Abuse and Intimate Partner Violence During Pregnancy

Abuse and Intimate Partner Violence During Pregnancy

It’s more common than you think

While pregnancy can bring out a new or renewed tenderness in many relationships, domestic violence is more common than any other health problem among women during pregnancy.

Domestic violence — also known as domestic abuse or intimate partner violence — can happen to anybody. It doesn’t matter your gender or age, where you live, your race or ethnicity, how much money you earn, how old you are or your sexual orientation. And it’s more common than you might think among pregnant women.

Domestic violence increases as the pregnancy develops as well as in the postpartum period. A history of violence and being single/living apart are the strongest risk factors for domestic violence during pregnancy as well as postpartum.


Birth Control Sabotage and Reproductive Coercion

Domestic violence can increase a woman’s chances of becoming pregnant and the number of children she has, both because the woman may be coerced into sex and because she may be prevented from using birth control.  A correlation has been shown between large families and domestic violence.  Whereas previously it was thought that having many children and the resultant stress of large families increased likelihood domestic violence, it has been shown that the violence commonly predates the births.

Pregnancy itself can be used a form of coercion and the phenomenon of preventing an intimate partner’s reproductive choice is referred to as reproductive coercion. Studies on birth control sabotage performed by men against women partners have indicated a strong correlation between domestic violence and birth control sabotage.

Birth control sabotage, or reproductive coercion, is a form of coercion where someone manipulates another person’s use of birth control – weakening efforts to prevent an unwanted pregnancy. Replacing birth control pills with fakes, puncturing condoms, and threats and violence are examples of prevention of an individual’s attempt to avoid pregnancy. Pregnancy-promoting behavior of abusive male partners is one method of domestic violence and is associated with unwanted pregnancy, particularly in adolescents.  Reproductive coercion itself is a form of domestic violence because it results from unwanted sexual activity and hinders a woman’s ability to control her body. Forced pregnancy can also be a form of financial abuse when a woman becomes trapped in a relationship because the pregnancy has led to economic dependence for new mothers.

Pregnancy can also lead to a hiatus of domestic violence when the abusive partner does not want to harm the pregnancy and the potential birth. The risk of domestic violence for pregnant women is greatest immediately after childbirth.

Although pregnancy can be a protective period for some women, either in terms of a hiatus of pre-existing violence, for others it is a risk period during which abuse may begin or escalate. Women with violent partners have a hard time protecting themselves from unintended pregnancy and sexual violence can directly lead to pregnancy.  Studies consistently indicate that domestic violence is more common in large families. However, international studies show that 25% of women are abused for the first-time during pregnancy.


Reasons for Intimate Partner Violence during Pregnancy

When women are asked to speculate on why they thought they were abused during their pregnancies. The answers were categorized into four categories.

  • Jealousy towards the unborn child
  • Anger towards the unborn child
  • Pregnancy specific violence not directed toward the child
  • “Business as usual.”


What can trigger domestic violence and abuse during pregnancy?

Intimate partner violence may begin or intensify during pregnancy, when having a baby triggers unexpectedly negative emotions in a woman’s partner.

A partner might feel overwhelmed by the responsibilities of a baby, especially if the pregnancy was unplanned. He or she might also be experiencing intense stress over money and the long-term financial responsibilities of raising a child.

Sometimes partners even become angry or jealous if a mom-to-be is focusing less on their relationship and more on the baby.

In some cases, unfortunately, those emotions play out against the mother and her unborn child but remember, even if a partner is unhappy, domestic violence or abuse is never the victim (or the baby’s) fault.


Intimate Partner Violence can include:
  • physical violence: Slapping, punching, kicking, burning, biting, the use of weapons including knives or guns, or striking your belly in an effort to harm or end the pregnancy
  • Physical abuse: Forcing you to smoke, drink alcohol or use drugs
  • Withholding medical care: Keeping you from going to prenatal appointments or leaving you without pregnancy-related medical care (including withholding medication or prenatal vitamins)
  • Sexual violence: Forcing you to have sex or engage in a sexual act you don’t want to participate in
  • Psychological abuse: Trying to control what you can or cannot do, stalking, threats, making you feel diminished or embarrassed, forced isolation from family and friends, blocking your access to a safe person with whom you can discuss abusive behaviour (insisting on attending prenatal checkups and concealing abuse by answering questions for you, or threatening you if you disclose details of your abusive situation, for example), forbidding you from attending celebrations related to the pregnancy like baby showers
  • Emotional abuse: Putting you down, humiliation, name-calling (e.g., calling you fat because of your changing body), continual criticism (like saying you won’t be a good parent)
  • Reproductive coercion: Threats or violence related to a decision to continue or end a pregnancy, or forcing you to have an abortion
  • Financial abuse: Withholding money for basic needs, not letting you spend money on baby essentials, keeping you from attending work, closely monitoring your spending, or stealing money from you


How is domestic violence during pregnancy different from normal arguments?

There’s a big difference — though if you’ve been suffering from abuse for a long time, it can be hard to tell. It’s normal for couples to fight sometimes and even for the arguments to get intense or heated.

What’s not normal or okay is when your partner starts exhibiting violent or abusive behavior or making threats to hurt you. Hitting, kicking, throwing objects, or forcing you to engage in sexual acts all count as abuse — even if the abuser apologizes afterwards and promises not to do it again.

Putting you down, trying to keep you from contacting your friends or family, or telling you that the abuse is your fault isn’t normal arguing either.


How does abuse affect your pregnancy?

In what should be a joyful time in your life, domestic violence can have serious effects, causing both physical injuries and psychological harm and can contribute to gynecologic disorders and sexually transmitted illnesses including HIV.

Abuse can affect your unborn baby too. Potential pregnancy complications include preterm delivery, low birth weight, placental abruption, uterine rupture, hemorrhaging, fetal injuries, and, in the very worst instances, miscarriage, stillbirth or death of the mother.

An abused mom-to-be may be less likely to take care of herself during pregnancy by eating poorly, not seeking out prenatal care or misusing licit or illicit substances or alcohol.

In many cases, an abusive partner may not stop being abusive to a pregnant partner or the baby once the child is born. Children who are exposed to domestic violence are at a greater risk of being neglected and abused themselves, and are more likely to develop health, behavioral and psychological disorders as they get older.


How to get help

Some abused women fear that no one will believe them or take them seriously. Some feel as though they’re the only ones going through this or that they themselves are the cause of the problems.

It’s important to know that calling for help in the face of violence or abuse isn’t overreacting. It’s simply protecting yourself and your pregnancy. Advocates are on your side and can help get you through a terrible time.

Here’s how you can get the help you need.


Reach out to someone you trust.

Seek help from a trusted friend, family member, community member who has your best interests in mind (not someone who’s close with your abusive partner) or a medical provider.

At BWSS, we are here 24/7. We can help you:

  • make a safety plan that includes your pregnancy and any other children
  • with legal information and advocacy
  • find safe transitional housing or housing advocacy
  • emotional support and support groups
  • accompaniment to hospital and/or police


Call us 24/7 to make an appointment to speak to a support worker


Or email us at intake@bwss.org