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Reproductive Coercion and Children in Abusive Relationships

In the United States, a recent Supreme Court ruling has officially overturned Roe v. Wade, a decades-old legal precedent that protected abortion access. In more than a dozen states, “trigger laws” have now banned abortion upon the Roe reversal. Many legal experts are concerned that emergency contraception, such as Plan B and Ella, and even some intrauterine devices (IUDs) may be in legal jeopardy because they prevent fertilized eggs from implanting in the uterus. Furthermore, Justice Clarence Thomas has suggested that the Court revisit Griswold v. Connecticut, a foundational 1965 ruling that allowed unmarried partners to access birth control.


In light of these events, Survivors Be Heard has decided that now is a critical time to discuss reproductive coercion as well as the weaponization of children by abusers. Please note that although transgender men and some nonbinary persons are affected by these issues, we may use binary pronouns when discussing research data due to its demographic limitations. Studies of the subject are relatively recent, given it was first named as a phenomenon and studied in 2010.(1)


Reproductive Coercion


Reproductive coercion is a coercive control tactic that may be present in an abusive relationship. Some forms of reproductive coercion include:

  • tampering with birth control, such as by poking holes in condoms

  • refusing to “pull out” when that was an agreed-upon method of pregnancy prevention

  • preventing the victim from obtaining an abortion

  • threatening consequences should the victim choose to use birth control

  • forcing the victim to have sex with the intent to impregnate them

In clinical settings, survivors often present with a history of multiple abortions or births in addition to repeated treatment for sexually transmitted infections.

Given the unpredictable, deceptive, and sometimes physically violent nature of reproductive coercion, emergency contraception and long-acting “hidden” birth control (such as IUDs, implants, and injections) are often the best or only options for domestic violence victims. Abusers who go out of their way to impregnate partners and force them to carry pregnancies to term do so because they believe it will create a permanent bond between them and their victims. In addition to experiencing the physical danger of illegal and unregulated abortions, those whose abusers force them to terminate pregnancies will now face legal jeopardy in many states. [Please note that abortion-related coercion is nearly always pressure to continue a pregnancy, rather than the reverse.(2)]


Although some abortion bans include exceptions for pregnancies that are the result of rape, it is worth noting that “only 36% of all rape victims ever report the crime” and that married women report spousal rape far less frequently than unmarried women. It is estimated that 40-45% of those in abusive relationships will be sexually assaulted by their abuser and rape is rarely a one-time occurrence in abusive marriages. Reporting an abuser to the authorities puts the victim/survivor in a great deal of danger. Thus, exceptions for rape do nothing to protect survivors of intimate partner violence.


Critically, pregnancies often worsen abuse. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, 1 in 6 abused women first experiences (or recognizes that she is experiencing) abuse while she is pregnant. Physical abuse during pregnancy can cause miscarriage, premature labor, low birth weight, or even physical injuries to the fetus. It is thought that this increased abuse may be caused by financial stress or jealousy of the pregnant partner’s shifting attention to the new baby. If a child is born, things can get even more complicated.


Financial Consequences


There is evidence that women under age 23 who have experienced DV/IPV are much more likely to become pregnant than those who have not.(3) These pregnancies often interrupt their education and transition into the workforce. Reproductive coercion is also more likely to affect “women of lower socioeconomic status, [unmarried] women, and African American, Latina, and multiracial women.”(4) One study found that 75% of women who had sex with both women and men had experienced reproductive coercion from a male partner in the past three months.(5) (Bisexual women are significantly more likely to experience sexual assault and intimate partner violence.) The fact that vulnerable populations are at higher risk of reproductive coercion is not surprising when one considers that abusers often weaponize privilege and that systemic oppressions such as racism may affect birth control access.


Reproductive coercion both creates and reinforces financial vulnerability when it results in a child. This issue is particularly exaggerated when considering the types of people most likely to be coerced into childbirth. Women who experience domestic violence are significantly more likely to experience financial stressors in their relationship, including debt and bankruptcy(6); women who become unemployed during the relationship are less likely to leave due to dependence on their abusers.(7) One reason for these stressors is that they are more likely to have children (60.7% vs. 45.7%)(8) and that children present a financial challenge for parents–especially for mothers–in most countries. In addition to purposely incurring debt in the names of their victims, some abusers also take out credit cards under their childrens’ names, which can cause financial issues for the survivor should they obtain custody in court.(9) Coerced debt is one way in which abusers keep their victims dependent and trapped.


