Redux – The personal is political
Teaching children to understand and cope with bullies is essential, but bullying isn’t limited to elementary school. Bullying may not be physical or direct. It is persistent, intimidating, and it flourishes when victims and witnesses are afraid to speak up or speak out. It is time to identify reproductive coercion for what it is and call the bullies what they are.
“Reproductive coercion” includes sabotage of birth control by abusive partners and occurs in all social and economic groups and most frequently to unmarried sexually active women. Male partners seek control over their partner’s reproductive options, even whether and when to have sex, to assert and maintain power.
Just as the pattern of intimidation, harassment, aggression and control is not limited to schools, reproductive coercion is not limited to interpersonal relations. It is ubiquitous at public forums, health care settings, legislative discourse, and campaign politics. This bullying is intended to intimidate, to silence people who disagree, to deny people access to health care they want or need, to pass legislation that denies reproductive justice, and to maintain power by opposing reproductive rights and justice.
Last week, one of Family Planning Health Services’ (FPHS) employees was participating in a health fair sponsored by our local United Way and county health department. It happened to be hosted at a Catholic hospital. One of the medical directors required the employee to remove information on emergency contraception. The doctor then used post-it notes to obscure “prescription contraception” and “non-prescription contraception” on the FPHS display.
The hospital has been recognized for its work with sexual assault victims and the hospital president is on the state attorney general’s sexual assault task force. We can assume the hospital is in compliance with state law to provide emergency contraception in the emergency room and we know that many of the physicians provide prescription and non-prescription contraception to their patients. But, like the classic elementary school bully, the physician used position and status to censor and deny information to participants.
Victims and bystanders might excuse the bully; “I should have known this would provoke him,” or “I should have known better than to be in this neighborhood,” but motivation does not excuse intimidation, bullying and harassment. On a public level we may understand religious objections, but using status, position, power, volume or force to control someone else’s reproductive health and behavior must be challenged and condemned if the culture of sexual coercion is to change.
Several days ago, Wisconsin’s State Senator Mike Ellis used the power of the majority and the gavel to silence debate and fast-track a bill that requires women to undergo a medically unnecessary ultrasound procedure and morality message before they can have an abortion. In our state assembly, our state representative shared her experience as a child rape victim and spoke very personally to how she felt as a victim and as the mother of three daughters, to a law requiring victims to undergo a re-invasion of privacy and self-control. On-line bullies vilified and harassed her for speaking out as a victim against the “pro-life” legislation.
There are self-styled “prayer warriors” standing outside our family planning clinics for a few months each year. They know that many of our patients and WIC participants/children are intimidated by their presence, but they justify the bullying on the basis of their religious beliefs about abortion, which we do not provide.
Victims and witnesses to reproductive coercion, intimidation and bullying must try to speak up, seek help, or intervene as the situation requires. When it comes to public and political behavior, calling reproductive coercion what it is the first step to ending it.