HSV Lecture 2019 – Reproductive coercion and religion

Photo of Jacquie O'Brien

Humanists Victoria Public Lecture by Jacquie O’Brien, Marie Stopes Australia, at Balwyn Library on 25 Jul 2019

Children by choice, not by chance’ is the guiding principle of Marie Stopes, an organisation that provides advocacy about reproductive issues alongside clinical care, world-wide. There are sixteen clinics in Australia.

The term ‘reproductive coercion’ started gathering momentum in 2010 in the USA. It refers to the kind of controlling behaviour that affects choices about contraception, pregnancy, sterilization and termination. Women are predominantly but not exclusively affected, and the issue is frequently part of a wider pattern of sexual abuse and intimate partner or family violence.

Problems include sabotage of contraception, refusal to use condoms, pressure to have a baby, or pressure to terminate a pregnancy or to be sterilized. Associated with the presenting problem, the staff at Marie Stopes clinics often diagnose depression, drug and alcohol addiction, sexually transmitted infection, urinary infection and chronic pain, especially pelvic pain. In extreme cases, suicide or homicide may be the end result.

The Royal Commission into Family Violence in 2016 did not cover reproductive coercion. During 2017 and 2018, Marie Stopes Australia ran conferences, held public consultations and called for submissions to address this oversight. It aimed to conduct research, identify policy shortcomings and initiate practice reforms. The forces bearing on reproductive coercion were categorized as a combination of interpersonal issues and structural matters. There are many structural components to consider in this field. For example:

  • Government policies that restrict access to sexual and reproductive health services.
  • Economic policies, such as the ‘baby bonus’ payment and other tax initiatives, which can fuel coercive behaviour. Research has also shown that the gender pay gap tends to be correlated with less respectful attitudes and more aggressive behavior towards women.
  • Cultural institutions and beliefs, including church edicts that condemn contraception and abortion and foster rigid gender roles.
  • Cultural norms of ‘motherhood’ and ‘fatherhood’ that influence parenting choices.

The resulting White Paper, Hidden Forces, included 60 submissions, many detailing individual stories. Jacquie recounted the story of a young woman from an ultra-orthodox Jewish community whose education revolved around her destiny to raise the next generation. At 18, she had an arranged marriage. Never having been given any sex education, she was totally unprepared and she gave birth to a daughter shortly afterwards. Her lack of control over her reproductive choices and decisions about her life were reinforced by her family and community and further circumscribed by her economic dependence. When she decided to leave her husband, she sought treatment outside her community and discovered, for the first time, a broader world-view. She is now working to support other women who have suffered similar restrictions and reproductive coercion.

Religion and reproductive rights, particularly in the USA

St Augustine called women the ‘helpers of man’. Their role was to procreate, a view that permeated the Roman Catholic Church for many centuries afterwards. However, in the 1960s a social revolution took place in the USA, changing attitudes towards civil rights, as well as women’s rights, including contraception. Within the Protestant church, women began to be ordained and the effect was even felt within the Vatican, for example, in the Encyclical Pacem in Terris by Pope John XXIII. A Birth Control Commission was established to investigate and deliberate about the options available beyond the rhythm method. However, in 1968 Pope John-Paul II reiterated the church’s prohibition against contraception and abortion, once again reinforcing a subservient role for women. Despite this official stance, many clergy were concerned about the high rate of death and illness resulting from illegal abortions in the USA. More than two thousand clerics across Canada and the USA helped to set up and run a covert consultation service assisting with contraception and abortion care.

In 1973, abortion rights gained ground following the Roe v Wade case, in which the US Supreme Court decided that any State law banning abortions (except to save the life of a mother) was unconstitutional. But the fight was far from over. In 2000, the Republican President, George W. Bush, applied the Global Gag Rule, also known as the Mexico City Rule. This directs that any organisation in receipt of US aid must not discuss nor administer contraception or assist with abortion. Health insurance companies have followed suit, refusing to cover reproductive services of this kind.

President Trump has endorsed the Global Gag Rule, and Marie Stopes’ international work has been affected by this stricture, forgoing millions of dollars in aid money. While this has been a setback, many other wealthy private benefactors have stepped forward to help, including the Bill Gates Foundation.

The Vatican also weighs in at UN aid conferences, adding its voice to veto aid for sex education, contraception and abortion. Tragically, public health projects have suffered as a consequence. Poor sex education and restricted access to condoms have been linked with a high rate of HIV infection, especially in Africa and South America. However, several organizations are fighting back, working to influence policy as well as offering education. They include:

  • Catholics for Choice – especially active in Latin America and the US
  • See Change – challenging the Vatican’s position at UN debates
  • Condoms 4 Life – a Catholic Justice project that aims to raise public awareness about the devastating effects flowing from the church’s ban on condoms
  • The Reproductive Justice Movement, that endorses the right to have a child, the right not to have a child and the right to parent a child in a safe and healthy environment

In Australia, while the situation is more liberal, it is noteworthy that Catholic hospitals, even those that are publicly funded, do not offer contraceptive choices or abortion services. In conclusion, Jacquie acknowledged the people who came forward to tell their personal stories for Hidden Forces and the sixty organisations in this country that are involved in countering reproductive coercion and fostering reproductive rights.

For more information about their advocacy work and the range of clinical services offered, visit the Marie Stopes Australia web site.

For further research reports about gender roles, gender equity and associated rates of violence, see Australian National Research Organization for Women’s Safety (ANROWS).

Report by Jennie Stuart