While traveling recently, I stopped for lunch with a new relative in her mid sixties who recently married into my family. From across the table, the woman, who had met me twice before, learned that I worked for a pro-life organization and began to tell me of how, decades ago, she’d placed her newborn son for adoption. And then she told me about how her mother tried to force her to abort him and almost succeeded.
Although some within the abortion industry acknowledge the problem of coerced abortion, abortion supporters downplay the scope of the problem by focusing almost exclusively on women who face pressure not to abort. Abortion proponents are known to allude to force and coercion in the context of abortion restrictions and their effects. Activists dressed as characters from The Handmaid’s Tale have recently taken to protesting legislative hearings on abortion restrictions; they claim that pro-life laws are no different from the forced breeding program described in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel.
But when it comes to legislation to prevent coerced abortion, abortion proponents trivialize the problem as a “myth,” as Think Progress’s Tara Culp-Ressler recently put it in her article “Anti-Choice Activists Use Myth of ‘Coerced Abortion’ to Push for Restricting Women’s Rights.” A legislative counsel for NARAL Pro-Choice Texas recently described a proposal to protect women forced to experience abortion as “creating a problem where none exists to push yet more abortion legislation . . . that is not needed.”
I recently came across the story of a Georgia woman’s lawsuit against her former pastor. The woman alleges that the pastor began sexually abusing her when she was 15, twice impregnated her, and both times paid for her abortion. She contends that the pastor abused his leadership position in her church to force her “to do what he wanted.” When she became pregnant at the age of 16 as a result of the pastor’s statutory rape, the pastor posed as her father and procured an abortion for the girl.
The young woman’s story is not anomalous. On the contrary, coercion and force are hallmarks of the testimonies of countless women who’ve had abortions. The concept of coercion is not limited to the use of violence or threats of violence to force a woman to abort. To coerce means “to compel by force, intimidation, or authority, especially without regard for individual desire or volition” or “to dominate or control, especially by exploiting fear, anxiety, etc.” Thus, any selfish use of a power disparity — for example, the Georgia pastor-rapist’s social preeminence over his teenage parishioner — to compel a vulnerable woman into an abortion is morally objectionable.
The use of force and domestic violence to compel abortion is a widespread problem, especially in the domestic sex-trafficking industry and sometimes within families. But control can — and is — exerted without the use of violence in a multitude of ways. We use “coercion” to denote the process by which partners, family members, or others in a woman’s community selfishly pressure her to undergo an abortion she does not want.
Such coercion has three hallmarks. First, its underlying (and perhaps unspoken) aim is to benefit the person doing the pressuring, not the pregnant woman. Think: a family that wants to cover up illicit sexual activity, or a partner who wants to avoid paying child support. Second, the effort relies on exerting power or authority — such as a partner threatening to leave the mother or withhold support from her, or a school threatening to expel her — rather than appealing to reason or morality. Third, the pressure pushes against or overrides the woman’s inner desire or preference. While it is bad enough that the pressure results in the death of the child, here we see the additional evil that is involved in forcing a woman to do something she does not want. In this way, coercion is different from moral or logical reasoning aimed at changing a woman’s preference; it aims to make her act despite her contrary preference.
This coercive pressure is often economic, with partners either threatening to withdraw support on the one hand or promising increased support on the other. Human Coalition, the organization for which I work, recently served a client whose partner was coercing her to abort by, among other things, promising her a substantial amount of cash, which would significantly alleviate her impoverished situation.
One teenager ran away from home after her mother refused to feed her for three days to try to induce a miscarriage.
Pregnant minors are particularly susceptible to economic pressure. Teens typically live at home and have no job or independent source of support. Some parents are willing to exploit this vulnerability to force their daughters to terminate a pregnancy. Human Coalition helps clients who have faced this pressure. One client ran away from home after her mother refused to feed her for three days to try to induce a miscarriage. Other girls have been kicked out of their homes or had their cars or phones taken away. Still others have had parents refuse to support them or their child after they give birth. These young women may initially insist that they want an abortion, but sometimes they go on to acknowledge that they wish to continue their pregnancy and simply believe that abortion is their only option because of threats from their parents.
