Monday, February 2, 2009

Violence and Women's Health


With Congress and state legislatures across the country coming into session, analysts expect hundreds of bills to be introduced that would in some way restrict women’s access to reproductive health information and services. This year, the Family Violence Prevention Fund (FVPF) is urging experts, service providers and advocates to consider helping spread the word about the reproductive health consequences of abuse, and the ways restrictions on women’s access to reproductive health care can harm victims of violence or coercion.

“For a long time, many of us who work to stop domestic, dating and sexual violence have stayed in the background on reproductive health issues,” said FVPF President Esta Soler. “As a result, we may have missed some opportunities to educate the public about how difficult it can be for victims of violence and coercion to access the reproductive health services they need. It’s time for more of us to speak up and say that restrictions on women’s access to reproductive health care can do grave and lasting damage to women who are trying to survive coercion or violence.”

The need for action is urgent. In the next few months, legislatures are likely to consider laws and regulations that would, among other things: make it harder for women to access emergency contraception; allow pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions for birth control; and require school-based sex education programs to teach abstinence-only and prohibit them from providing contraceptive information or services. Because victims of abuse are at increased risk for sexually transmitted infections including HIV, unintended pregnancies and poor birth outcomes, access to these services and programs is critical.

Last year, bills were introduced in several states to prevent women from being coerced into having abortions – in most cases, by lawmakers who have worked for years to make it harder for women to access reproductive health care services. The rationale for this legislation is that women who are victims of violence are being forced to have abortions, as part of that violence.

Violence prevention experts agree that coerced abortion is wrong, but note that it is only one facet of the complex and common problem of sexual and reproductive control. Research shows that women in abusive relationships often experience a range of coercive behaviors, and may have partners who interfere with their birth control, impregnate them against their will, or intentionally expose them to sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Focusing only on coerced abortion ignores the larger, more complicated reality of abuse and reproductive control, they say.

To support this work, last fall the FVPF launched the KnowMoreSayMore initiative to create a dialogue about the birth control sabotage and reproductive coercion that many teens and young women face, which can result in unintended pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted infections, miscarriage, infertility, coerced abortion, poor birth outcomes including preterm birth and low birth-weight babies, and other serious health problems.

Its website,, features the stories of several women who are sharing their experiences with birth control sabotage and reproductive coercion.

“These stories underscore that it is impossible for many women to negotiate safe sex because they are not in healthy, respectful relationships,” Soler continued. “That’s one reason abused women experience more sexually transmitted infections, HIV, unintended pregnancies and abortions. We can help lawmakers understand that subtler forms of violence, such as exposing a partner to HIV or refusing to use birth control, are terribly dangerous. The more we share that information, the more we will be able to do to make services available to victims and improve their reproductive health outcomes.”

Action in ‘09
This year, the FVPF is working with advocates and legislators around the country on legislation that would provide effective interventions to victims of violence in reproductive health care settings, as an alternative to coerced abortion bills. This kind of intervention can improve the health and safety of women experiencing abuse and control. The FVPF has created model legislation for these projects, which aim to educate health care providers about how to identify abuse and reproductive coercion, prevent the health effects of such violence, decrease unintended pregnancy, and partner with advocates to improve the health and safety of individuals who are experiencing violence.

“Most lawmakers, and even some advocates and health care providers, don’t fully understand the relationship between physical and sexual abuse, and reproductive health,” said FVPF Public Policy Director Kiersten Stewart. “It is imperative that we change that. Violence and coercion have a direct impact on women’s reproductive health and we must ensure that victims of violence have access to the information and services they need to keep themselves safe. At the same time, we must help those who care about reducing unintended pregnancies and abortion understand that they must address violence and abuse head-on to be successful.”

The FVPF initiative also supports expanding sex education to teach young people the importance of healthy, respectful relationships.

The FVPF’s kNOwMORE initiative is funded with generous support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Ford Foundation.

The Family Violence Prevention Fund has developed a new toolkit to give violence prevention leaders and others the tools to advocate for legislation that is not limited to coerced abortion, but addresses the reproductive health needs of all victims of violence. The kit includes sample proactive legislation, educational materials on coerced abortion legislation, as well as fact sheets, talking points, sample opinion articles and letters-to-the-editor on this issue.

To request a copy, please contact

For more information, please visit