Reproductive Coercion is not a Buzzword

A cartoon of a teacher standing at the front of a classroom. She is pointing at the smart board which reads: Reproductive coercion is not a buzzword. There are a class of students in front of her, and a clock and some shelves in the background.

‘Reproductive coercion’ is a term that’s often misused in policy, misinterpreted between languages and misunderstood in practice. Reproductive coercion is fast becoming a buzzword. And that needs to stop now.

Reproductive coercion is when a person is restricted from making choices about their own body, sexuality and reproductive healthcare. The opposite of reproductive coercion is reproductive autonomy. Reproductive autonomy is when we have access to information, the knowledge and the agency to make decisions about our own sexual and reproductive health.

Reproductive coercion first emerged in English language publications in the 1960s, when it was used to describe contexts of genocide and forced sterilisation. Global Indigenous rights movements have used the term to refer to the act and impacts of war and colonisation. Global women’s rights movements have used the term within contexts of communities, families and households.

Coercion is a tricky concept to define, particularly legally. So whilst the world continues to debate the nuances of language, we thought we’d provide an overview of why it’s hard to define, what the impacts are and who is most likely to be affected.

Reproductive coercion is complex

Reproduction is deeply personal. We are all unique. We each have different expectations. You may not have a life plan, but from a young age everyone has expectations (low or high) of what could happen and when. In addition to this, we each have different wishes for our own bodies, what we do with our bodies, how our bodies look to others, and who we share our bodies with. Experiences of coercion can change our expectations and can influence us to make different decisions.

Reproduction is unavoidably interpersonal. There are many ways to reproduce, with and without sex. Conception and parenting can be lonely experiences, yet no one ever does it alone. Wherever we are, there are communities around us that can influence our personal relationships, access to healthcare, and parenting experiences. Their presence can be supportive, but it can also be unsupportive. Each relationship we have, whether it’s intimate or not, has different ways of demonstrating love, commitment, discomfort and conflict.

Reproduction is frustratingly structural. Because it’s so deeply personal and unavoidably interpersonal, it can be highly political. All too often, our personal reproductive health and wellbeing are pawns in political debates on reproductive rights. These debates are commonly led by white cis men, reinforcing myths and misconceptions that shame and blame. Subsequently, we see people who do not share our lived experience, making legislative decisions that will affect our bodies and lives.

Reproductive coercion can have lifelong impacts

When we experience reproductive coercion, we are faced with destructive reproductive expectations from others. Many people in our lives can create and manipulate these unrealistic expectations, including intimate partners, ex-partners, neighbours, families, friends, teachers, doctors, or employers. It could be a stranger at the supermarket as we reach for a packet of condoms, or the person behind us in queue at the chemist as we ask for thrush medication. Reproductive expectations are also linked to ableism, sexism, racism, heteronormativity and cisnormativity.

When someone experiences reproductive coercion, it can take them longer to reach healthcare. Perhaps you want to get a lump on your cervix checked out, but someone you live with is talking you out of it. Perhaps you could call a health phone line to ask about the lump, but that person you live with is tracking your calls. Or perhaps you find a way to get to a clinic, but you can’t afford the appointment because you don’t have a Medicare card. Delaying or avoiding healthcare can lead to a series of chronic health issues. If someone has an STI, delaying treatment can lead to future infertility or congenital conditions. If they also have an unintended pregnancy, a lack of support options can mean they consider methods of abortion that may be risky. Ongoing experiences of reproductive coercion can lead to serious health issues including anxiety, depression, heart disease, stroke, physical violence and homicide.

Experiences of reproductive coercion in an intimate relationship can make it even harder to leave the relationship. For example, unplanned pregnancies resulting in a child can cement lifelong ties with an abusive partner. Mental health concerns such as anxiety or depression can increase social isolation, and chronic health issues such as chronic fatigue or heart disease can increase dependency within a relationship. Impacts of reproductive coercion not only make it harder to leave an abusive situation, they make it harder for us to process and name our own experiences.

Reproductive coercion can affect people differently

Anyone can experience reproductive coercion. The concept of coercive control is key: it involves a combination of coercive behaviours that reduce autonomy. Often reproductive coercion involves emotional abuse. Reproductive coercion is when that coercive control either involves or impacts someone’s reproductive autonomy.

People at highest risk of reproductive coercion today are people who have a history of intergenerational reproductive coercion. Their families or communities may have historic experiences of genocide or forced sterilisation. They are people who experience direct and indirect discrimination in multiple spaces, including social services, health and justice systems. In Australia, they are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, women with disabilities, recent migrant and refugee women, LGBTIQ+ people and people working in the sex industry.

Because each person will experience coercion differently, every person may frame their experience differently. In order to support reproductive autonomy, people need to be able to use their own words to define their own experiences of reproductive coercion. They need to be able to self-define reproductive autonomy. Supportive people in their lives should then use that same language back with them.

Read more about preventing and responding to reproductive coercion here.

If you or anyone you know needs support, you can contact the National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service on 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732).

Molly Howes is a Communications Officer at Children by Choice, an all options unplanned pregnancy counselling, information and education service. Molly is also on the Steering Committee of the Equality Rights Alliance and a representative on the National Youth Health Forum. You can follow Children by Choice on Twitter.

Bonney Corbin is an urban and regional planner working at the intersections of health and social policy. She is the Head of Policy at Marie Stopes Australia where she collaborates with doctors, nurses, midwives and counsellors to advocate for sexual and reproductive health, rights and justice. Bonney is also Chair of Violence Prevention Australia and on the board of the Australian Women’s Health Network. You can follow Bonney on Twitter.