Hundreds of protesters rally in Harrisburg on Saturday, May 14, 2022, to promote abortion access. (Capital-Star photo by Marley Parish)
By Kayla Frawley
Every October, during Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I remember my work at Safe House Denver, after moving to Colorado in 2015.
I spent my days addressing stories of complex trauma and intimate partner violence with residents. I was a family advocate and worked with families of various sizes who stayed at the shelter. About 25 percent of the residents that I worked with were pregnant. Intimate partner violence, or IPV, has been defined as “behaviour within an intimate relationship that causes physical, sexual or psychological harm, including acts of physical aggression, sexual coercion, psychological abuse and controlling behaviours.”
Domestic violence kills more pregnant women each year than any other cause. One in 5 women experiences violence during pregnancy, and maternal exposure to domestic violence is also associated with significantly increased risk of low birth weight and preterm birth. Most pregnant people interact with a health care system during their pregnancy, which makes a unique window of opportunity for intervention or safety planning with their provider; as a former midwife, I referred many clients to IPV services, and many families were referred to Safe House Denver from prenatal appointments.
Sadly, 30 percent of women will experience IPV by a male partner globally in their lifetime. Studies show us that low-income, predominantly single women have a 50 percent higher prevalence of abuse in pregnancy, and approximately 15 percent of women who are pregnant report abuse to medical providers during their pregnancy.
I was a part of that 15 percent.
While there are many forms of abuse by abusers, “reproductive coersion” is a classic type of abuse, defined as “behavior that includes explicit attempts to impregnate a partner against their will, control outcomes of a pregnancy, coerce a partner to have unprotected sex, and interfere with contraceptive methods, and force a pregnancy.”
Anti-abortion laws, and crisis pregnancy centers (also known as fake clinics) are reproductive coercion, because they limit bodily autonomy, and meet the exact type of abuse defined above.
Sadly, being pregnant increases your likelihood of experiencing domestic abuse — and as a pregnancy progresses, abuse often gradually increases through pregnancy and into postpartum. One in 6 women experiences abuse in a relationship for the first time when they are pregnant. This was my experience — abuse worsened throughout pregnancy and peaked after I gave birth to my baby.
Since anti-abortion laws mimic intimate partner violence through reproductive coercion and control, states with abortion bans can expect an increase in IPV where these policies exist.
In areas where there are anti-abortion policies there will undoubtably be an increase in IPV in pregnancy, more women will come into prenatal care experiencing abuse in their pregnancy, and more providers will be overwhelmed with the lack of IPV services.
Areas where residents have less options for reproductive care may also see an increase in domestic abuse, particularly in rural areas where we see worse psychosocial and physical health outcomes of victims — due to the lack of availability, accessibility, and quality of IPV services. Intimate partner violence is more common than any other obstetric condition and must be addressed like any obstetrical emergency, considering how risky it is.
Over 50 percent of pregnancy-associated suicides are attributable to intimate partner conflict.
Non-physical abuse has a negative impact on the one experiencing it and any child involved.
What many people don’t know is that post-traumatic stress disorder, similar to that of soldiers who have returned from the war, is actually comparable to the brain chemistry of babies born to mothers who have experienced non-physical trauma through IPV. Psychological, emotional, verbal abuse and non-physical abuse has long-term negative impacts on those of us who experience it — and our children. We now know that children witnessing parental psychological abuse can be more damaging to children’s mental health than witnessing physical abuse.
One of the earliest memories of when the insults started was when I was pregnant: picking up my son’s father from his job after my late shift at the shelter, and as we were driving to our apartment at Colorado Boulevard and 28th Avenue he turned to me and said sincerely, “You know you will never be able to find someone as good as me.”
It was like I was reading a textbook about abuse, and there I was — in the middle of the page as an example. This example may seem simple, but it was one of the first put-downs that would just increase over time.
Women experiencing IPV are three times more likely to eventually report symptoms of postpartum depression than women who did not experience IPV while pregnant. Postpartum behavioral disorders, depression, and suicide are the main killers of Coloradan postpartum women, according to the state public health department.
Anything that can increase the likelihood of postpartum depression should be extensively explored and addressed through adequate state investments. Over 50 percent of pregnancy-associated suicides are attributable to intimate partner conflict. We can predict that in places that have abortion bans we will see an increase in postpartum behavioral disorders, suicide and postpartum depression.
A couple weekends in my postpartum, I took my newborn with me to stay with a friend — to escape the name-calling and the manipulative accusations that my son’s father would spew at me.
With a newborn in tow, I was so thankful to just be left alone in my friend’s guest room where I could get uninterrupted rest with my baby. I first stayed with my old supervisor, and then, with my friend China and her sister Asia.
The second time I left after being screamed at and told I was “disgusting, and embarrassing” and “the weakest woman I have ever met,” according to my son’s father. My son and I had been freshly hit by a car, and I was in crutches. The belittling increased over time.
Survivors know how dangerous all types of abuse are to us and the well-being of our children, but the family court system, the criminal justice system, and our state policies do not fully address the impact of non-physical abuse, particularly in pregnancy. We need leaders who understand these intersectional issues.
Midterm elections are on Nov. 8, and since reproductive health and rights is now determined state by state, midterms are the most important elections when it comes to determining reproductive rights and abortion services.
Coloradans have the chance to vote for leaders who understand the connections of anti-abortion policies, intimate partnership violence, power and control, and these intersectional issues so many of our voters face.
If you or someone you know thinks they are experiencing abuse in any form, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233.
Kayla Frawley (she/her/hers) is a single mom in Denver, Colo., a former midwife, and currently the abortion rights and reproductive justice director with ProgressNow. She wrote this piece for Colorado Newsline, a sibling site of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where it first appeared.
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