Intimate partner violence and coerced pregnancy
Posted on July 14, 2009
I was prompted to write this after reading Lynn Harris’s recent piece on AlterNet about the links between intimate partner violence and pregnancy, which while I think it’s an excellent article, frustrated me slightly with its focus on teenagers. Now obviously the focus was there because Harris was drawing attention to some research that had been done into teenagers whose abusive boyfriends had used pregnancy as a means of control, but from my own experience, and the experience of others I’ve spoken to, I know that this isn’t an issue that’s solely restricted to teens. Domestic violence in all its forms cuts across all ages, races, socio-economic groupings and so on, and I think in any discussion about the subject it’s important that this gets acknowledged. That we recognise that no one group is specifically targeted by abusers, and that all of us can be vulnerable to it at some point in our lives. And I do mean all of us.
When I was 20 I got entangled in an extremely abusive relationship with a guy a couple of years older than me. There were warning signs right at the beginning: all my instincts told me not to get involved but I swallowed my fears and the relationship developed. It was a decision that turned out to be a big mistake.
Within weeks of agreeing to go out with him I knew that he wasn’t the one for me, but as any victim of intimate partner abuse can tell you, often one of the hardest things that anyone can do in that situation is to find a way out. God alone knows I did try in those early days, but I soon learned there were consequences to rejecting him, and after a while I was forced to give up. I felt trapped and I knew I was being controlled by him.
We weren’t living together during this time. I was back at home with my parents after dropping out of a degree course, and he was living at his sister’s just down the road from me. But we saw each other practically every night, and when we weren’t together we would be on the phone. Like many controlling men he was constantly checking up on my whereabouts, and if I wasn’t at home when he rang I knew I had to have had a good excuse.
So anyway, the relationship rolled along, well, from his perspective at least; more bad stuff happened, and then about 6 months in, out of the blue, he suddenly announced that it would be a good idea for me to get pregnant.
His reasoning for this was that a) he loved me, he made it clear that I was his, and said he couldn’t think of anything he’d rather do than have a family with me, and b) me getting pregnant would guarantee us a council house of our own.
By this point I was pretty much existing on autopilot; I was doped up to my eyeballs most of the time, I was completely subservient to him, and so I didn’t hesitate to say yes. For a start I knew what would happen if I disagreed with him anyway, but I think there was also a small part of me that felt that if I was going to be stuck with this man forever, then at least having a child would give me something positive to focus my energies on.
So I stopped using contraceptives.
Within a couple of months I became convinced that I was pregnant, and I took myself off to the doctors to have a test. Interestingly I told my boyfriend nothing of my suspicions, and I think, looking back, that’s because I’d already decided that if the result was a yes I was going to go it alone. Because the sudden realisation that I might actually be carrying a child had acted like a wake-up call, especially when I was forced to contemplate the horrendous life any child of his was likely to have.
Even when I’d sat down and agreed with him that having a family of our own would be just perfect, I know I was thinking “But this isn’t about love, it’s about you owning and controlling me.” Even then I could see what was going on: the thought of putting a child through that was just too much.
I remember going straight from the doctor’s round to a friend’s house, and telling her where I’d been and why. She was worried about me, as were a lot of my friends at the time, and questioned me gently about whether I really wanted a baby now or whether I’d consider an abortion. But I was certain that if I had an abortion he’d somehow find out, and when he did I knew that he’d kill me, so that wasn’t an option that was open to me.
Instead, while I waited for the results of the pregnancy test, I spent my time hatching a plan for my escape. I knew I wouldn’t be able to remain living in the same town, he had far too many friends who knew me and I’d never be able to hide from them all. I had relatives elsewhere who I was fairly sure would take me in, but then I worried that if my family knew of my whereabouts he’d force it out of them and track me down. In the end I decided I had no choice but to start a new life somewhere else, just me and the child, and I started making preparations for a moonlight flit.
Thankfully however, after about a week the test came back negative, and so I was able to postpone my getaway plans. But my reaction to the pregnancy scare made me realise that somehow I had to find a way out of the relationship, and a few weeks later I managed to do just that.
Understandably it’s an experience that I have never forgotten. I know from this just how easy it is to get sucked into a dysfunctional and abusive relationship, and I also know how dangerous it can be when you finally decide to leave. I was lucky, I did get away, but I still remember the coercion, the fear, trying to anticipate his moods, wants and demands, and I’m grateful every day that that’s not the life I ended up having to live.
So I think Lynn Harris is absolutely right to highlight how pregnancy can sometimes be an indicator of an abusive relationship, but I’d be wary of putting so much focus solely on teens. Any woman of child-bearing age can be vulnerable to reproductive abuse, and health workers should be trained to look out for the warning signs in any and all pregnant woman, not just in those who are still at school.