As a human rights activist based in Austin, Texas, I’ve spent over a decade advocating for survivors of partner violence, sexual assault and sex trafficking. I’ve listened to a countless number of women and girls as they made the difficult decision to keep or terminate their pregnancy.
Many made this choice while struggling with PTSD, depression, addiction and ongoing abuse. My role was not to guide them toward a decision, but to affirm their power to choose.
The recent passage of the new Texas abortion ban (SB 8), which makes it illegal for doctors to perform abortions if they detect cardiac activity in an embryo, is not just unconstitutional; it endangers women and girls, particularly those who are experiencing reproductive coercion. Reproductive coercion occurs when a partner uses verbal threats or physical force to try to control the reproductive choices of another person. It includes trying to impregnate a partner against her will, controlling the outcome of a pregnancy, forcing a partner to have unprotected sex, and interfering with contraception.
According to a guide recently released by Futures Without Violence, 53% of women visiting family planning clinics experience partner violence, and 15% of those with a history of partner violence report birth control sabotage. From forced, unprotected sex to sabotaging contraception, women have been experiencing ongoing assaults on their reproductive rights within their own homes. Due to SB 8, the State of Texas is now making it easier for abusers to control their victims even further. For example, abusive partners are known to deliberately impregnate their victims against their will as a means to control them. If the victim carries the pregnancy to term, the abuser will often use his power over the child to increase power over the mother as well.
The new legislation is a form of State-sponsored reproductive coercion. By creating a financial incentive for anyone to intimidate and harass women who are trying to exercise their constitutional right, the State is acting similarly to abusive partners by increasing their power. Additionally, just as abusers communicate through their actions — “What you want does not matter. You have no choice and no control over what happens to you,” — forcing a woman to give birth against her will is an act of violence, and financially rewarding private citizens for suing and harassing those who would help her get an abortion, including doctors and family members, amounts to coercion.
But we cannot simply talk about abortion without also talking about violence against girls. Since 15% of all sexual assault victims are children, the scope of the new abortion ban allows for lawsuits to be filed against individuals who help abused children, most of whom do not know they are pregnant until it is too late.
According to research published by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, 25% of female adolescents in abusive relationships reported their male partners were trying to get them pregnant through birth control sabotage. Offering a $10,000 reward for those who engage in successful civil suits against anyone who “aids and abets” a person seeking an abortion after about six weeks from her last period, will make it even more difficult for abused women and children to access reproductive healthcare when they need it most. This precedent creates a climate of fear for those who have already been terrorized.
When a woman does not have control over her own body, she no longer has control over her own life. Abusers know this, which is why they want power over victims’ reproductive choices.
Some anti-abortion activists argue that there doesn’t need to be an exception for rape due to the availability of emergency contraception, such as Plan B. But this argument does not address the ongoing sexual and reproductive coercion that occurs in partner violence, sex trafficking and the sexual abuse of children. Sexual assault victims may not have access to emergency contraception in time, particularly if the victim is a child.
Yet even if the new abortion ban included an exception for rape or incest, that would not be enough. Women and girls should not have to be assaulted in order to secure an abortion, and sexual assault victims should not be forced to endure the secondary trauma of having to prove they were assaulted to access their reproductive rights.
In addition, undocumented women often do not feel safe reporting interpersonal violence due to the fear of deportation, and Black women may not feel safe reporting as a result of our country’s long history of systemic racism in American policing. Native-American women, who experience the highest rates of sexual violence in the U.S. are also marginalized by conflicts between tribal and federal jurisdictions and a general lack of access to reproductive healthcare located near reservations.
In a country where approximately 1 in 6 women are sexually assaulted, we shouldn’t have to prove anything. The prevalence of violence against women speaks for itself. Using threats and coercion to deny all women and girls in Texas their right to an abortion is an extension of that violence. Women with unwanted pregnancies are 4 times more likely to experience violence from a partner than women with intended pregnancies. Overall, partner violence is 3 times more likely for women seeking an abortion. Due to the aggressive prohibitions of SB 8, Texas has now become far more dangerous for those seeking help.
An abuser should not have the power to force a woman or child to give birth, and neither should a democratic government. Through the coercive legislation of SB 8, the state of Texas assumes the role of an abuser who believes he is entitled to controlling the bodies of his victims.
About the Author:
Brooke Axtell is a writer, speaker, performing artist and human rights activist. She is the author of the memoir Beautiful Justice and founder of She is Rising. Brooke has spoken on human trafficking and gender violence at the United Nations, The U.S. Institute for Peace, Stanford University and the 2015 Grammy Awards. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, Rolling Stone and CNN.