One in seven UK women forced to have either a baby or an abortion, study shows

Maya Oppenheim
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One in seven UK women forced to have either a baby or an abortion, study shows

One in seven women in the UK have been bullied into either getting pregnant or having an abortion, The Independent can reveal.

An exclusive study found 14 per cent of women have experienced coercion over reproduction, having either felt pressured into conceiving or having a termination.

While some eight per cent of women have experienced pressure to become pregnant, seven per cent of women have been pushed into having an abortion, the research by polling company D-Cyfor concluded.

A previous report by the British Medical Journal defines the phenomenon of coercion over reproduction as “actions that interfere with a woman’s reproductive intentions and any actions that pressurise or coerce a woman into initiating or terminating a pregnancy”.

Experts warn the proportion of women who have experienced such coercion will be significantly higher than 14 per cent because that figure does not include those who have had birth control pills hidden or stolen, condoms sabotaged or removed during sex, or a partner lie to them about having a vasectomy.

Katherine O’Brien, a spokesperson for the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (Bpas), the UK’s largest abortion provider, said she had regularly come across the issue of pregnancy coercion, but there was a profound lack of awareness and understanding about the issue among the general public.

“Reproductive coercion is wider than just being forced to terminate or continue with a pregnancy,” she said.

“Society might not see a partner tampering with contraception as a serious issue, but it is.

“There is a lot more that we need to understand on this. Women’s fertility is used as a method of control against them. Often what automatically springs to mind when we think about reproductive coercion is pressuring someone into ending a pregnancy and not enough is thought about the other side.

“These survey results show that we can put as many robust policies and procedures in abortion services as we like, but women will still be pressured to continue a pregnancy.”

She noted that doctors were very careful to ensure the women were “willingly and freely” consenting to an abortion – saying doctors who provide abortions without the mother’s explicit consent face jail.

Ms O’Brien, who has worked at Bpas for six years, called for medics and police to work together to learn more about pregnancy coercion.

The need for consent in all medical procedures, not just abortion, is founded in common law and the principle of bodily autonomy. For consent to be valid and legal, it must be voluntary and informed, and the person consenting must have the capacity to make the decision.

“We know that domestic violence can escalate during pregnancy,” she added. “Women who we speak to in coercive relationships ask about methods of contraception their partner can’t control like condoms or the pill, and we advise them on other long-term forms of contraception.”

Best Beginnings, a charity which aims to give children the best possible start in life, estimates over a third of domestic violence starts or gets worse when a woman is pregnant and 40 to 60 per cent of women experiencing domestic violence are abused while pregnant.

It also estimates more than 14 per cent of maternal deaths occur in women who have told their health professional they are in an abusive relationship.

While reproductive coercion is not a new phenomenon, it only appears to have been defined as a concept in a 2010 study in the journal Contraception.

Amy Bucknall, a safeguarding nurse for UK abortion provider Marie Stopes, said: “It is barbaric when you think about women being forced to either stop a pregnancy or have a pregnancy.

“Coercive control goes both ways in reproductive health, women can be forced to continue with a pregnancy and may also be coerced into not continuing with a pregnancy. Both are emotionally damaging to a woman. Carrying a child and going through a pregnancy is such a high-risk thing. It is not something people should be forced into.”

While the maternal mortality rate in the UK is 9.8 women per 100,000 pregnancies, maternal mortality is a massive problem worldwide. Every day, approximately 830 women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth.

Ms Bucknall, who has worked in the sexual health sector for a decade, said Marie Stopes had come across cases where women were experiencing pregnancy coercion from family members.

Although the law has long stated it is a woman’s right to make a decision about her pregnancy, she said the coercion was often “particularly for cultural reasons” and she had encountered parents trying to force their way into abortion consultations.

“It can be really tricky for women who have to keep their abortion very, very secret from their parents,” she added.

The nurse said Marie Stopes had encountered cases where young women were scared to have an abortion or continue with a pregnancy because their partner had nude photos of them and they were terrified they would become victims of revenge porn.

“Women in abusive relationships are so scared about what will happen when they are pregnant because abuse gets worse and they have to protect the child’s life,” she added.

Molly* told Marie Stopes she did not want another baby but her partner had been pressuring her to have it – saying he does not agree with abortion and would be very upset if she terminated the pregnancy.

The mother-of-five, whose children are all under the age of seven, told the service she was unable to mentally or physically cope with another child, as well as feeling exhausted and isolated due to having no life outside of motherhood.

During a counselling session with the charity, Molly revealed her partner was controlling and abusive, and that she was scared of him. He had stopped her from working or getting an education throughout their relationship and she felt another pregnancy was intended to make her stay with him and keep her trapped in the relationship, as she had threatened to leave him.

Marie Stopes put Molly in touch with a local domestic violence charity and social services who helped her safely escape the relationship.

Leila* contacted the charity to get an abortion because her partner had threatened to kill her and kick her in the stomach if she did not terminate her pregnancy. While he had never physically harmed her in the past, she was terrified of him and noted his family were also leaving her fearful. She said she did not feel able to have a baby with him despite being desperate to be a mother.

She eventually decided she wanted to continue the pregnancy and flee from her partner who had been emotionally abusive to her for many years – she had undergone two previous terminations but had not been able to tell anyone at the time.

The research was based on a sample of 566 female adults and was weighted to be representative of the UK population.

A report published in the British Medical Journal in January found a quarter of US women were subject to control or coercion over their reproductive lives.

The study found that while it is chiefly carried out by intimate partners, it can also be perpetrated by the wider family and in organised crime, with young people and ethnic minorities particularly vulnerable.

It called for screening to take place in maternity, sexual and reproductive health and abortion services and GP surgeries in the UK.

*Molly and Leila are aliases