Weaponization of Children


The use of children as an abuse tactic has long been established, having been enshrined in the power and control wheel (or Duluth model) back in 1984 and is a feature of Dr. Evan Stark’s coercive control model of abuse. A recent survey of male abusers in the U.K. and U.S. found that 60% of men threatened to take children away from their mothers and 36% threatened to hurt the children.(10) An abuser is more likely to weaponize a child/children against his victim if he is the child(ren)’s biological father, the victim has left or is leaving, or court-ordered visitation is in place.(11)

In one study, 88% of surveyed victims (including both women and men) reported that their abusers had used children as part of the abuse.(12) Abusers used the children as a pretext to remain in their victims’ lives (76%), tried to turn children against their victims (62%), and tried to use children to persuade their victims to return and resume the relationship (45%). A large majority of these survivors reported that their children had been used to monitor their activities. After controlling for other abuse, survivors’ post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety symptoms could be predicted based on the extent to which their abusers had weaponized children in their relationship.


Some domestic abusers do harm children, through abuse and neglect. They may go so far as to force victims to participate in mistreating their own children. This places the abused partner at risk of intervention from social services, and potentially even in legal jeopardy.


Parental Alienation


Despite the cultural narrative that family court strongly favors mothers, that is not the case, and thus when male abusers threaten to take children away from their mothers, there is a good chance they will be able to do so. This is especially true when the abuser has more financial resources. One mother appealed all the way to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania only for her sexually abusive ex-husband to end up with sole custody of his son and victim. (Please note that the linked article contains graphic descriptions of the abuse.)



This case was one in which credible, consistent allegations of abuse were made but the judge chose to weigh allegations of “parental alienation” as more important. At no point since its creation has Parental Alienation Syndrome been recognized by the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual or any respected scientific group. Nevertheless, the concept has been embraced and reinforced by academia, mental health professionals, and the legal profession.


Parental Alienation Syndrome is a term invented by Richard Gardner, a child psychiatrist, in 1985.(13) Without any research evidence, he claimed that roughly 90% of children involved in custody litigation were being poisoned against one parent by another–and subsequently making false allegations of sexual abuse, etc. [Most allegations of incest are truthful.(14)] Gardner recommended that such children be removed from the current custodial parent and prevented from contacting that parent for some time as part of “reverse-brainwashing.”(15)


Notably, and also without any evidence, Gardner alleged that 90% of parental alienation was carried out by mothers and just 10% by fathers.(16) This assertion is likely rooted in negative stereotypes of scorned, vengeful women. Gardner’s writing even blames wives for their husbands’ adultery. According to Gardner, men who engage in parental alienation are “delusional” but women are “vindictive”--especially fanatical feminists.(17) (You can read more about Gardner’s sexism and approval of ephebophilia here.)


Since its invention, the concept of parental alienation has been increasingly applied to any cases where the child does not want to interact with the non-custodial parent.(18) Families in which domestic violence, child abuse, and substance abuse are involved are much more likely to engage in custody and visitation battles. Consequently, it is not difficult for parents and professionals to believe they are looking at a case of parental alienation when there is a legitimate reason for children not to want to live with one parent. Gardner even went so far as to assert that when therapists believe allegations of abuse, that is itself evidence of parental alienation.


In the wake of new recognition of child abuse, the introduction of parental alienation provided a welcome relief to fathers seeking to maintain control of their families amid divorce.(19) Although parental alienation continues to be widely accepted in the United States, there has recently been a major shift in the United Kingdom, where members of Parliament from multiple political parties and the government have supported an inquiry into experts on parental alienation and the effects they have had on children and survivors of domestic/intimate partner violence. (Signatories to the letter included the shadow minister for victims and youth justice and the shadow minister for domestic violence.) The qualifications and process of court approval for parental alienation experts are similarly unreliable and inconsistent in the U.S.(20) and in the U.K.


Other Legal Concerns


The legal system does a poor job of preventing rapists and domestic abusers from obtaining visitation and custody of their children due to an overvaluation of contact with both parents for children’s wellbeing. Should the survivor decide to place the child for adoption, they may still be forced into a continuing relationship with their assailant due to a lack of state-level protections.(21) One 14-year-old girl was forced to notify her rapist that she wished to place the infant for adoption. As a result, he obtained custody of the child and then sought child support payments from his victim.


