November 29, 2012 — Summary of "Governmental Coercion in Reproductive Decision Making: See it Both Ways," Barot, Guttmacher Policy Review, Fall 2012.
"In the latter half of the 20th century, attention to reproductive rights violations has focused largely on actions by governments to curtail what they view as 'overpopulation,'" according to a policy review by Sneha Barot, senior public policy associate at the Guttmacher Institute. "Less attention, meanwhile, has been focused on equally reprehensible governmental efforts to control fertility at the other end of the spectrum: to compel pregnancy and childbirth."
Barot contrasts the responses of abortion-rights opponents and reproductive-rights advocates to reproductive coercion. She argues that while both sides have rightfully condemned coerced sterilization and abortion, only reproductive-rights advocates have consistently and fully embraced the position that "[f]orcing a woman to terminate a pregnancy she wants or to continue [one] that she does not want both violate the same human rights: the right to decide freely whether and when to bear a child and the right to have that decision respected by the government."
History of Voluntarism in U.S. Policy
Barot notes that the earliest guidelines for the U.S. Agency for International Development created in the 1960s "recognized the importance of voluntarism and informed consent" in family planning, including "support[ing] the ability of 'people everywhere [to] enjoy the fundamental freedom of controlling their reproduction, health, and welfare as they desire.'" In domestic policy, the statute and regulations for the federal Title X family planning program, which was established in 1970 to extend access to contraceptive services to low-income women, "specify that the receipt of family planning services and information must be on a voluntary basis and that a woman's eligibility for other government assistance may not be conditioned on her acceptance of any contraceptive method," Barot explains.
However, in 1973, "only months after Roe v. Wade guaranteed a woman's constitutional right to choose abortion," Congress, driven by ideological conservatives, "passed the Helms amendment to restrict U.S. foreign assistance for abortions," Barot writes. Shortly thereafter, Congress approved the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal Medicaid funding for abortion services unless a woman's life is in danger or the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest.
More recently, states have enacted "a growing list of abortion policies, ... the underlying purpose and effect of which are to push reproductive decision making in one direction -- toward pregnancy and childbearing," Barot continues.
"That such pressure violates the essence of anticoercion policies has never been acknowledged by conservatives who are quick to condemn coercive efforts to stop pregnancy," she adds. Many of the laws use "the guise of informed consent" to mandate that women "receive abortion counseling and information replete with inaccuracies and biases," including claims that abortion poses risks to breast cancer, future fertility or mental health.
In U.S. foreign policy, "laws purportedly passed to prevent coercion have been twisted to impede contraceptive access," Barot writes. She notes that every Republican president since President Reagan has blocked U.S. funding to the United Nations Population Fund because of its alleged support for coercion in China, even though several investigations have found no evidence of this claim.
"Time and again, the global reproductive health and rights community has made clear that its priorities lie in upholding choices for women everywhere, and that coercion -- whether to prevent childbearing or compel childbearing -- violates reproductive autonomy and should be unequivocally condemned," Barot writes.
She concludes, "Given the role of the socially conservative forces in the United States and globally in impeding family planning and reproductive health access, even as they decry forced abortion and sterilization, it is clear that their priorities lay elsewhere."
Debra Ness, publisher & president, National Partnership
Andrea Friedman, associate editor & director of reproductive health programs, National Partnership
Marya Torrez, associate editor & senior reproductive health policy counsel, National Partnership
Melissa Safford, associate editor & policy advocate for reproductive health, National Partnership
Perry Sacks, assistant editor & health program associate, National Partnership
Cindy Romero, assistant editor & communications assistant, National Partnership
Justyn Ware, editor
Amanda Wolfe, editor-in-chief
Heather Drost, Hanna Jaquith, Marcelle Maginnis, Ashley Marchand and Michelle Stuckey, staff writers
Tucker Ball, director of new media, National Partnership