to tamper with, like an IUD, and giving them information to help them understand what was really happening to them. The women who got Miller's new intervention were 71 percent less likely to become pregnant against their will - and they were also 60 percent more likely to have left their abuser at the three-month follow-up. Preventing unwanted pregnancy was the first, crucial step in breaking the hold of an abusive relationship. "It's not as simple as telling women, 'Just get out of there,' if they don't have the resources or support system. We have to offer them as many options as we can until they're ready to make that call," James explains.
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Angela, 40, knew she didn't want any more kids when she met her then-boyfriend John; she already had two young children from a previous marriage. Instead of honoring her request, John - who flat-out refused to wear protection - began to rape her, and she quickly became pregnant with her third child. "Birth control wasn't an option," she says. "There was no way to sneak it, because he went through all my stuff, and I knew he would kill me if he found it."
Paralyzed at the prospect of managing three kids on her own without health insurance, she married him. "I would tell him, 'As soon as our kid is old enough, I'm escaping.'" His response was more forced sex, and three months after giving birth, Angela was pregnant with twins. "You watch all these other women glowing with happiness when they're pregnant, and I never felt that way," she says. "I was an emotional wreck. With each additional pregnancy, I had no idea how I was ever going to get out." She lost the twins after a physical fight with John, but soon enough she was pregnant again and had their second child - her fourth. While recovering, she visited an obstetrician on the sly and begged him to remove her uterus. Two days later she underwent a hysterectomy. She and her doctor concocted a lie, telling John she had cancer.
"I felt like I had no other alternatives," Angela says now. Finally, after a decade of abuse, she found the courage to leave after starting a job that allowed her to travel and experience more freedom than she'd had in years. John hated it. "He punished me by taking his anger out on the kids every time I went to work," she says. "I began to realize that the only way I would ever save them was to leave." She desperately needed the support of her family in another state, but going to them meant she had to leave her two children with John behind, since she's not legally allowed to move the kids away from him while they battle for custody. It was an agonizing decision, and Angela continues to fight for them in court, spending every spare dollar on lawyers. "I love my kids regardless of the circumstances under which they were born," she says. "They have blessed me in more ways than I would ever have thought possible." Her family still can't understand why she didn't reach out for help earlier. "How do you tell someone?" she asks. "Most people won't talk about the physical abuse, and it's even more mortifying to open up about sexual abuse."
It's common for victims of domestic violence to be cut off from loved ones; abusers isolate them from anyone who might help them leave. "I had pulled away from all my friends," says Michelle, the counselor, who stayed with her boyfriend for three years after her abortion. Near the end of their relationship, she took a job with a crisis-prevention network, and it wasn't until she spoke with domestic violence victims that she finally understood what her boyfriend had done to her. "I heard these women's stories, and it clicked. I thought, I'm living that," she says. At home, she began sticking up for herself. "He knew he was losing control, so he kicked me out," says Michelle, who acknowledges she was lucky he let her go, and has slowly pieced her life back together.
In retrospect, she wishes that someone - a friend, family member, coworker - had helped her see the emotional stranglehold her boyfriend had her in. "I needed to recognize that what he was doing was abusive, even if it wasn't in the most obvious way," she says. Now she listens closely if she hears women say things like, "Having a baby would make things better between us," or, "I want to get back on birth control, but he really wants to have another kid." It can be the subtlest cry for help, Michelle says. "So we have to train ourselves not to overlook it, no matter how uncomfortable it may be to speak up. It could save a woman's life."
How Family-Planning Clinics Rescue Women
Domestic violence advocates sounded alarms earlier this year when Congress threatened to stop financing Title X, which funds a variety of family-planning services, including Planned Parenthood. The flash point was abortion, but many voters never considered how de-funding these clinics could endanger victims of domestic violence, who turn to them for counseling as well as pregnancy prevention. As new research shows, helping an abused woman prevent an unwanted pregnancy massively increases the odds that she'll be able to leave her partner. "Abused women will go to their health providers long before they'll call a domestic violence hotline," says Dr. Elizabeth Miller, who has studied reproductive coercion in depth. "That contact may be our only chance to help them understand what a healthy relationship should look like." Says U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand: "Many women trapped in abusive relationships rely on life-saving, affordable care under Title X programs. It's critical that these safety nets are available for the women and children who need them most."
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