Actor Ian Somerhalder is best known for his roles on The Vampire Diaries and Lost, but he recently made headlines for a very different reason. During an appearance on Dr. Berlin’s Informed Pregnancy podcast, he revealed that after he and wife Nikki Reed decided they’d like to have children, Somerhalder took it upon himself to sabotage her birth control pills—as a joke, of course. On the podcast he said, “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.” He later admitted, “Actually, now, thinking about it, I guess I kind of decided.”
As Somerhalder soon discovered, throwing out your wife’s contraceptives is no laughing matter. While Reed insisted she wasn’t bothered by it and the couple were adamant that it was a joint decision, the public reaction to the interview was far from favorable, forcing him to issue an official apology. Why? Because destroying someone’s birth control without their permission is a form of reproductive coercion.
What is reproductive coercion?
Jacquie O’Brien, director of public affairs at reproductive health care service Marie Stopes Australia, describes reproductive coercion as the practice of controlling a woman’s contraception.
Reproductive coercion as a form of controlling or abusive behavior is still a relatively under-recognized area.
“There are likely to be many misconceptions because it is relatively unknown and not an issue that is widely discussed,” she tells HealthyWay. “But the reality is, it is a form of abuse and it can include practices such as stealthing and limiting access to contraception. It is serious and is tied to issues such as family violence and sexual assault.” According to Planned Parenthood, 15 percent of their female clients who reported physical and/or sexual violence also reported birth control sabotage. Certain forms of reproductive coercion are considered assault in many parts of the world. In fact in Mexico, where abortion is normally illegal, the termination of pregnancies resulting from reproductive coercion are legally permitted. President of Reproductive Choice Australia Jenny Ejlak says that reproductive coercion still isn’t getting the attention it deserves. “I think domestic violence, coercive or controlling relationships, and men’s violence against women in general have been getting a lot more attention in recent years than they have in the past,” she says to HealthyWay. “However, reproductive coercion as a form of controlling or abusive behavior is still a relatively under-recognized area compared to other areas of gender-based violence.” Luckily, Marie Stopes Australia is currently consulting with lawyers, health care professionals, politicians, family violence workers, and academics to develop a policy white paper on reproductive coercion. Set to be released in the first half of 2018, O’Brien says it’s their hope that this paper will “raise the profile of reproductive coercion, its prevalence, and how we can address it as a society.” “Reproductive coercion is an [understudied] and misunderstood issue, and we want to shine a light on it,” she says. “It is important that all women are able to determine their reproductive destiny free from duress. As abortion care providers, we do play a privileged role in being able to identity and help women who are experiencing some form of coercion.”
Why Does Reproductive Coercion Happen?
Reproductive coercion is a method of control and manipulation, and there are many reasons the perpetrator may feel compelled to abuse their partner in this way. They may be afraid the relationship isn’t progressing or is at risk of ending so they resort to reproductive coercion in an attempt to force commitment. They may think that a pregnancy will give their partner a reason to stay with them. O’Brien explains that “it can create dependency of a woman on her partner, and this can lead to her being controlled in an increasingly abusive relationship.” People may commit reproductive coercion if their partner doesn’t want or doesn’t feel ready to have children. They might feel that their partner would change their mind about having children if they were to fall pregnant. Regardless of the reason, any abuse—including reproductive coercion—can never exist in a healthy relationship. Can women practice reproductive coercion? There’s certainly a common stereotype of women intentionally falling pregnant in order to “trap” their partners—something that often seems to be far more talked about than men forcefully impregnating their partners. While there’s no denying that men can also be victimized by reproductive coercion, you’d be hard-pressed to find numbers that show an exact percentage. This is most likely due to the fact that men are reluctant to approach health care professionals when experiencing domestic abuse, leading to a lack of data. Discussion of reproductive coercion often specifies women as the victims since the resulting pregnancies are recorded by health care providers who may be able to determine if domestic abuse is at play.
