Warning: The following story contains descriptions of domestic abuse.
Seven days after Pushpa gave birth to her son, her husband became angry. Angrier than usual. He snatched their newborn out of her arms and began hitting her. One arm holding the baby and one fist aimed at her.
Lying in a hospital bed later that day, Pushpa realized just how much she had endured over the last year. Her husband had moved them to Texas to live with his family ― forcing her to quit her job and leave her friends. Not only was her husband physically and verbally abusive, but her in-laws were also verbally abusive. Throughout Pushpa’s first trimester, her husband and her in-laws confined her to her bedroom. Later in her pregnancy, they allowed her to access other parts of the house like the kitchen. She was riddled with anxiety throughout the pregnancy, causing her blood pressure to fluctuate and forcing her to have an emergency cesarean section.
“The whole nine months of my pregnancy, I never got to eat outside. I never got to go for a walk. I wasn’t even allowed to make food for myself in the beginning,” Pushpa, an immigrant from India in her mid-30s, told HuffPost. (HuffPost is using a pseudonym to protect Pushpa’s identity.)
After she gave birth, the abuse only got worse. During a big snowstorm earlier this year, Pushpa’s husband became physically abusive. He dragged her by the hair and threw her out of the house. She sat outside, barefoot in the snow, for over 30 minutes until her husband let her back in because the baby was crying and he didn’t know what to do.
About 10 days later, Pushpa’s husband raped her. She found out she was pregnant again and she knew, with every bone in her body, that she could not continue with the pregnancy.
Although Pushpa told her husband she wanted to get an abortion, she didn’t trust that he would support her decision continuously. She didn’t tell him when or where she was getting the procedure, and she was only able to pay for it with money she had saved from her old job. Pushpa didn’t have access to a car, so she walked to a local clinic near her home in Texas. She had no one else to watch her son, so she brought him with her to the appointment. She was afraid that if she left her husband alone with her son, he would take their child and leave. She was around eight weeks pregnant at the time.
“I was definitely scared that he would try to stop the abortion,” Pushpa said. “But if I were to continue my pregnancy, it would have been like giving my life to him all over again. It would be like giving my soul away to him.”
Pushpa’s story is shocking, but it’s not uncommon. What she experienced is referred to as reproductive violence or reproductive coercion, which is defined as the use of intimidation, threats or physical violence to control a partner’s reproductive choices. It can take many forms, including not allowing someone to control their own birth control methods or forcing someone to continue or end a pregnancy.
Reproductive abuse is fairly common in situations of intimate partner violence: Around 25% of people report experiencing some type of reproductive coercion within abusive relationships, according to a 2011 survey from the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the Family Violence Prevention Fund. An abuser might control a victim’s finances, their whereabouts and whom they’re friends with, and reproductive coercion is yet another element of that control.
“If I were to continue my pregnancy, it would have been like giving my life to him all over again. It would be like giving my soul away to him.”
– Pushpa, survivor of domestic violence
Under current Texas law, Pushpa would not have been able to get an abortion in the state at eight weeks pregnant. The state’s latest abortion restriction, known as S.B. 8, prohibits abortion after six weeks, when most people don’t yet realize they’re pregnant.
“The Texas abortion ban really speaks directly to intimate partner violence in the ways that it replicates control over women’s bodies and strips away their autonomy,” said Amber Sutton, a licensed clinical social worker and Ph.D. student in the School of Social Work at the University of Alabama, where she’s researching the intersections of intimate partner violence and reproductive abuse.
“This is state-sanctioned reproductive violence,” she added.
(It’s worth noting that not all victims of intimate partner violence and reproductive coercion are women, but the majority of them are.)
The most egregious part of S.B. 8 is that it deputizes private citizens to enforce the six-week ban and financially incentivizes people to sue anyone who “aids or abets” a Texan trying to get an abortion after six weeks. This statute, specifically, would have given Pushpa’s abusive husband and in-laws a dangerous new tool to control her with.
“Essentially, S.B. 8 can encourage anyone, including abusive partners, to act as bounty hunters by taking doctors or anyone who helps a person access an abortion to court,” said Deborah Vagins, the president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence. “S.B. 8 is really incentivizing abusive partners to use it as yet another element of control.”
