Leyla W. couldn’t figure out where her birth control pills kept going. One day a few tablets would be missing; the next, the whole container. Her then-boyfriend shrugged and said he hadn’t seen them. She believed him—until she found them in his drawer. When she confronted him, he hit her. “That was his way of shutting me up,” says Leyla, who is in her mid-20s and living in Northern California. (For her safety, Leyla wishes to withhold her last name and hometown.) He also raped her and, most days, left her locked in a bedroom with a bit of food and water while he went to work. (A roommate took pity and let her out until he came home.) Thanks to the missed pills, she got pregnant twice, the second time deciding against abortion.
Despite his role in getting her pregnant, when Leyla decided she did not want to have an abortion, her boyfriend did a 180, screaming at her belly that he didn’t want the baby to live, threatening to “kick the baby out” of her stomach and even, one day, pushing her down a flight of stairs. Her pregnancy was “hell,” says Leyla. Perhaps mercifully, it ended at thirty-seven weeks—the baby arriving three weeks early, her doctor speculated, because of his mother’s profound stress. (Her doctor was aware, to some degree, of the abuse, and told Leyla the best thing she could do was leave.)
Leyla eventually did just that, getting herself out of her abusive relationship and into a support group. “I do ask every day why I stayed with him for seven years,” she says (though she now says that witnessing her father abuse her mother corrupted her sense of what counts as “normal” in a relationship). She married a “wonderful” man last November who is, she says, “a great father” to her son, Eddie, now 2.
Leyla’s story turns a modern fable on its head: that of the woman—call her the femme fertile—who conspires to get pregnant, perhaps by “forgetting” to take her birth control pills, as a way to “trap a man” and force marriage—or at least keep him in her life. In reality, experts researchers on dating violence and unintended pregnancy say, it’s Leyla’s version of that story is all too common. Two new studies have quantified what advocates for young women’s health have observed for years: the striking frequency with which it is in fact young men who try to force their partners to get pregnant. Their goal: not to settle down as family men but rather to exert what is perhaps the most intimate, and lasting, form of control. (“Control” may also include attempts to force both pregnancy and abortion, even in the same relationship.) Together with earlier small-scale studies and reports by those in the field, the new figures help fill out the picture of a long-known, but under-addressed, phenomenon now referred to as “reproductive coercion,” in which abusive partners subject young women already at risk of violence to the additional health risks of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. The new data confirm that we must expand not only our assumptions about who’s forcing whom to get pregnant but also our understanding of the meaning and causes of “unwanted” pregnancy. “If we are serious about stopping unplanned pregnancy in this country, we simply must address the sexual violence and reproductive control that often cause it,” says Esta Soler, president of the Family Violence Prevention Fund, which has been a leading advocate on the issue.