health

'A boyfriend, a husband: At 44 I fell pregnant, and the fallout has devastated my life.'

This post deals with reproductive coercion, stillbirth and family abuse and might be triggering for some readers. 

In July 2017, a beautiful 45-year-old woman, almost six months pregnant with a perfect baby boy, a wonderful partner, and a beautiful proud baby-bump, lies on an operating table.

This woman is confused, scared and full of terror. She has taken prescribed pills to calm herself, but she nevertheless twitches uncontrollably.

On that operating table, in a procedure usually reserved only for exceptional circumstances, she would feel a small prick enter her swollen moving belly. She would return the next day, still with a bump, only much lower. Nothing will prepare her for what’s coming next.

Nothing.

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She would lie on the floor in a room, surrounded by other women, some crying, some sobbing, some shivering, and some so shocked and numb that they could not move at all. There, she would be induced into labour and give birth to a perfect, but lifeless, tiny baby boy. She would cry, scream and howl like an animal. The staff, wide-eyed with fear would shuffle her out into a taxi and back to her hotel.

From this, she could never recover. This would create a deep hole in her soul that would never heal.

The right to choose goes both ways.

The discussion around reproductive rights has been almost laser-focused on the right of a woman to have an abortion.

This makes absolute, perfect sense. For literal millennia, women were denied the right to control their own reproduction.

Winning and maintaining the right to have abortions was one of the most significant victories for women in the twentieth century. So much so that according to the United Nations “Women’s sexual and reproductive health is related to multiple human rights” .

But what of a scenario where a woman wants to have her baby? Where she is looking forward to having her baby? Yet the people in her life, for whatever reason, don’t want that baby to exist. While the right to an abortion now seems straightforward, what has been missing from the discussion is the opposing scenario.

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There are situations where the woman wants her baby but is forced into a termination.

My personal intersection with the discourse on reproductive rights was not about being denied the right to an abortion. For me, it was the opposite.

I was pressured into having an abortion when I was very unwell.

When it comes to reproductive rights, the knife can cut both ways.

Reproductive Coercion – A new frontier in women’s rights.

From a certain point of view, the history of feminism is the history of uncovering the secret and hidden, and bringing it out into the open. This works in both positive and negative ways. The talents, skills, intelligence and courage of women were hidden and concealed behind layers of patriarchy that denied women any sort of place at the table.

Over the course of the twentieth century, more and more women began stepping out of the shadows to shine in the full light of day, proving over and over that women really can do anything that a man can do. Oftentimes way better.

So, what exactly is Reproductive Coercion?

Marie Stopes, one of the world’s leading providers of reproductive healthcare, recently published a whitepaper on reproductive coercion where they state that “Reproductive Coercion is behaviour that interferes with the autonomy of a person to make decisions about their reproductive health.”

The paper goes on to explain that this coercion can occur at any stage, from before intercourse and can involve sabotage of a person’s contraception, pressuring another person into pregnancy, forcing and coercing someone into sterilisation and most relevant to my situation, “Controlling the outcome of another person’s pregnancy. For example, forcing another person to continue a pregnancy or forcing another person to terminate a pregnancy.”

Most tellingly, however, their whitepaper begins with a simple assertion that, “Reproductive Coercion has only recently been identified as an issue impacting people of reproductive age.”

Awareness of reproductive coercion is at the bleeding edge of women’s rights.

It is both under-studied and under-reported.

The subtle and complex nature of coercion.

When I say that I was coerced into a termination, I don’t mean that I was marched into an abortion clinic at the point of a shotgun. Nor did anyone sign any consent forms for me against my will. I walked into the abortion clinic on my own two feet and I signed the consent forms with my own two hands. Coercion is just not always that obvious or blatant. In fact, I think it is fair to say that I did not even realise that I had been coerced.

Like all the mechanisms of society that have kept women silenced and abuse hidden, the toxic and nefarious business of reproductive coercion takes place in the dark, in the shadows. It is behind closed doors and in the contained privacy chambers of our text messages. It is through words and nods and facial expressions and pressure.

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Terrible, terrible amounts of pressure.

Reproductive coercion can occur with no bruises and no injuries, no visible signs of violence whatsoever.

Like a wound festering in the darkness, so too can reproductive coercion flourish during an otherwise seemingly peaceful relationship.

The nightmare.

For context, age 44, having recently split from my husband, I found myself pregnant by my new lover.

The thing I want to stress the most is that nobody in my life, not my husband, not my lover, not my doctors, not anyone, ever said the words, “you must have an abortion”.

Instead, a series of code words were used, doublespeak that would have made George Orwell proud.

“You have to do the right thing.”

“A decision is a decision.”

“You can’t raise your baby all alone in a dark corner you won’t make it.”

“I won’t introduce you to my family like this.”

And so on.

But how was killing my unborn child and terminating my miracle pregnancy the right thing to do?

