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There is a deliberate connection between the laws that render abortion inaccessible and violence against women.
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Last month, Women’s History Month came and went with constant reminders that gender-based violence remains all too common: March started in South London with the alleged murder of 33-year-old marketing executive Sarah Everard by a police officer, followed by a massacre in Atlanta that saw six Asian women shot and killed by a white man who was, in his mind, exacting punishment on them for being a sexual “temptation” to him. The month ended with the exposure of Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz’s alleged sexual misconduct with a teenage girl and involvement in sex trafficking.
April marks Sexual Assault Awareness Month, continuing the conversation about gender violence along with the recent uptick in state abortion bans nationwide—the two are deeply, inextricably entwined. With total abortion bans passing in Arkansas, Texas, South Carolina, and other states this legislative session, as well as so-called, “race-based” abortion bans and medication abortion restrictions in North Carolina and Ohio, states have recently escalated their war on pregnant people, with a decisively anti-abortion-friendly bench on the Supreme Court.
These political attacks and acts of state-sanctioned reproductive coercion extend from the same well of misogyny as recent, alarming incidents of gender-based violence, and carry many of the same long-term consequences. Similarly, forced sterilizations allegedly carried out by ICE on immigrant women at the border speak to the disproportionate targets of state reproductive coercion—migrant women and women of color, who are also more likely to experience gender-based violence.
We rarely see the violent connections drawn between abortion bans and sexual assaults, between police violence targeting women of color and anti-abortion politicians equating health care like abortion to murder—but all are rooted in a greater culture of gender violence. Abortion clinics, including providers and patients, are frequently the subjects of menacing acts ranging from sidewalk harassment to arson and shootings, and the reason is simple: When politicians equate abortion with murder, they incite retaliatory violence against those purportedly responsible.
Following the embattled end of the presidency of the so-called “most pro-life president ever,” divisions among the Republican Party have been reliably bridged by their unwavering unity against women and pregnant people. It’s only April, and 2021 is on track to becoming one of the most dangerous years for state abortion rights in recent history, as increased political attacks on abortion and reproductive care compound with the ongoing pandemic and economic recession, making access to care costlier, and more difficult than ever with added safety risks.
In recent years, medically unnecessary and purely political restrictions on abortion and reproductive care have surged, leading to massive shutdowns of abortion clinics, and 90 percent of all U.S. counties being left without a provider. These political attacks often have violent consequences, when pregnant people, and especially poor women of color, are unable to get the pregnancy and reproductive care they need.
The United States currently has the highest maternal death rate in the industrialized world, with even higher death rates in states with more restrictions on abortion access, and for women of color. According to the CDC, Black women are 243 percent more likely than their white counterparts to die from pregnancy or birth-related causes. Additionally, being unable to get abortion care can make someone significantly more likely to stay in an abusive relationship, and four times as likely to be pushed into poverty, among other harmful health and economic outcomes.
Anti-abortion legislation also dangerously contributes to normalizing intimate-partner violence through reproductive coercion. When state and federal lawmakers constantly attempt to legislate and control the bodies and reproductive health options of women, girls and pregnant people, this sort of coercion becomes culturally acceptable, and is all too often mirrored and reproduced in relationships.
A 2010 study found 15 percent of women who report experiencing physical violence from a male partner also report birth-control sabotage, or their partner tampering with their birth-control pills to force them to become pregnant. Birth-control sabotage seems to disproportionately impact young women and girls—according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, a quarter of adolescent girls reported their abusive male partners had attempted to impregnate them without their consent by interfering with their contraception. Sixty-six percent of adolescent mothers on public assistance who reported experiencing domestic violence also reported experiencing birth-control sabotage by their partner. Despite the prevalence of reproductive coercion in relationships, it’s often vastly underreported as many victims aren’t aware that such acts constitute abuse.
Victims of sexual violence and people who experience pregnancy loss or self-induce their abortions also share a concerning commonality: criminalization. Those who experience sexual violence are significantly more likely to face charges or be incarcerated than perpetrators—90 percent of incarcerated women, who are disproportionately women of color, are survivors of sexual assault, while it’s estimated just five out of 1,000 rapists will ever be imprisoned.
In a similar vein, feticide laws and stigma around abortion and miscarriage are often weaponized against people who lose their pregnancies or self-manage their abortions with medication, to charge them with feticide, child endangerment, abuse of a corpse, and other charges. Notably, in 2019, a Black woman named Marshae Jones faced charges for manslaughter in Alabama after being shot in the stomach and experiencing a miscarriage. Police pressed charges against Jones as they alleged she had started the fight that led to her miscarriage. Stories like this have frequently unfolded across the country in recent years: Purvi Patel, an Asian-American woman in Indiana, faced jail time for allegedly taking medication abortion and having a stillbirth in 2013.
When it comes to the criminalization of survivors and those who are victimized by state policies on pregnancy and reproduction, the message is clear: The rights to safety and bodily autonomy still don’t belong to all of us, and women and pregnant people remain subhuman under the law.
One Oklahoma lawmaker inadvertently said the quiet part out loud in 2017, as he defended a law to require consent of the father of the fetus for someone to have an abortion: “I understand that they feel like that is their body,” he said of pregnant women. “I feel like it’s separate—what I call them is, you’re a ‘host.’” Republicans Todd Akin and Steve King have both drawn bipartisan criticism for arguing against rape exceptions to abortion bans, but many of these criticisms have ignored that with or without so-called rape exceptions—which send the false message that rape is easy to report and “prove” to police or medical professionals—all abortion bans are a violation of consent. Consent to sex has never meant consent to pregnancy, and forced pregnancy and birth often amount to a deeply traumatic violation of someone’s body and life.
Language, legislation, and political attacks by anti-abortion politicians have always made it devastatingly clear that the humanization of fetuses consequently dehumanizes pregnant people. This reality is inseparable from a greater culture of gender violence that systematically victimizes, blames, and even kills women and girls. Reproductive coercion is gender violence—and all gender violence is rooted in denying women and non-cisgender men humanity and autonomy.
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