Forced - or forbidden - to become pregnant

Violence against women takes many forms, including reproductive coercion: control over a woman’s reproductive choices by her spouse or family.

"He wanted to brainwash me so that I would bear his children, so that my womb would belong to him."

"My womb became common property; everyone wanted to know if it was full."

These are the words of Quebec women who have been victims of reproductive coercion, a form of violence that consists in deliberate strategies to control their reproductive choices.

Their testimony was collected by Carole Boulebsol, a Ph.D. candidate in applied human sciences working on a thesis jointly supervised by Marie-Marthe Cousineau, a professor in Université de Montréal’s School of Criminology, and Sylvie Lévesque, a professor at Université du Québec à Montréal.

Lévesque directs the research laboratory on reproductive health and violence, as well as the research project on relationships, contraception and reproduction to which Boulebsol is contributing.

In her doctoral research, Boulebsol is investigating the depriving of women’s reproductive choice, its manifestations and its contexts by examining the experiences of 18 women, half of whom are immigrants.

Reproductive coercion is a phenomenon at the intersection of violence against women and reproductive health whose prevalence has not been formally established. It has been estimated at anywhere between 3 and 74 per cent of women, depending on the sample set and the methodology.

"In any case, it is not marginal and it causes a lot of distress," Boulebsol stressed.

A pernicious arsenal

Based on the testimonials she has collected, Boulebsol has concluded that this type of violence can take many forms. "It’s a mix of methods aimed at influencing a woman’s reproductive trajectory, to the point where she feels that she has no option but to give in," she said. "And when she finally capitulates, our research shows that the men never help out with these children they so wanted."

The methods of control include sabotage of birth control (piercing condoms or removing them without consent,* hiding birth-control pills, limiting access to health supplies by refusing to provide money to buy contraceptives), coercing a pregnancy outcome (forcing a woman to have an abortion or to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term, or physically injuring a woman to induce a miscarriage), or even destroying reproductive potential (forced sterilization).

The control is not only physical but can also be sexual, economic, spiritual or psychological, such as threats ("I will leave you if you don’t give me children"), accusations ("Making me use a condom shows you don’t trust me") or emotional blackmail ("If we have a child, I’ll stop using a condom").

"As reproductive coercion is multifaceted, it is often the accumulation of actions and attitudes that ends up overcoming the woman’s freedom and autonomy," Boulebsol observed.

Families can be perpetrators

In the context of intimate relationships, reproductive coercion can be understood as a form of domestic violence. However, it can also occur outside the couple, when it is practiced by the family.

"This is less documented in the literature, but some of the victims we interviewed said, for example, that the women in their family or their in-laws also pressured them," said Boulebsol. "In some cases, though not all, their partner took their side."

In these situations, family members may, for example, constantly inquire about the woman’s menstrual cycle, give unsolicited advice or suggest "cures," compare the woman to others in the family who have produced the "right" number of children, threaten to disinherit her, cut off her income or limit access to medication if their wishes are not met.

"There is a difference between a partner or parents who are a little insistent and fearing physical, economic or community consequences if you don’t do as you’re told," Boulebsol pointed out.

Lifting the veil

Boulebsol believes that raising awareness is a good first step in fighting reproductive coercion. To begin with, women must know how to recognize it, realize that their distress is legitimate and be aware that support is available (including legal support for victims of stealthing).

Secondly, Boulebsol advocates better handling of the issue by health and social services. In line with recommendations from multiple studies, she suggests meeting women without their partner to ask about their reproductive trajectory and contraceptive choices, using interpreters if the women are non-native speakers, creating more opportunities for disclosure and safe spaces where women can share their experiences.

"Reproductive coercion remains a taboo topic, since it is linked to sexual abuse, enforced motherhood and the institution of parenthood," said Boulebsol. "Professionals are not all aware of this reality and aren’t always equipped to provide support."

* In Canada, removing a condom without a partner’s knowledge (stealthing) has been legally recognized as a form of sexual assault since 2022.