Even though I was a well-educated and a world person, I still thought that abuse meant physically hitting someone. I had no idea that this crisscrossing spider’s web of emotional pressure was just as much abuse as if they would have struck me.

At 20 weeks into the pregnancy, after breaking down from the extraordinary pressure, I agreed to go through with it and “do the right thing.”

I was manic at this stage and on a mission set to right my wrong. Right the fact that I had got pregnant too soon.

I was almost 45 years old!

But it was at almost 24 weeks that I started backing out.

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I was hit with “a decision is a decision”. As though this had been a business transaction; a contract for the sale of a warehouse. As if a woman must be bound to one single thought or feeling made in a moment of heightened emotional anxiety and stress.

“A decision is a decision.”

“You made a decision.”

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“You said you would do this.”

Finally came the implied threats of loneliness and abandonment. My husband, familiar with my acute and visceral fear of abandonment, leveraged it to full effect.

“If you have this baby, it may not have a father.”

“You can’t raise a baby all alone by yourself in a dark corner.”

“Surely no one thinks you should have this baby.”

That’s all he said. Nothing else. But those short and simple sentences were enough to instil the fear of God in me.

The final straw.

Throughout all of this, however, my pregnancy carried on. I had reached 22 weeks and was starting to become increasingly manic while the men in my life became increasingly desperate.

We all knew that time was running out.

So, I went to the Marie Stopes clinic in Melbourne, the world’s premier provider of women’s reproductive healthcare. We submitted letters from medical practitioners and a panel of three doctors all came to a unanimous conclusion.

While technically still within the legal timeframe for an abortion, I was perilously close, and given my manic state they concluded that having an abortion would be extremely damaging to my mental health. Under no circumstances was I to undergo an abortion procedure in Australia. Case closed.

But it wasn’t. If hearing this verdict was supposed to give me any peace, it did not. I left the clinic even more frightened. I didn’t know where to go or what to do. I went to visit my fertility doctor in an absolute panic. She called Marie Stopes to ask them to reconsider but they flatly refused. So began googling abortion clinics that would carry out the procedure. We found one in the USA.

I told my ex husband what had happened, and he seized on this new idea. He sat down with me and encouraged me to book a flight for both myself and my boyfriend.

My husband was eager that I should be accompanied on this trip. Perhaps because he knew I couldn’t do it alone, but perhaps because he needed to ensure it would get done.

It’s important to say: I walked onto that plane. No one held a gun to my head, no one picked me up and carried me. Yet that is what is so important to understand. For a pregnant woman, under extreme duress, even the slightest provocation can be like a gun to the head.

The combination of mental and emotional pressures conspires together to compel in a way that in some ways is even worse than being physically coerced.

And so, a physically healthy woman, with a physically healthy baby, at 23 weeks into a pregnancy, walked into a clinic somewhere in America and allowed herself to go through a procedure that would devastate her for the rest of her life.

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Steps forward.

So, what do we do? Being an educated woman, my instinct was to go to the law and figure out which new legislation might need to be tabled to help women deal with the issue of reproductive coercion. Yet it turns out that legislation is not the problem.

Reproductive Coercion fits within the rubric of Domestic Family Violence and thankfully, Australia already has robust and vigorous legislation dealing with this issue.

The issue is not one of legislation but rather one of ignorance. Heather Douglas and Katherine Kerr, two leading researchers in the field, point out that “it is possible that most forms of reproductive coercion …. can already be legally recognised … but that this rarely occurs primarily, we suggest, because of lack of knowledge about reproductive coercion among police, lawyers and judicial officers.”

Lawyers, judges, police, social workers, medical professionals and other frontline responders are simply not aware of the scope and form of reproductive coercion, so they simply miss it or fail to ask the right questions.

Because of the deeply personal and intimate nature of reproductive coercion, few women will make use of the provision in the Acts to do anything about it. In fact, few women even realise that they have been the victim of domestic violence in any way.

I know this because I was one of these women.

Thus, we are in the highly unusual situation of having a legislative framework to deal with this issue. Yet, this legislative framework is a toothless tiger as it is not supported by the knowledge, education and awareness required to make the legislation relevant and helpful.

Let’s work together to shine a light into another dark corner of abuse and help women everywhere become empowered to make the choices they want to make about their bodies. And most importantly. For every woman who has been coerced either into or out of a pregnancy. It’s time to speak up.

The author of this story is known to Mamamia but will remain anonymous to protect her privacy.

If this has raised any issues for you or if you would like to speak with someone, please contact the Sands Australia 24 hour support line on 1300 072 637. 

You can download Never Forgotten: Stories of love, loss and healing after miscarriage, stillbirth, and neonatal death for free here.

Join the community of women, men and families who have lost a child in our private Facebook group.

If you or someone you care about is living with family violence please call safe steps 24/7 Family Violence Response Line on 1800 015 188 or visit www.safesteps.org.au for further information.

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