When the pregnancy came about as the result of a rape in the context of an abusive relationship, shared custody and/or child support payments are even more difficult to avoid due to a cultural presumption that all sexual activity in relationships is consensual. Tragically, 1 in 4 women who become pregnant within abusive relationships became pregnant as the result of rape. (Being raped by a physically abusive partner also significantly increases the risk that a woman will be murdered by him.)


Immigration status can be an additional tool used by abusers to gain an advantage in court. Although the American Bar Association (ABA) does not consider immigration status to be an appropriate factor in custody determinations, its introduction in family court can still be prejudicial.(22) When immigration is involved, an abuser’s threat to separate their victim from their child(ren) becomes especially potent, as the threat may involve not just custody removal but deportation of an immigrant parent away from a child who is a U.S. citizen.


Conclusion


In the context of other legal and everyday ways in which abusers may weaponize children against their victims, the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe is more than troubling, as it will undoubtedly leave many survivors without a legal means to end their pregnancies. Furthermore, Justice Thomas’s signaling to anti-birth control advocates that the court may consider overturning Griswold additionally imperils people hoping to avoid becoming impregnated by their abusers. This blog is intended to provide education to those not aware of the mechanisms of reproductive coercion and the use of children by abusers, and how these issues intersect with access to safe, legal abortion and birth control.


If you know any children (including your own) who have been exposed to domestic violence, there are many resources available, including this series by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, and those listed through our “Need Help?” link.

 
  1. Grace, K.T., & Anderson, J.C. (2018). Reproductive coercion. Trauma, Violence & Abuse, 19(4), 371-390.

  2. Ibid.

  3. Barber, J.S., Kusunoki, Y., Gatny, H.H., & Budnick, J. (2018). The dynamics of intimate partner violence and the risk of pregnancy during the transition to adulthood. American Sociological Review, 83(5), 1020-1047.

  4. Grace, K.T., & Anderson, J.C. (2018). Reproductive coercion. Trauma, Violence & Abuse, 19(4), 371-390.

  5. Ibid.

  6. Littwin, A. (2012). Coerced debt: The role of consumer credit in domestic violence. California Law Review, 100(4), 951-1026

  7. Anderberg, D., Rainer, H., Wadsworth, J., & Wilson, T. (2016). Unemployment and domestic violence: Theory and evidence. The Economic Journal, 126(597), 1947-1979.

  8. Littwin, A. (2012). Coerced debt: The role of consumer credit in domestic violence. California Law Review, 100(4), 951-1026

  9. Ibid.

  10. Ibid.

  11. Clements, K.A.V., Sprecher, M., Modica, S., Terrones, M., Gregory, K., & Sullivan, C.M. (2021). The use of children as a tactic of intimate partner violence and its relationship to survivors’ mental health. Journal of Family Violence. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/s10896-021-00330-0.pdf

  12. Ibid.

  13. Bruch, C.S. (2001). Parental alienation syndrome and parental alienation: Getting it wrong in child custody cases. Family Law Quarterly, 35(3), 527-552.

  14. Ibid.

  15. Ibid.

  16. Adams, M.A. (2006). Framing contests in child custody disputes: Parental alienation syndrome, child abuse, gender, and fathers’ rights. Family Law Quarterly, 40(2), 315-338.

  17. Ibid.

  18. Bruch, C.S. (2001). Parental alienation syndrome and parental alienation: Getting it wrong in child custody cases. Family Law Quarterly, 35(3), 527-552.

  19. Adams, M.A. (2006). Framing contests in child custody disputes: Parental alienation syndrome, child abuse, gender, and fathers’ rights. Family Law Quarterly, 40(2), 315-338.

  20. Yanni, S.J. (2016). Experts as final arbiters: State law and problematic expert testimony on domestic violence in child custody cases. Columbia Law Review, 11(2): 533-572.

  21. Silver, M. (2014). The second rape: Legal options for rape survivors to terminate parental rights. Family Law Quarterly, 48(3): 515-537.

  22. Fata, S., Orloff, L.E., Carcamo-Cavazos, A., Silber, A., & Anver, B. (2013). Custody of children in mixed-status families: Preventing the misunderstanding and misuse of immigration status in state-court custody proceedings. Family Law Quarterly, 47(2), 191-242 & 244-271.


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