In 2011 in the Missouri General Assembly pro-choice Representative Genise Montecillo (D -66) stated about this extremely restrictive abortion bill, “This is just as much about control as rape is about control”. She was absolutely right and it’s time we start recognizing these attacks on choice for what they really are: violence against women.
The statement by Representative Montecillo prompted Paige Sweet of NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri to write an article detailing the link between violence against women and denial of reproductive rights. What follows are excerpts from Ms. Sweet’s article.
Actually, abusers and anti-choice policies (and the politicians who advocate for them) use many of the same oppressive tactics. Just like rape, sexual assault, harassment, and intimate partner violence, laws that limit women’s access to abortion care are all about power and control. They are designed so that state power over a woman’s body supersedes a woman’s own power over her body. It is assumed without question that the ultra-conservative politicians who champion these laws have the right to control women’s bodies - that making laws about women’s reproduction is completely within their professional purview. Violence is used by abusers in much the same way: to take and maintain power and show the victim that the abuser can and will exercise that power. Just as anti-choice politicians believe they have the right to govern women’s bodies, abusers believe they have the right to punish women physically - to keep them in line through bodily force and coercion. In both scenarios, women are deemed stupid children who do not deserve autonomy or control over their own destinies. Why else would they make laws telling us we have to wait 72 hours before an abortion so that we can really think about it?
Just as physical violence (and/or the threat of it) limits women’s ability to participate freely in society, laws restricting abortion access work to ensure that women have no chance of systemic political or economic quality. The reproductive justice movement has long recognized the overlapping oppressions of these types of violence and insisted that they be approached as they intersect, rather than individually. The movement to end violence against women and the pro-choice movement for too long have been acting as if they are challenging separate oppressive forces when actually, those forces are variations of the same thing.
In fact, the research consistently shows that abusers know how to use control over a woman’s reproduction and to further control her life. Not only are violence against women and reproductive freedom linked politically and in power dynamics, but as the following statistics show, they are probably most profoundly linked in women’s actual lives. For example, pregnancy puts women at an elevated risk for intimate partner violence and is associated with poor health outcomes for both mother and child. (There are many theories about why violence often begins or escalates during pregnancy, one of which is that the abuser feels control slipping away and uses violence to regain it. Does that remind you of how we often see an escalation of anti-choice policy proposals when progressives make gains in other areas?) Shockingly, the second leading cause of death of pregnant women in the United States is homicide by an intimate partner –it’s more common than dying from preeclampsia or gestational diabetes. Forty percent of abused women report that their pregnancy was unintended, as compared to only 8% of women who report never experiencing abuse. Additionally, a growing body of research is showing that it’s common for abusive men to sabotage birth control or coerce pregnancy as tactics to maintain power and control,. For example, women who are abused are more likely to report that their partners refuse to wear condoms (71% vs. 43% of women who are not abused). In a study of 474 adolescent mothers on public assistance, 51% reported that their partners sabotaged their birth control. Indeed, these abusive strategies are eerily similar to the anti-choice strategy of taking away access to birth control and abortion for women, especially financially vulnerable women.
These ultra-conservative politicians who believe they are entitled to controlling women’s bodies on a meta-scale are no breaking the law the way batterers are, but they seem to be sharing the same rulebook: give women little or no control over their reproductive decisions (politician: lack of access to birth control and education; abuser: birth control sabotage); coerce women into having children (politician: lack of abortion access; abuser: pregnancy out come coercion); and then leave them without resources or assistance when the children are born (politician: defund state and federal assistance programs and cut back on education funding; abuser: continue abuse and consider inflicting on children as well).
Also essential to the rulebook is knowing how to shame women so that they don’t talk about having had abortions or being abused and/or raped. Actually, our patriarchal culture is truly expert when it comes to shaming women – if it weren’t so harmful, it would be a marvel to witness. Doesn’t matter if you’re to fat, too skinny, don’t work, work too hard, don’t sleep with men, sleep with too many men, don’t wear make-up, talk too loud, have kids, don’t have kids, don’t make enough money, make too much money – shame on you all the same! The stigmas of having been abused or raped and that of having had an abortion are connected. Just as people ask survivors what were they wearing, why they were drinking, why didn’t they fight harder, and why didn’t they “just leave”, women who have had abortions are told they are selfish, looking for the “easy way out”, called sluts, and made to think they are damaged for life. The messages and outcomes are strikingly similar: it’s all your fault, feel bad about it, and now shut up about it.
We have all probably been unwitting participants in this type of shaming at some point in our lives, but not many of us are as skilled at the strategic use of shame as batterers and anti-choice politicians. Batterers use it to manipulate their victims into self-loathing, self-doubt, and silence. Ani-choice politicians use inflammatory language, they fabricate “post-abortion syndrome,” they tell stories about disabled children who would have been aborted in “pro-choice” hands, they literally (and theoretically) weep for “the unborn”, they invent accusations of Black genocide, and they spread lies about emergency contraception being abortion. They wag their moral-authority fingers at women: shame, shame, shame! This shame makes the one-third of American women who’ve had abortions stay silent and divided. It creates an environment where these (predominantly white, male) voices are allowed to control the entire debate. They are allowed to control women’s movements (when they go to the doctor and for what). They are allowed to write propaganda that women are forced to listen to in the privacy of their doctor’s office. They are allowed to decide what income level women can receive certain types of reproductive care (Hyde Amendment and similar state laws. They are allowed to keep women in poverty or force them into it through coerced motherhood. They are even allowed to endanger women’s health by putting funding on the chopping block and barring access to comprehensive sexual education. Yes, when it comes to the strategic rhetorical infliction of shame on women, no one beats anti-choice lawmakers and their policies.