Illustration by Traci Hafner
“Reproductive coercion” is often used by abusive partners to control pregnancy outcomes. Now Washington is getting into the game.
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Reproductive coercion is “behavior intended to maintain power and control in a relationship, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, ” which can include “controlling outcomes of a pregnancy.” ACOG recommends that health-care workers screen those who may be victims of reproductive coercion in order to help those patients remove themselves from the relationship, which leads to better health outcomes.
But what if your coercive relationship happens to be not with an intimate partner—but with the entire Trump administration? That’s a situation a number of young women with unwanted pregnancies continue to deal with as they seek out abortions while officially under government care.
It took “Jane Doe” weeks to finally obtain permission to leave her shelter for undocumented minors in Texas in order to undergo an abortion procedure, weeks that put the 17-year-old unaccompanied immigrant at the center of a debate over whether federal officials were legally entitled to prevent those in their care from seeking medical services the government disapproved of. The court decision should have been the end of the story, but instead it was only the beginning of the Trump White House’s temper tantrum over being denied the ability to strip constitutional rights from a pregnant teen.
Despite the fact that the court had ruled, and Doe herself had already terminated the pregnancy, Trump’s legal advisers filed additional paperwork on the case, arguing that the ruling should be overturned, and that the ACLU, who represented Doe, should be punished. The organization’s crime? Moving too fast in helping Doe obtain her legally approved abortion. The administration cried foul over the ACLU not informing them that Doe had already met the requirement to have counseling 24-hours prior to the abortion by the same doctor who would perform the procedure, allowing Doe to complete the abortion before the legal team had a chance to file another stay. The Trump team called into question the lack of notification and demanded the ACLU be disciplined.
The administration’s attack on the ACLU is quintessential abusive-partner tactics. One of the first things abusers do when trying to control a partner is to isolate her from friends or allies, especially those who might hope to remove her from her harmful situation. Threats are often employed in an attempt to escalate the cost of maintaining the relationship between the victim and her support network.
And threats have become the administration’s most powerful weapon when it comes to forcing undocumented young women to give birth. The Trump team repeatedly offered the solution of “self-deportation” as an option for Doe: If she really wanted the abortion so badly, she should be willing to return to her home country in order to obtain it, they argued. Meanwhile, if remaining in the U.S. was that important, surely continuing to stay pregnant for another six or seven months and then give birth was a simple price to pay.
Doe was by no means the only teen being manipulated by the government, either. According to the ACLU, which sued the Office of Refugee Resettlement for their coercive birthing practices, there is an ongoing pattern of pressuring teens in refugee centers to give birth against their will, even when those pregnancies came as a result of sexual assault. Emails obtained by the ACLU show rampant employment of crisis pregnancy center visits to cajole girls into carrying to term, repeated ultrasounds that the teens are forced to watch and other tactics less blatant than simply refusing to allow them to leave for an appointment, as they did with Doe. Each of these instances represents yet another example of authority figures using their power and connections in order to force someone powerless into continuing an unwanted pregnancy.
The threats used in the government’s reproductive coercion don’t just stop at isolating the victim, but also involve personal privacy violations that in some cases even put those minors they claimed to be protecting into potential physical danger. Doe herself feared that if she did return to her home country, her parents would physically beat her, just as they did her older sister who also got pregnant as a teen. And of course the government’s decision to violate Doe’s medical privacy by contacting her parents and informing them that she was trying to get an abortion only exacerbated that possibility.
Doe isn’t alone, either. Two more undocumented teens—”Jane Poe” and “Jane Roe”– who also fought the Office of Refugee Resettlement in order to obtain a legal abortion, faced similar ordeals as Doe in requiring court orders to obtain the termination. Afterward, the Justice Department appealed a court ruling requiring them to keep the teens’ medical records private, demanding the right to disclose their abortions to doctors as well as potential family members who might sponsor the girls to stay in the country.
For Poe, that means disclosure to family members who threatened to physically harm her if she had an abortion, and who could be the only ones standing between her future life in the U.S. and being sent back across the border. “[T]he government is essentially arguing that it holds a First Amendment right to reveal Poe’s abortion status to her abusive family,” explains Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern. “Why? Because ORR is ‘acting in the place of [Poe’s] parent’ and thus holds similar ‘custodial responsibilities’ and rights—including, apparently, the ability to disseminate her medical information.”
Or, to look at it another way, because the government is acting like a vengeful, dominating, abusive ex.
When it comes to the relationship between the Trump administration and pregnant undocumented teens, the tactics used by the government are classic signs of an abusive partner. The administration isolates them, controls them, only allows them to see colleagues and medical professionals with the same anti-abortion viewpoint, uses rigid gender roles such as believing all women and girls benefit from giving birth no matter the circumstances, and threatens violence—either directly or through an intermediary—when they can’t get their victims to agree.
We knew long before he was ever elected that Trump was a bully. We even suspected he was an emotional abuser. Now, we can obviously add that he’s an abusive reproductive coercer as well. And for undocumented, pregnant teens, that’s a dangerous relationship they have absolutely no way of leaving.
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