Supporting Reproductive Freedom for Survivors During a Global Pandemic

A guest blog by NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia

Imagine being trapped in a house with an abusive partner. You’re unable to leave for a variety of reasons. Now, imagine you are in that same situation but there is a stay-at-home order due to a pandemic that is overwhelming emergency rooms and closing social services.  Your resources have been severely limited.

Intimate partner violence is already a national healthcare crisis, and domestic violence-related deaths have spiked around the world, including across the United States, due to COVID-19.

In the very same time frame, anti-abortion politicians in over a dozen states, including Texas, Oklahoma, and Ohio, are doubling down on their efforts to shut down abortion providers and eliminate a patient’s ability to visit and access critical reproductive healthcare at a women’s healthcare center.  Reproductive healthcare is an essential healthcare service for so many and often a lifeline for victims and survivors of domestic and sexual violence.

Domestic violence, sexual assault, and reproductive coercion are forms of intimate partner violence that have always been intricately linked with reproductive healthcare, rights, and justice. Domestic and intimate partner violence is also more prevalent among already vulnerable populations, including women of color, poor communities, people with disabilities, and those already living on the margins. Women who experience intimate partner violence are also most likely to experience unintended pregnancies.

As we know, intimate partner violence doesn’t just have the potential to create coercive situations with regard to one’s reproductive freedom, it also has a strong and direct correlation with increased risks for negative pregnancy and maternal health outcomes. A 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey found that an estimated two million women in the U.S. have become pregnant as a result of violence by intimate partners and about 5% of women surveyed reported that an intimate partner had tried to impregnate them against their will during their lifetime. Reproductive coercion can be a partner refusing to wear a condom or taking it off during sex without informing their partner. It can also be forcing a woman to carry a pregnancy to term against her will or forcing her to have an abortion against her will.

One analysis of CDC data found that nearly 4% of pregnant women reported being physically abused by a current or former partner during pregnancy and that the strongest predictor of physical violence was if the partner did not want the pregnancy.” There is also research that  shows the relationship between  women who seek  abortion care, and their abuse histories.  Add that all up with the current public health crisis and you can begin to understand just how dangerous this pandemic is for women in unsafe domestic situations.

COVID-19 has already caused a drastic increase in isolation, domestic stress, and other social and mental health issues for so many individuals. It is imperative that everyone, especially victims and survivors of domestic and sexual abuse, have access to nonjudgmental, comprehensive reproductive health care at this moment.

Abortion-care providers serve an important role in caring for those in dangerous circumstances. These highly qualified professionals are trained to spot signs of abuse, human trafficking, and coercion. In fact, providers like Planned Parenthood have developed protocols and guidelines to assess and assist patients facing difficult circumstances.

For example, at a local Planned Parenthood in Virginia, when a woman takes a urine test there is a sign in the bathroom telling her that she can indicate on the cup that she does not want her partner to go back to the exam room. Clinic staff will then ensure that she can be examined alone. Planned Parenthood maintains an up-to-date list of resources for victims and tries to ensure that people have a safe space to seek help. Notably, women who experience partner violence, more often than ones who do not, seek out effective birth control methods like long-acting reversible contraceptives after having an abortion. Having control over whether and when she becomes pregnant can mean the difference between facing physical abuse or not, between being killed or not.

Much of the time, victims of intimate partner violence seek out help when their partners are not home or when they are alone. That has become even more difficult with stay-at-home orders, as the resources and outs people usually use in their safety planning become harder to access. Some women may be able to get help from their women’s healthcare providers, such as Planned Parenthood, who are expanding the provision of services to include primary health care during this time of need.

The goal of public health officials during this pandemic with respect to domestic violence and intimate partner violence should be the same as it always was: to provide victims and survivors with as many avenues to access resources as possible and to help them regain control of their lives, which includes safeguarding access to comprehensive reproductive healthcare and abortion care. In some places, anti-abortion politicians are using the COVID virus as a smokescreen to eliminate abortion access without waiting for the Supreme Court to opine on the issue. Cutting off access to abortion care can have an especially devastating impact on patients facing domestic violence at home.

Resources for advocates, survivors, practitioners, and community-members:

NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia’s reproductive resources guide: provides info on accessing reproductive healthcare services and resources in Virginia during COVID-19.

The Action Alliance’s Reproductive & Sexual Coercion Toolkit for advocates: The goal of this toolkit is to help begin conversations and implement policies within sexual and domestic violence agencies that seek to respond to survivor experiences of reproductive and sexual coercion and to help advocates utilize reproductive justice framework in their work with survivors.

The Action Alliance’s #StaySafeVA COVID-19 Media Campaign: Many survivors and community members are unaware that sexual and domestic violence programs are still open and available to provide support during the Coronavirus pandemic. This statewide awareness campaign let survivors know that help is still available. The Virginia Statewide Hotline is still here and ready to help, and so are sexual and domestic violence programs all over the state.


Galina Varchena is the Policy Director for NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia

Michelle Woods is the Communications Director for NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia

Hailey is the Communications Fellow for NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia.

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