Australia | Reproductive Coercion: The Hidden Threat
27 November 2018 | by Steven Unthank
“The Jehovah’s Witness religion I grew up in made me feel immense pressure to maintain my virginity. I dreaded the prospect of being trapped by a lifelong commitment to a husband in a community that would dictate what we did in the bedroom and I started to realise that I did not belong because I didn’t want to be married or have children in that stifling community.” – Ella, Victoria, Australia
Reproductive Coercion is a hidden form of violence and control that can have life altering consequences.
Reproductive coercion is behaviour that deliberately prevents a person from making decisions about their reproductive health. It includes:
- contraceptive sabotage including “stealthing”
- Pressuring another person into pregnancy
- Forcing a person to have an abortion or continue a pregnancy
- Forcing a person into sterilisation.
The issue is being brought to light with the release of a Policy White Paper to coincide with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on 25 November and the following 16 days of activism being led by the United Nations.
CEO of Marie Stopes Australia, Michelle Thompson said that Reproductive Coercion is a vast issue that is only just coming to light, “Reproductive Coercion is intrinsically linked with Family Violence, Intimate Partner Violence and Sexual Violence. And while there has been a lot of urgent and warranted attention on these issues, Reproductive Coercion has gone largely unmentioned until recently.”
The Policy White Paper contains the definition, existing research and data on Reproductive Coercion, its links with Family Violence, Intimate Partner Violence and Sexual Violence. It also contains recommendations and proposals for how to address the issue as well as commitments that Marie Stopes Australia will undertake in order to combat the issue.
In describing the work that Marie Stopes Australia does, Ms Thompson added “If we are truly to help Australians take control of their sexual and reproductive health and rights, we need to intimately understand the forces that can interfere with autonomy and rights. We need to do our best to make sure we know how to remove barriers and support people so the decisions they make are theirs and theirs alone. This is the heart of our advocacy work.”
When recalling her experience of life in a high control Jehovah’s Witness community, Ella highlighted that women in particular not only experience reproductive coercion driven by the culture of the community*, there are also economic drivers that perpetuate and compound reproductive coercion. Ella outlined that decisions of when to start and end reproduction rests with the typically male provider as the woman is expected to be silent or “in subjection”. Ella describes how lack of income, coupled with lack of control over one’s own body results in fear, obligation and guilt and increases reliance on the public health system. In her recovery, she needed psychological counselling, visits to specialist physiotherapists to relax her shallow breathing and to women’s hospitals for a vulva disorder caused by hyper-contraction. Ella’s full story as a female raised within the Jehovah’s Witnesses is found on pages 49-51 of the White Paper.
Ms Thompson said the White Paper is the culmination of a 20 month consultation process with key stakeholders from across the health, academic, legal, media and political sectors.
“The White Paper brings together as much of the existing knowledge as we can find on the subject and is a coordinated and cooperative effort from many individuals and organisations who are involved in uncovering the issue,” Ms Thompson said.
Ella’s published story on Reproductive Coercion within the Jehovah’s Witnesses
A contributor to this White Paper, Ella*, recalled her experience growing up in a high control Jehovah’s Witness community.
“The Jehovah’s Witness religion I grew up in made me feel immense pressure to maintain my virginity. I dreaded the prospect of being trapped by a lifelong commitment to a husband in a community that would dictate what we did in the bedroom and I started to realise that I did not belong because I didn’t want to be married or have children in that stifling community.”
“To live a free and fulfilled life, I had to leave, which resulted in loss of my social and familial networks. This decision delayed my normal development. I subsequently didn’t feel that I had grown up until I was in my thirties.” – Ella, Victoria, Australia
When recalling her experience of life in a high control Jehovah’s Witness community, Ella also highlighted that women in particular not only experience RC driven by the culture of the community, there are also economic drivers that perpetuate and compound RC. Ella outlined that decisions of when to start and end reproduction rests with the typically male provider as the woman is expected to be silent or “in subjection”. Ella describes how lack of income, coupled with lack of control over one’s own body results in fear, obligation and guilt and increases reliance on the public health system. In her recovery, she needed psychological counselling, visits to specialist physiotherapists to relax her shallow breathing and to women’s hospitals for a vulva disorder caused by hyper-contraction.
