American Independent, 8/30/2012 [Archive]

Health Experts Challenge Coerced- Abortion Laws

Health Experts Challenge Coerced-Abortion Laws

By Sofia Resnick, The American Independent

Conservative lawmakers across the U.S. are backing new regulations to address what they claim is a pervasive problem: women being forced to have abortions.

This year, at least 11 states have considered abortion bills that deal with coercion, according to Americans United for Life, an anti-abortion policy group.

South Dakota's law — pieces of which went into effect in July — goes the furthest. If it survives an ongoing lawsuit, women will have to wait 72 hours to receive an abortion. During that waiting period, they will have to be screened for coercion at one of three state-sanctioned "pregnancy help centers," all of which are faith-based and are vocally opposed to abortion. The law also makes it easier to sue abortion providers that allegedly fail to adequately screen for coercion.

Supporters of anti-coercion abortion bills say these policies are meant to protect women. They argue that coerced abortion in the U.S. is a problem of crisis proportions, despite a lack of scientific evidence showing that to be the case. But critics claim that anti-coercion policies are really meant to make accessing abortion more complicated and, ultimately, illegal.

When I asked the South Dakota Attorney General's office about the prevalence of coerced abortions, a spokesperson directed me to Harold Cassidy, a prominent pro-life lawyer from New Jersey, who has been representing the two pregnancy help centers in the recent lawsuits over the state's abortion laws.

"There is no question that women are being coerced [into having abortions]," Cassidy said.

While conceding that "there aren't any detailed studies that have tracked women coerced into having abortions in South Dakota," Cassidy said that anti-abortion pregnancy help centers around the country have reported vast instances of women claiming to have been coerced into having abortions.

But many public-health professionals who support abortion rights argue that laws singling out coerced abortion sidestep the broader issue of domestic and sexual violence, which they believe is the root of coercion.

Dr. Elizabeth Miller, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh, has been researching domestic violence issues for more than 20 years. She says that while her research has uncovered some evidence of coerced abortion, there is not enough data to show it being a pervasive problem.

According to Miller, data does show that sexual coercion — women being forced into sexual activity — is a pervasive problem. She said that sexual coercion often leads to unwanted pregnancies, followed by abusive partners trying to control the outcome of the pregnancy, be it by trying to force the woman to continue with the pregnancy or to abort. Reproductive coercion can involve men sabotaging their partners' birth control methods or otherwise forcibly impregnating them.

"Coerced abortion is a very small piece of the puzzle of a much larger problem, which is violence against women and the impact it has on her health," Miller said. "To focus on the minutia of coerced abortion really takes away from the really broad problem of domestic violence."

In 2010, Miller and her colleagues published the results of a survey of 1,300 young women at reproductive health clinics in Northern California. They found that about one in five of the women said they had experienced pregnancy coercion.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's most recent National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, in 2010, about 9 percent of women in the U.S. reported that an intimae partner had tried to get them pregnant against their will or had refused to use a condom.

"Violence and abuse is about power and control," said Miller, who noted that research has found that abusive men who forcibly impregnate women tend to continue the abuse throughout the pregnancy. "Given that about half of the pregnancies in this country are unintended, I think the key policy piece is recognizing that addressing violence against women will also ultimately help us to address this problem of unintended pregnancy. To slice out coerced abortion as if it is an isolated phenomenon is wrong."

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The American Independent is a nonprofit newsroom that funds and publishes independent investigative journalism, and can be reached at editor@americanindependent.com.

This column has been edited by the author. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author.




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