On Thursday, on the heels of an extremely restrictive abortion ban passed in Alabama and signed into law by Gov. Kay Ivey, the Missouri Senate passed a bill that would ban an abortion at eight weeks of pregnancy or later. Much like the Alabama bill, the Missouri bill makes no exceptions for rape or incest; also like the Alabama bill, the Missouri bill classifies performing abortion as a felony (though it would be considered a Class B felony, in the same vein as voluntary manslaughter or burglary). Perhaps most significantly, the Missouri bill is also positioned as a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade, including a trigger that, if Roe v. Wade is overturned, would outright ban abortion in the state except in cases of extreme emergencies.
From the perspective of reproductive rights advocates, the threat to women’s health and safety posed by bills like the Missouri and Alabama legislation (as well as the “heartbeat” bills that have passed in states like Georgia and Ohio in recent months) can’t really be overstated: Although it’s important to note that for the time being, abortion is still legal in these states, pre-Roe history clearly demonstrates that when women (particularly low-income women) do not have access to safe and legal termination procedures, they will resort to dangerous, illegal and potentially lethal methods. In making this argument, many activists often invoke powerful iconography hearkening back to a pre-Roe era, such as coat hangers and Lysol bottles. But draconian abortion restrictions and lack of access pose another, equally horrifying safety risk, albeit one that has been less researched and rarely discussed. Lack of safe abortion access poses a threat to women at risk of becoming victims of intimate partner violence — and the most restrictive laws against abortion are often passed in states where the rates of such violence are remarkably high.
A 2014 study published by BMC Medicine journal, for instance, looked at incidences of domestic violence against women with unintended pregnancies who tried to obtain abortions. Over the course of two years, the study found that incidences of domestic violence decreased for those who were successfully able to obtain abortions, but increased for those who were turned away from clinics and had to carry their pregnancies to term. The reasoning for this, says study author Sarah Roberts, DRPH, associate professor in the department of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the University of California, San Francisco, is that “women who are denied an abortion are tethered to violent men, while women who are able to escape an abortion are able to escape from violent men.” Some studies have found that the rates of having experienced domestic violence are higher among women who seek abortions than women who do not, and Roberts says that one commonly cited reason for having an abortion is due to a desire to not be tied to an abusive relationship. What her study proved, she said, was that the “concern about what would happen if they didn’t have an abortion essentially bears out. Being unable to have an abortion tethers them to an abusive man.”
While correlation certainly doesn’t equal causation, it makes sense that restricted access to abortion would be linked to domestic violence rates. Generally speaking, women are more vulnerable to intimate partner violence while they are pregnant: Homicide is a leading cause of death for pregnant women, and women of all cultural backgrounds are at increased risk of being physically abused when they become pregnant. Further, pregnancy is often a way for abusers to establish control over their victims, and many survivors of intimate partner violence who become pregnant do not wish to carry their pregnancies to term, or perhaps didn’t even want to become pregnant in the first place. So-called “reproductive coercion,” or abusers forcing their partners to get pregnant, is a common method of control in abusive relationships, with 25% of domestic violence survivors reporting they had been subject to reproductive coercion by their abusers.
Perhaps most devastatingly, forcing survivors of domestic violence to carry pregnancies to term doesn’t just harm women — it harms the children that result from these pregnancies as well. Pregnant women who are survivors of intimate partner violence are more likely to give birth to preterm babies with lower birth weights, according to the World Health Organization; mothers are also less likely to nurse or bond with them. If anti-abortion legislation is aimed at preserving the sanctity of babies’ lives, forcing mothers to give birth to unwanted children in the context of an abusive relationship seems like an odd way to go about it.
It is for this reason that it’s perhaps not surprising that anti-choice laws are primarily being passed in states where the rates of violence against women are remarkably high. Missouri, for instance, has ranked seventh-highest in the U.S. for rates of homicides where women were killed by men, three years in a row. In addition to Missouri, Georgia, which recently passed a bill criminalizing abortion, ranks ninth in the country for rates of women being killed by men; in 2017, the number of domestic violence fatalities in the state reached 149, a record high. “Laws that tend to restrict women’s autonomy do tend to cluster together,” Roberts said. In areas where violence against women is already an issue, there is bitter irony in the fact that restrictive anti-abortion legislation only serves to further replicate these patterns, enacting the most stringent forms of control over women’s bodies.