What is Reproductive Coercion?

Reproductive Coercion is getting some surprise attention this week after actors Nikki Reed and Ian Somerhalder went on Dr Berlin’s Informed Pregnancy Podcast and related their pregnancy story with a few red flags. (Note: Dr. Berlin is a prenatal chiropractor, chiropractors are not medical doctors.)

I’ve linked the podcast so you can listen for yourself (the section in question is within the first 8 minutes) as well as a Jezebel article that includes a partial transcript, but basically, Reed says Somerhalder knew way before she did that he definitely wanted children, after they were married Somerhalder wanted to have children around the same time his best friends’ did, and then one night on vacation with aforementioned best friends, he popped Reeds’ birth control pills out one by one into the toilet while their friends filmed it and Reed was “freaking out.” Somerhalder ends the story by admitting really he was the one who decided to get pregnant, rather than his earlier use of “we.”

Is this reproductive coercion? And what is reproductive coercion anyway?

Reproductive Coercion (RC) is a type of intimate partner violence where one partner seeks to limit or control the other partner’s ability to make choices about their reproductive health. RC is a spectrum of behaviors, which can range from pregnancy promoting behaviors like tampering with birth control, sexual assault, and preventing someone from seeking an abortion if they want one, to behaviors that attempt to pressure, control, or harm a pregnant person with the aim of ending the pregnancy against their will.

When you listen to the actual audio, it seems as if they’re trying to make this into a cute, jokey story, but I can’t shake the red-flag-feeling. Reed’s response on twitter, shortly after media outlets started picking up on the story on Friday, characterizes the controversy as something the media has blown out of proportion, while most fan replies to her tweets are encouraging and insist that they knew it was lighthearted.

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Here’s the thing – the narrative was their own. There are many times that a controversy over how something was reported in a profile of a celebrity – which come from much longer interviews that are condensed for publication and may only feature select quotes, but this came from a podcast where Reed and Somerhalder were speaking openly and unedited. The multiple journalists and outlets that picked up on the podcast (a podcast which I imagine rarely makes national headlines) raised the red flag over Somerhalder’s description of tossing her birth control in the toilet while Reed was upset, and that Reed asks about the video that was taken and wonders if she was too drunk to remember. These elements are alarming facts, and I when I listened to the actual audio the way they were told didn’t make me feel any better. Maybe they didn’t tell the story in an artful way, but these are tactics that are part of the spectrum of behaviors known as RC.

Reed and Somerhalder later put out a joint statement addressing the allegations of reproductive coercion:

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Celebrities are very often not experts on the topics they become associated with. This is true. However, it is a rare moment in pop culture that a relatively little-known public health problem is gaining some attention, which is ultimately a good place to start a conversation.

Racism is a Public Health Issue

“Racism is a system of structuring opportunity and assigning value based on the social interpretation of how one looks (which is what we call “race”, that unfairly disadvantages some individuals and communities, unfairly advantages other individuals and communities, and saps the strength of the whole society through the waste of human resources.” —APHA Past President Camara Jones, MD, PhD, MPH

The news out of Charlottesville this weekend is sickening. Unsurprisingly, lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how racism impacts individual and societal health. Experiencing racism is stressful, and stress impacts health. In a 2013 article in the Atlantic, the impact of racial discrimination on health is described thusly:

Discrimination has been shown to increase the risk of stress, depression, the common cold, hypertensioncardiovascular diseasebreast cancer, and mortality. Recently, two journals — The American Journal of Public Health and The Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race — dedicated entire issues to the subject. These collections push us to consider how discrimination becomes what social epidemiologist Nancy Krieger, one of the field’s leaders, terms “embodied inequality.”

Embodied inequality. When you examine health outcomes by race, it is really striking how far-reaching the divide goes, from infant mortality rates, to life expectancy, and disease rates. Then there are the psychological impacts of dealing with racism. Trauma has devastating impacts on physiological health. On top of that, medical professionals have exploited racial minorities for centuries, from slavery to eugenics to medical experiments to discrimination in medical practices. These gross racist, exploitative practices have happened and continue to happen, and I recommend that anyone who is interested in the history of racial discrimination in healthcare read Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington.

I’ve linked a bunch of articles in this post, and it’s all good reading, but I’d urge anyone who is interested in public health to consider anti-racist work as an integral part of improving society-level health outcomes. It is not and should not be the responsibility of Black people, or Latinx or any other racial and ethnic minorities to “fix the racial divide.” Racism is perpetuated by systems and the white people who benefit from them, even when they do not individually work to maintain them. It is all our responsibility to dismantle racism and the toxic effects it has on society.

How can we support anti-racism? There are many organizations that are in need of donations, like the Charlottesville Solidarity Legal Fund, which fights white supremacy in Charlottesville, VA.  We can also have conversations with our friends and family to challenge racist assumptions, attend protests and physically show up for anti-racist events. I think particularly for white people, it is important to listen and educate ourselves as much as possible. Read and watch media created by people of color. When you feel like your own beliefs are being challenged, listen and wait. Really listen. It’s uncomfortable and hard to think about our own biases, but it’s not more uncomfortable or hard than receiving racist treatment and dealing with racist systems every day. Our society is better when everyone has access to the things they need to live healthy and stress-free lives, and it’s essential that we treat racism like the public health issue it is.