We Are Not Incubators: Forced Birth & Compounded Violence

Dec 5, 2022 | 2023 Winter - Bodily Autonomy, Privacy, & Feminism

By Frances-Ann Egan

The circumstances that surround abortion issues range from concerns about sexual violence, to dangerous pregnancies, to forced birth under no extraordinary circumstance other than the injustice of being denied a choice. I’ve seen social media posts that discourage building a pro-choice argument on events related to violence. However, I am arguing that depriving a person the right to choose whether their body endures such intense changes and the labor process is a form of violence in itself. 

When women and others assigned-female-at-birth (AFAB) are forced to endure, disclose, and prove sexual violence to be exempted from forced birth, that could best be described as a form of compounded violence. When women live in poverty because of social and economic inequalities and are then forced to pay medical bills and take days off work for the pregnancy and birth process that is forced on them, that could be described as compounded violence. When trans men and nonbinary people are forced to endure an unwanted pregnancy and childbirth in the context of transphobia and possible gender dysphoria, that is compounded violence. 

These are just three of the more obvious examples of how forced pregnancy and childbirth compound existing forms of what can be considered to be direct, structural, and cultural violence. (For more on this typology of violence see “Cultural Violence” [Johann Galtung, 1990]). There are two (and certainly many more) problems with failing to see abortion bans as both primary and secondary forms of violence, along with other related factors as compounded violence. One, is that bodily autonomy is outright denied, and those who can access it often hide their abortions to avoid the shame many try to attach to it. Two, is that for those who face compounded violence, they have to be seen as sympathetic victims in order to be exempt from abortion bans. This raises issues about sexual, domestic, and child violence. Under the scrutiny of a misogynistic culture, women, girls, and AFAB children and adults have to prove they are worthy victims of another form of violence in order to escape the secondary violence of forced pregnancy and childbirth. Not all AFAB people can prove they were raped, or coerced, or groomed, or in danger of a physically violent or otherwise abusive partner. Not all victims of rape, incest, coercion, domestic violence, and other forms of violence are willing to come forward and publicize their trauma or out their abuser. It is downright inhumane to force an individual to do this in a timeframe that is not appropriate and safe for them.

Like so many other women and AFAB people, I have a history with such violence. When I was 10 years old I was pressured into sexual acts by a 16-year-old boy. I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into but I was eager for the attention and curious about what sex was. I remember being in the alley behind my house and him touching me. He was not an adult and I was giving him consent. This was as perfectly legal as it was immoral. Fast forward about three years. My parents may not have trusted me around boys but they did trust me around my cousins…including my horny 15-year-old cousin who was two years older. He asked me for sexual favors. I didn’t understand how sex worked at the time and I was afraid of getting pregnant. He insisted that I can’t get pregnant from kissing (which at that age I didn’t know) nor from giving him head. I didn’t feel comfortable participating but I felt even more uncomfortable telling him no. He felt no remorse pressuring me into something I didn’t want to do. 

In both of these scenarios I was old enough to get pregnant, and in both of these scenarios I was lucky that I didn’t have vaginal sex and thus didn’t end up pregnant. Even without a history of rape, many AFAB people end up pressured and coerced into all kinds of unhealthy scenarios. And as far as I can tell, these types of situations are more common than people are inclined to believe. I imagine pregnancy from similar types of scenarios to be equally common and even underreported. 

But let’s also talk about scenarios where it is clearly “the woman’s fault.” I once thought I was pregnant. I was being impulsive and participating in random hookups. It was about a year and a half ago as of this writing. I used condoms but was afraid they might have failed. It turned out I just had a late period. I struggle with moderately severe mental illness, and being forced to endure the pain and humiliation of forced pregnancy and childbirth would have definitely sent me spiraling into a suicidal state.

All forms of violence, and even the threat of violence, are potentially traumatic. Within our patriarchal culture are the inevitable cultural norms we collectively refer to as rape culture. Living with the stench of rape culture is a collective trauma that is shared by many (if not most) women and AFAB people. It is so ubiquitous that trauma might not be the right word, but it functions in some similar ways, as most women and AFAB people have either lived through gender-based violence or harassment or live with the all-too-real possibility that it could eventually happen to them. As a bi woman with significant mental health problems, coping with the loss of Roe v. Wade is challenging. Like other stressful events tend to do, it triggered suicidal feelings even though I’m in a state that allows abortion access for the time being. Still, the sense of injustice and feeling of loss of control runs so deep.

I’d like to pivot and talk for a moment about my dad. I feel so angry and betrayed by men like him. He never taught me about sex because he’s a “good Christian” who believes teenagers have no business being sexually active. Instead of arming me with confidence and awareness, he disempowered me by feeding me lies about what a “woman with no respect for herself” is like, a woman like me. Of course, he doesn’t believe in a woman’s right to choose. He belongs to the so-called “pro-life” crowd. He’s exactly the type of malicious, misinformed person who votes for Donald Trump and makes up justifications for him (‘Trump only grabs gold diggers by the pussy to get them to leave him alone’). 

I honestly feel many of us have been re-traumatized not by just a general culture, but by parents and educators and lawmakers and former President Trump and the current Supreme Court who have in many ways “shown us our place.” Powerful men like Trump and Kavanaugh can abuse women in their personal lives and influence laws regulating women and others with uteruses in their professional lives. I have no doubt in my mind the argument against abortion is actually about power, the power to inflict the violence of forced pregnancy and childbirth. Men (and even women) who are supposed to love, support, and respect us get to vote on what should happen to our bodies, and they vote against us. There is the awkward, painful coexistence with those who do not care about our bodily autonomy or our best interests, even if they are family or are otherwise close to us. We cannot give in to the men, or to anyone else, who push us into the corner of being used for breeding as if we were nothing but animals. As a bi woman, it is not lost on me that this struggle is partly one of being allowed to express our sexuality in ways that we choose, and in some cases to control what happens to our bodies after that control has been taken away or manipulated. Our right to terminate a pregnancy is both a straightforward matter of not being subjected to this particular form of violence and a symbolic one in which we see how many regard the compounding forms of violence that surround this topic.

Frances-Ann Egan is an amateur writer living in the U.S. Midwest. She works as a peer support specialist (which is a mental health position). She is a proud feminist, LGBTQ advocate, and mental health advocate.

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