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Reproductive Coercion: What Is It & Why Should You Care?

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Akron chapter.

Recently, a Hollywood couple has been at the center of controversy surrounding their handling of a story regarding their pregnancy. Actors Nikki Reed and Ian Somerhalder are parents to a two-month-old daughter, and recently appeared on the podcast, Dr. Berlin’s Informed Pregnancy. Detailing the story in which the couple got pregnant, Somerhalder disclosed a troubling revelation as though it were a part of a quirky-cute story.  Somerhalder openly divulged the actions he took to ensure that his wife would become pregnant, stating that during a trip to Spain, he snuck into Reed’s belongings and threw out her birth control pills.

“We decided that we wanted to have children together, and it was just time. But unbeknownst to poor Nikki, she didn’t realize that I was going to go in her purse and take out her birth control. By the way, it was the beginning of the pack, so I had to pop all those suckers out. It is a lot of work, especially after a little bit of sangria.” Even more troubling is the fact that Somerhalder videotaped the entire ordeal, including footage of his tearful wife, who was thrown off guard by the action.

Once news of the story reached mainstream media outlets, Reed fought back against claims of forced pregnancy and lack of consent, calling the story “irresponsible journalism” and “taken out of context.” Days later, Reed and Somerhalder realized the mistake in lashing out against the issue, and made a joint statement: “To anyone who has been affected by reproductive coercion, we are deeply sorry. That is an extremely serious issue, and women’s rights is something that is incredibly important to both of us. It is something we’ve been very vocal about, and something that is very close to our hearts.”

Regardless of the couple’s intentions, the controversy surrounding their particular pregnancy story has brought to national attention the topic of reproductive coercion, which is defined by The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists as “behavior intended to maintain power and control in a relationship related to reproductive health by someone who is, was, or wishes to be involved in an intimate or dating relationship with an adult or adolescent. This behavior includes explicit attempts to impregnate a partner against her will, control outcomes of a pregnancy, coerce a partner to have unprotected sex, and interfere with contraceptive methods.”

While reproductive coercion is not a new concept, its study and understandings have just in recent decades come to prominence. A 2011 CDC study found that approximately 8.6% of women in the United States reported having an intimate partner who attempted to impregnate them when they did not want to, or refused to wear a condom. Furthermore, an approximate 10.4% of men in the U.S. reported having an intimate partner who tried to get pregnant when they did not want to or tried to stop them from using birth control. The keyword in this case is reported, as the study can only analyze those voices that have come forward on the topic. In reality, those figures may be even higher.

It is important for both women and men to realize that reproductive coercion is a form of domestic violence—and specifically intimate partner violence. This type of violence stems from an attempt to control another person from a position of power, and uses manipulation of the body to ensure a particular outcome. Exploitation from reproductive coercion is often times a sign of further domestic abuse, and more widespread screening for this type of mistreatment has been recommended by the medical community.  

As of now, United States law has no legal definition of consent, which makes bringing charges against violators extremely difficult. Still, prevention advocates and women everywhere should continue to be vigilant against this type of violence, and can make this issue stand out even more by calling their representatives and asking what they’ve done to combat this crisis. Reproductive coercion is not an issue that we can afford to be passive on, and it should not take celebrity gossip to spark outrage and movement.

Learn more about this topic here.

Abbey is an Ohio native currently caught between the charm of the Midwest and the lure of the big city. She loves all things politics and pop culture, and is always ready to discuss the intersections of both. Her favorite season is awards season and she is a tireless advocate of the Oxford Comma. Abbey will take a cup of lemon tea over coffee any day and believes that she can convince you to do the same. As a former English major, she holds the power of words near and dear.