Sometimes parents or partners will use their authority in a relationship to compel the pregnant woman to seek an abortion. That is what happened to a divorced mother of three girls who once contacted Human Coalition. Her then-husband forced her to terminate their fourth pregnancy because he did not want another daughter. And it is what happened to my new relative. When she told her mother of her pregnancy, her mother forced her go to the abortion clinic. My relative made it as far as the procedure room where, just before beginning the abortion, the doctor determined that she was too far along in her pregnancy to safely (or legally) abort. Because she intentionally hid the pregnancy for so long, she was able to save her child.
Parents or partners may also use emotional manipulation to compel an abortion. We commonly see clients whose partners either break up with them, threaten to break up with them, or treat them coldly to persuade them to abort their children. And we have met teens whose parents have wielded their disappointment at their daughter’s pregnancy to push abortion. It is not hard to imagine the desperation of a woman who does not want an abortion but is faced with the reality that she will be abandoned by the most important people in her life if she does not submit to their demands to have her child killed. Indeed, pregnant women are too often forced to view an abortion decision as a choice between their own life and that of their child. Inaction in the face of such a situation is both anti-woman and anti-life.
A colleague’s experience offers a clear example of how this manipulation works. She began dating her boyfriend when she was on a break from college and just after another breakup. He was her manager at work and eleven years older than she was. Keeping him happy, and maintaining the relationship, was imperative to her. Unbeknownst to her, he was involved in several other relationships. She learned that she was pregnant with his child; after the panic subsided, she grew excited about her future as a mother. She and her boyfriend even went so far as to tell his mother and agree to swap cars, as his offered a better fit for a car seat.
He gave her an ultimatum: If she aborted, they could stay together and he would pay for her graduate-school tuition; if she kept the baby, he would break up with her.
But a week later, he began to tell her that it was not the right time to have a child and that they would have more later. He told her his father had just died. He told her that he had been diagnosed with cancer, even going so far as to shave his head. He finally gave her an ultimatum: If she aborted, they could stay together and he would pay for her graduate-school tuition; if she kept the baby, he would break up with her. Terrified at the prospect of being without him, and believing his promises for the future, she went through with the abortion. The boyfriend was gone by the next day.
All the many anecdotes aside, an important question remains: How prevalent is coercion? Almost 36 percent of the clients we saw last year in one Human Coalition women’s care clinic reported that someone — typically a partner or a parent — was pressuring them to abort. That’s more than one in three. Those numbers are hardly negligible or “mythical,” as the abortion lobby claims.
A policy solution to this problem remains elusive. Some states have introduced or passed bills that require abortionists to screen for coercion or to post signs referring clients to resources to address coercion. But it is not clear that those laws would have a meaningful effect. The same coercion that forces a woman to seek an abortion works equally well in persuading her to deny she’s been coerced.
It is unlikely that a solution requiring abortion clinics to screen for coercion will prove useful, because abortion providers are deeply committed to denying that this issue even exists. In order to rationalize their career choice, abortion-industry workers must maintain a conviction that they are helping women. For the average abortion-industry worker to acknowledge that she has probably participated in at least one coerced abortion would be a devastating admission. Because the debate over abortion is so heated, because the phenomenon of coerced abortion cuts against the pro-choice narrative, and because the clinic’s bottom line relies on selling abortions, it is too much to expect that an abortion-clinic worker would keep asking questions after a client denies coercion.
Ultimately, there is no moral to this story, because the problem of coerced abortion cannot be remedied as long as abortion remains legal and socially and morally acceptable in the eyes of many. Abortion pits a mother’s natural instinct to protect her child against the desires and the interests of those she loves or cares for. Abortion can easily become just another way a woman accommodates herself to the desires of others. So long as abortion is culturally acceptable, women who are vulnerable to the selfish desires of their partners or families will be pressured to abort.