“If you wanted to have an abortion you would need to hide it from your community for fear of being shunned. This is a huge burden on your mental health. While I didn’t have an abortion I was always prepared to, and this made me feel guilty throughout my child-bearing years.”
“If you are a woman in a high control community like this, you have limited access to income, you don’t have a voice and you don’t have control over your body. Trying to seek health support, particularly mental health support is difficult socially and economically.” – Ella
Ella and Helen’s* stories highlight the ability of cultural influences such as religion, particularly in closed or high control communities, to significantly influence autonomous decision-making about reproductive health. Supporting people like Ella and Helen when they decide to leave any such community is important, particularly in relation to ensuring access to sexual and reproductive health and rights education that they may not have received previously.
Like the social drivers of RC, addressing cultural drivers of RC requires education linked to a whole-of-community response to RC. These are similar to responses that underpin prevention efforts for FV, IPV and SV.
Religion also plays a critical role in addressing structural drivers of RC. While religious institutions are often perceived as barriers to reproductive autonomy, a number of religious organisations champion reproductive justice and access to contraception and abortion. Where available, engaging faith-based organisations that encourage autonomous reproductive health decision-making will also be an important part of preventing and responding to RC.
When addressing cultural drivers that are specific to religion, engaging community religious leaders in these efforts is essential. However it is not without its challenges. When asked about engaging religious leaders from her former community, Ella highlighted that all leaders from her community were male and to attempt to engage them was futile.
“Engagement with an equal balance of males and females would have to be legislated for the Jehovah’s Witnesses to participate as they would consider this as diluting their leadership. Without legislating their involvement, the leaders would simply ignore invitations to participate in a discourse. We saw this during the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.” – Ella
*Names have been changed for privacy
Wifely Subjection: Mental Health Issues in Jehovah’s Witness Women
by Kaynor J. Weishaupt, M.S., M.F.C.C. and Michael D. Stensland
Abstract: “The Watchtower Society, commonly referred to as Jehovah’s Witnesses, exerts a great deal of control over the everyday life of its members. Women, in particular, suffer from psychological stresses in this high-control environment, as it is also a culture where patriarchal attitudes limit women’s personal power and predominate in their relationships with men. A group of women responded to a questionnaire about their experiences during membership in the Watchtower Society and after leaving. The results indicate that while in the Watchtower Society, women experience a higher degree of mental health problems than they do after they leave the group. They also report experiencing more egalitarian attitudes in their relationships with men after exiting the group.”
From Eve to Jezebel: Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian Fundamentalism – The Construction and Reconstruction of Women’s Gendered Identities within the Faith
by Miriam Hughes (2006, University of South Australia)
This study “provides an unusual glimpse into the inner world of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and more specifically to the lived experiences of female adherents … By taking a sociological approach to the research the Witnesses can be seen to occupy a unique position within Christian fundamentalism, an understanding which is crucial given their strong emphasis on the control of women. It is this emphasis on controlling women through the social structure of the faith that makes both joining and leaving the Witnesses such fraught processes, as is illuminated by the narratives of the female research participants.”
Pages 215-224 deals with the subject of “Sexuality and the Control of Women’s Bodies From Within”.
Pages 224-231 deals with “Submission, Control, and Intimate Relationships”.
Reproductive Coercion within Jehovah’s Witnesses
“It would be wrong for one to submit to sterilization or approve of sterilization of one’s wife simply because one has no appreciation for God’s gift of the procreative powers.” – statement issued by the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses
* “You know, scientists say that the cranial capacity of a woman is 10% smaller than that of a man, so now this shows that she’s just not equipped for the role of headship. Her role is one of subjection to the man. Her role is that of submissiveness, and that means that she should recognize that she is a woman and be glad to be a woman. Never want to be what you are not equipped to be. … Sometimes we hear her say, “oh if-if-if-if I-I were a man I’d do this, and I’d do that, as if to be wishing to be something that she is not designed to be. Do you know what that borders on? That borders on homosexuality. And do you know what the Devil is doing nowadays? He’s taking women who want to be men and makes men out of them.” – Samuel Herd, currently serving as a member of the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses