Let’s talk about reproductive coercion

We wrap up Sexual and Reproductive Health Week this month on a hopeful note for change, with the recent establishment of a Senate inquiry into abortion access in Australia. The inquiry will investigate what needs to be done to ease both physical and financial barriers to sexual and reproductive healthcare, including access to contraceptives and termination services.

Barriers to sexual and reproductive healthcare, including cost, stigma and intimate partner violence, continue to obstruct access to safe and timely care. And, as we know, these barriers are heightened among particular groups of women and people – including people with a disability, people from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and migrant and refugee communities.

One particular barrier, that while commonly occurring is less talked about, is a distinct form of abuse called reproductive coercion. As MSI Australia has explained, reproductive coercion is behaviour that interferes with the autonomy of a person to make decisions about their reproductive health. This can include many things, including pressuring another person into pregnancy, forcing another person to stay pregnant, pressuring another person to terminate a pregnancy, forcing someone into sterilisation, and sabotaging or controlling another person’s access to contraception.

Reproductive coercion can have devastating short term and long term physical and psychological impacts on women and people who experience this form of violence, and it is an issue we need to be talking more about. It is important to note that reproductive coercion can be both interpersonal and structural, and only an intersectional analysis can help us to understand how migrant and refugee women experience this form of abuse, and the factors and conditions that can facilitate this practice.

Political, economic and legal power structures can increase migrant and refugee women’s vulnerability to reproductive coercion. These structures, such as discriminatory policies, language barriers and limited access to healthcare, create an environment that enables reproductive coercion by restricting the level of autonomy migrant and refugee women have in making decisions about their healthcare needs and reporting abuse. For example, certain visa restrictions can impede migrant and refugee women’s access to contraception and abortion services.

Such government policy can shape the dynamics of power and control in interpersonal relationships. These policies can be exploited by intimate partners or family members to control migrant and refugee women’s reproductive rights. For instance, a perpetrator can use visa policy restrictions and fear of deportation to stop their partner from seeking sexual and reproductive healthcare.

For migrant and refugee women in abusive relationships, language is a key barrier to help-seeking and reporting. Other factors that continue to undermine migrant and refugee women’s reproductive autonomy include misinterpretations about what defines coercive behaviour and a lack of knowledge about Australian laws and available support services.

Given that one in five women from migrant and refugee backgrounds have reported experiencing reproductive coercion, it is important we see more research in this area. With a better understanding of the unique barriers that migrant and refugee women face, we can create more targeted, culturally responsive care to ensure that people can recognise and get support for reproductive coercion. We certainly hope this is recognised in the Greens’ latest inquiry as a significant barrier to sexual and reproductive healthcare.

Learn more about Reproductive Coercion by viewing this two-part webinar series, which features Dr. Regina Torres-Quiazon from MCWH.   

First published in edition #113 of The WRAP on 30 September 2022.