In an ideal world, men and women make informed, consensual choices about sex and reproduction. Sadly, although we now have the technology to prevent unwanted pregnancy and protect ourselves from sexually transmitted diseases, we don’t always retain personal choice in the matter—especially women. Recently, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) came forward to publicly declare sexual and reproductive coercion—in other words, sabotaging someone’s birth control—a form of violence adding that it is an under-recognized problem that affects vastly more women than men.
According to a report issued by the San Francisco-based non-profit group Futures Without Violence, 66 percent of women who have been victims of domestic violence were also subjected to birth control sabotage. Although it is primarily a problem that affects women, men can be victims of birth control sabotage as well; for example, when a woman wants to get pregnant against her partner’s wishes. However, female victims of reproductive coercion are the focus of recent research and awareness campaigns.
So, is it a crime to sabotage someone’s birth control? How widespread is the problem, and how can it be stopped?
The Implications of Birth Control Sabotage
Reproductive and sexual coercion can take many forms, but is defined as “behavior that interferes with contraception use.” For example, puncturing a condom or diaphragm, forcibly removing IUDs or contraceptive rings, destroying or hiding birth control, or using violence or threats to coerce a woman to carry out a pregnancy against her will are all considered reproductive coercion. It not only can cause unplanned pregnancy, but also can expose women to potentially deadly STDs such as HIV and AIDS. Like rape, reproductive coercion is an act of control over another person. However, it is not a crime—though the ACOG says it should be.
It isn’t yet clear exactly how widespread reproductive coercion is. According to a government survey from 2011, one in four women in the U.S. has been physically abused by a domestic partner—though experts say domestic abuse is widely believed to be under-reported—and birth control sabotage is closely linked to domestic violence. In another study, two thirds of the teenagers on public assistance who said they were victims of domestic abuse also reported that the abuse included birth control sabotage.
Prevention of Birth Control Sabotage
Part of the ACOG’s mission is to get the word out to OB/GYNs and make them aware of the problem so they can look for signs among their patients. Not only should doctors be asking about domestic violence and birth control sabotage, but they are also being encouraged to hand out wallet sized “safety cards,” developed by Futures Without Violence, which have information about reproductive coercion and can be used as a starting point for conversation.
Another way OB/GYNs can help prevent reproductive coercion is by providing birth control that a partner can’t detect, such as an IUD with the strings cut off. And an IUD is specifically appropriate because it doesn’t affect a woman’s periods—something that some men monitor.
Reproductive Coercion and the Law
The other side of the coin is legal recourse for something that, at this time, is not considered a crime. Certainly, if it becomes widely recognized as an act of violence against women, as is supported by ACOG, it could be eventually. Meanwhile, legal experts caution that it isn’t clear exactly what laws it might fall under. In fact, it would vary, depending on the nature of the sabotage. Certainly “violence” would be considered assault—as is rape or purposely giving someone an STD. However, the specific personal injury claims required for “assault” aren’t necessarily present in all cases of birth control sabotage. Some suggest that “fraud” might be the most reasonable legal charge for someone who secretly sabotages his partner’s birth control.
Others in the legal field point out the complete absence of legal scholarship on the subject of birth control sabotage as it relates to domestic violence, but that the recent studies connecting the two justify labeling it as “an intentional, fraudulent misrepresentation tort claim,” urging lawmakers to criminalize it for the protection of its victims.