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The Guttmacher Institute today released a nationally representative study, the first of its kind, finding that most women seeking abortions had experienced at least one “disruptive event” in the year prior to their abortion. Such “social shocks,” as study author Ann Moore called them, include moving multiple times, being unemployed, separating from a partner, falling behind on rent or a mortgage or having a partner incarcerated, among others. Physical or sexual abuse is another kind of “disruptive event,” one that seven percent of women obtaining abortions reported. “Women with abusive partners are substantially over-represented among abortion patients,” the study concluded. Perhaps surprising to some, more than half of the women surveyed reported using a contraceptive method in the month before they become pregnant.
The study comes as a needed reality check after Missouri Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin’s ridiculous remarks about the likelihood of pregnancy after “legitimate rape.” As this and other studies suggest, rape and sexual coercion play a role in a significant number of pregnancies. The link found in the Guttmacher study between intimate partner violence and unintended pregnancy in particular calls out for further examination, said Moore. “There are direct ways that violent partners, and nonviolent partners, can interfere with a women’s ability to prevent unintended pregnancy. There’s also a relation between the instability that comes with being in a violent relationship.” Two years ago, Lynn Harris reported on a crop of studies that identified a phenomenon researchers called “reproductive coercion” among teens in abusive relationships, “in which abusive partners subject young women already at risk of violence to the additional health risks of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.” Birth control sabotage also showed up in the Guttmacher study released today, with six respondents of forty-nine saying their partners had undermined their efforts to prevent pregnancy, for example by tampering with contraceptives. Researcher Elizabeth Miller has called for more study into whether “pregnancy ambivalence”—the term researchers use to describe sexually active women who don’t want to get pregnant but aren’t trying to prevent it—is really “male-partner influence on women’s reproductive health and autonomy.”
Akin’s comments have provoked a number of thoughtful responses about how often women are obligated to justify their rapes, abortions and other personal, private life events. Whether a rape victim appears “legitimate” can often determine whether the rape is prosecuted, and whether the jury convicts the defendant. Whether a woman seeking an abortion is doing so for a “legitimate” reason—her health is in danger, or the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest—can determine whether she can legally or practically access the abortion at all.