Many perpetrators of domestic violence use their power to isolate their victims. Pushpa’s entire family was back in India, which meant the only people she could socialize and interact with were her husband and in-laws. She wasn’t allowed to get a job, which made her financially dependent on her husband. He even made sure Pushpa’s green card was tied to his after their arranged marriage, making it nearly impossible for her to cut ties without jeopardizing her immigration status. If S.B. 8 had been in effect when Pushpa needed an abortion, she likely would not have been able to get one because of its extreme restrictions coupled with the intense control her husband exerted over her.
And Pushpa was one of the lucky ones: She was able to get her abortion months before S.B. 8 went into effect. Now, Texans in abusive relationships will be forced to go to much greater lengths to get abortion care.
In the last two months alone, Anna Rupani has worked with several clients in Texas who had to take 12-hour round trips out of state to get their abortions in order to avoid any detection from their abusive partners. Rupani, who is the executive director at Fund Texas Choice, an organization that offers logistical and financial aid to Texans seeking abortions, told HuffPost she’s seen the impact intimate partner violence has on victims’ reproductive autonomy and access to abortion care. Many of her clients in abusive relationships need more support, such as financial help and access to clinic appointments at specific times, because they need to evade their abusers if they want to access care.
“I saw that intersection of abortion access and intimate partner violence constantly,” Rupani said of her current work as well as her past roles as a social worker and attorney who worked with survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking. “I had several clients who said, ‘If I have this child, I’ll be tied to him forever.’ Or clients who were in abusive relationships and already had children with the abusive partner were like, ‘I love my child, but I wish I never had them because I can’t escape my abuser now.’”
“The Texas abortion ban really speaks directly to intimate partner violence in the ways that it replicates control over women’s bodies and strips away their autonomy.”
– Amber Sutton, licensed clinical social worker
Dr. Bhavik Kumar, an abortion provider at Planned Parenthood’s Houston clinic, is also worried about how S.B. 8 will affect people in abusive relationships. Those who are forced to carry a pregnancy to term with an abusive partner will be tied to that partner in one way or another for the rest of their lives, he said.
“It is another aspect that they have to navigate and potentially get away from that abuser or abusive situation that they’re in,” Kumar told HuffPost. “I don’t know any study that shows that a lack of access to abortion will help anybody in this situation. If anything, it will only make it worse.”
Research from a book titled “The Turnaway Study” shows that the incidence of violence is higher among women who are denied abortions compared to those who are able to receive them. The book, published in 2020, followed 1,000 women over the course of 10 years and analyzed the long-term impact of abortion care access. The study found that after two and a half years, the women who were denied abortions were more likely to experience violence from the men involved in the pregnancies because they “have ongoing contact” with them “even if they aren’t in a romantic relationship with [them], and it takes them years to extricate themselves.”
Brenda, one woman who spoke with the researchers of “The Turnaway Study,” was 24 weeks pregnant when she was denied an abortion. Matt, her boyfriend at the time, was physically abusive (“I went to a job interview with a freaking black eye”), and by the time their son was a year old, both Brenda and Matt had been in and out of jail for domestic violence and drug-related arrests, according to the book. Brenda’s mom sued for custody and won outright.
“I stayed with Matt way longer than I intended to because we had a kid together — a bond,” Brenda told the researchers. “And then it turned into ‘Oh well, I’ve been with you so long, I don’t know how to be by myself’ on both of our parts. So it lasted way longer than it had to. I mean, I think that if I hadn’t found out I was pregnant and it was his, that probably would have been it. We would have split up for good [in 2008], the year I started this study.”
If Pushpa hadn’t been able to get her abortion, she would have had another child with her abuser — not only making her vulnerable to more violence during her pregnancy, but also further binding her to her abuser for life. She wouldn’t have had the freedom to file for divorce and finally escape. She’s living on her own now and is in the middle of a custody battle for her son.
Although the near-future will be hard for Pushpa, she believes none of this would have been possible if she hadn’t managed to get an abortion.
“It still kills me that I had to terminate my pregnancy,” she said. “But as a mom, I know I did the right thing. It was the best thing for me and for my child.”
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.