Pregnancy as Abuse: Why Reproductive Coercion Is So Dangerous
There’s no doubt that reproductive coercion is a form of domestic abuse. Whether it’s threats or actual behavior that takes away a woman’s choice, it’s a method of control. But aside from the obvious moral issue of taking away a woman’s right to choose, reproductive coercion causes harm in many different ways. First of all, pregnancy takes a serious physical toll on a woman’s body. If a woman is unable to endure a pregnancy due to health issues or lifestyle factors, then this can cause serious health issues and even put her and her baby’s life at risk. There can also be negative effects of suddenly stopping birth control without talking to a doctor. For women with polycystic ovary syndrome, endometriosis, migraines, and other serious health issues, taking away their birth control can affect their health for the rest of their lives. A forced pregnancy can also be a huge detriment to a woman’s mental health, especially considering she may already be experiencing other forms of domestic abuse. Not to mention that it causes irreparable damage to a relationship. Having a child is one of the biggest decisions a couple can make, and forcing that decision doesn’t make for a healthy dynamic. There’s also the issue of bringing a child into an abusive environment.
How Can We Stop Reproductive Coercion?
The best way to stop reproductive coercion is obvious: literally just don’t do it. Thinking of committing reproductive coercion against your partner? Don’t. It’s that simple.
The way we treat a woman experiencing coercion can determine the very trajectory of her life.
Unfortunately, women still are abused on a daily basis. Since it’s just one form of domestic abuse, we need to address the much larger problem of domestic abuse as a whole. Until then, it’s important to screen and support victims of reproductive coercion. But according to Ejlak, health service providers don’t always have the resources to support these women. “The domestic violence and reproductive health sectors don’t have sufficient capacity to work better together to support women experiencing problem pregnancy as a result of reproductive coercion,” she says. “Like many areas of the health and social services system, they are disjointed and work in isolation much of the time.” According to O’Brien, the key to supporting women who have experienced reproductive coercion is to recognize the violation as a health issue. “The way we treat a woman experiencing coercion can determine the very trajectory of her life,” she says. O’Brien refers to a speech from Marie Stopes Australia’s Medical Director, Dr. Philip Goldstone. In his speech, Goldstone demonstrated the need to implement a screening process for women who may be experiencing reproductive coercion: “The fundamental question we ask when we see each patient is this: is my patient in control of the decision she has made? Most of the time the answer is yes. However, there are times when it is clear that there is coercion at play.” Because of a lack of a universal screening process for reproductive coercion, Marie Stopes will be trialling a method of assessment. According to Goldstone’s speech, this will include “targeted clinician-led discussion about contraceptive options for patients that disclose coercion so we can provide the most appropriate contraception for her situation.” It’s Goldstone’s hope that these trials will help healthcare providers to better understand how prevalent this form of abuse is, and link that with methods of contraception. Ejlak believes that it’s important to keep an open discourse about reproductive coercion in order to raise awareness. “I think it would be useful to have more discussion about reproductive coercion to increase knowledge in health and support services, as well as the general community,” she says. “There are myths and stereotypes about women both in relation to being in an abusive relationship and in relation to women who seek to terminate pregnancies, so any discussion that breaks down myths and stereotypes about women’s lived experience is a good thing.”
If talking about reproductive coercion is crucial, then calling out people like Ian Somerhalder is incredibly important. Not only does it draw attention to an underrepresented issue in gendered violence, but it highlights something that’s both inappropriate and all too common: joking about domestic abuse.
Any discussion that breaks down myths and stereotypes about women’s lived experience is a good thing.
When we joke about these serious issues, we trivialize them and take away from how serious and damaging they are. But worse yet, we normalize them.
When we laugh at stories like Somerhalder’s, we send the message that his behavior is not only acceptable, but to be applauded. And that doesn’t just validate his problematic behavior. It tells other perpetrators of domestic abuse that what they’re doing isn’t just okay—it’s funny. But when it comes to any form of domestic abuse—including reproductive coercion—there’s nothing to laugh about.