Why Abortion Access Matters for Women In Abusive Relationships

Studies and statistics show a horrifying relationship between violence and pregnancy.

Abortion Access and Intimate Partner Violence
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Abortion access is top of mind for many Americans today due to the Supreme Court's 2022 overturning of Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that guaranteed abortion rights under the Constitution in 1973. Though this radical change affects all Americans — regardless of stance, views, and voting history — certain groups, including women in abusive relationships, are especially vulnerable to its consequences. (Read more: Experts Unpack the Ripple Effects Overturning Roe v. Wade Will Have On Black and Brown Communities)

That’s because lack of access to safe, legal abortions puts the health and well-being of women dealing with intimate partner violence (IPV) in a dangerous position, and there’s plenty of research to prove it. Studies and statistics show a positive correlation between violence and unplanned pregnancy, according to the Sanctuary for Families, a New York-based service provider and advocate for survivors of domestic violence, sex trafficking, and other forms of gender violence.

Simply put, unplanned pregnancies may increase the risk for violence while violence may increase the risk for unplanned pregnancies, and there are many factors that feed this vicious cycle. Here’s what you need to know about how abortion access and IPV are intrinsically linked. 

IPV and Unplanned Pregnancies

To start, women in abusive relationships may be victims of rape from their intimate partner. Among female victims of acquaintance rape in the U.S., about 45 percent were raped by an intimate partner, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV). What’s more, up to 30 percent of women who were raped by an intimate partner report what’s known as reproductive coercion, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Examples of reproductive coercion include a partner not allowing birth control or refusing to wear a condom. Additionally, three million women in the U.S. experienced rape-related pregnancy in their lifetime, reports the CDC.

People in abusive relationships also have greater difficulty getting contraception than those not experiencing IPV. A 2009 study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology found “contraception is more difficult to navigate for women experiencing IPV.” Researchers surveyed more than 1,400 women, 21 percent of whom reported a history of IPV. The study revealed partners unwilling to use birth control, partners who wanted conception, and subjects’ inability to afford contraception were all positively associated with reports of violence.

"People who live in more liberal, affluent areas don't realize how hard it can be to get birth control methods — whether that be the pill, IUD, condoms, or anything else," explains Rachel Wright, L.M.F.T., licensed relationship therapist and sex educator. "This idea of 'just go get it' isn't feasible for a lot of folks. We have a problematic medical and pharmaceutical system, and we need to fix it."

There’s also a known correlation between women having abortions and reporting recent violence from an intimate partner. Six to 22 percent of women having abortions report recent IPV, according to a 2014 study published in BMC Medicine. Furthermore, women who are not able to terminate unwanted pregnancies may be forced to remain in contact with violent partners, putting them and their children at risk of abuse, reported the study.

Abortion Access

"Control in a relationship over women's reproductive rights is a form of domestic violence," says Alphonse Provinziano, family law attorney and founder of Provinziano & Associates in Los Angeles. "New legislation in other states seeking to criminalize abortion will make it harder for women in these tough situations, who not only will not be able to get help but could face legal risk too. When the state makes getting an abortion illegal, it implicitly takes sides with the abuser who is trying to prevent their partner from getting one."

"Control in a relationship over women's reproductive rights is a form of domestic violence." — Alphonse Provinizano, family attorney

Abortion is currently banned in 13 states, and others have imposed severe restrictions on how late in pregnancy women can get an abortion. These restrictions make it near impossible for many women to receive abortions. Several states that have banned abortions altogether are correlated with the highest instances of domestic violence, according to data from the NCADV. For example, Kentucky has one of the highest rates of IPV against women, and abortion is currently banned in the state. This means some of the greatest populations of women experiencing abuse don’t have access to safe, legal abortions.

Without the ability to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, women may be forced to stay in relationships with violent partners, according to Wright. “In my clinical experience, [I've witnessed that] if someone can access an abortion, they're less likely to stay in an unhealthy relationship,” she explains. “Once a child is involved, people feel required to stay — even if there's IPV."

The Bottom Line

Unfortunately, the violence compounds further, beyond the pregnancy itself. Children born into abusive relationships from unwanted pregnancies can suffer at the hands of the perpetrator of that violence. And the child can become a pawn in the abuser’s strategy, according to Provinziano. 

"An abuser can exploit children in many ways," Provinziano tells Shape, citing personal experience with clients. "I have often seen abusive parents turn a child against the parent that is the victim of domestic violence. Additionally, abusers may lodge false accusations of abuse against the very people that they have abused, and if not properly defended against, I have seen cases where…the victim of domestic violence loses custody."

California, where Provinziano practices law, provides strong protections for victims of abuse, but not all states offer the same types of protection, he explains. Many states "do not recognize verbal and emotional abuse as grounds for a domestic violence restraining order," he says. There are also state-by-state variances when it comes to marital rape law. In 30 of the 50 U.S. states, “there are still some exemptions given to husbands from rape prosecution,” reports the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence

"If someone can access an abortion, they're less likely to stay in an unhealthy relationship.” — Rachel Wright, L.M.F.T., licensed relationship therapist and sex educator

"The hardest thing is for victims to come forward," says Provinziano. "An abusive relationship is already hard to escape for many victims, but once you add a child it becomes exponentially harder. The abuser now has a permanent tie with the victim; they can (and do) exploit that to continue abusive behavior even after separation," he continues.

With all of this in mind, it’s clear the ability to terminate an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy can help a woman escape violent abuse, as well as prevent future child abuse. Additionally, victims of IPV need agency and access to make their own health-care decisions, and state bans and restrictions on abortions simply don’t allow for that.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or go to thehotline.org.

Fact-checked by: Emily Peterson

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