We outline below a number of key issues which—in our view—hamper the field of RCA research and call into question some of the findings reported in the extant literature. Some of these are based on our own qualitative work in the field [16,17,18,19,20,21], whilst others are our reflections on the lack of empirical evidence.
Ambiguity of the term “reproductive coercion”
Elsewhere,  we have argued that the term “reproductive coercion”—which is the predominant term referred to in the literature—is problematic. Although the term does accurately reflect the psychological tactics often engaged in by perpetrators, it also permits over-inclusivity. Coercion can be understood in a variety of ways, and has, on occasion, been interpreted as anything that could possibly have an impact on women’s reproductive choices. For instance, Dejoy  argues in her essay on structural violence that: “When state policies make contraception and abortion care inaccessible to some people, they are, in effect, replicating reproductive coercion on a structural level.” (p.45).
Although we do not deny that structural inequalities can be experienced as violence, it is not helpful to consider these sorts of external or contextual issues as being one and the same as abuse from one’s partner or close family member. Structural problems such as poor access to abortion and governmental policies that disadvantage women certainly contribute towards a climate where RCA can flourish, yet, they are not in themselves “reproductive coercion”. In other words, the propensity to describe RCA as a “continuum”  that ranges from interpersonal relationship dynamics through to government policy decisions is not evidence-based and ought to be interrogated with greater rigour.
Similarly, studies have referred to forced fatherhood experienced by men as being “reproductive coercion” , which again, unnecessarily obfuscates the phenomenon in question. While tricking someone into becoming a father against their will is undoubtedly problematic and potentially harmful, the context of this experience is completely different to what the research says about RCA in women. In particular, we refer here to the elements of fear and control. For women, their bodies are held hostage by a partner or family member through fear that they will be harmed physically, psychologically, financially or sexually if they do not comply. Legal explorations of coercion as a concept make it clear that the term means being forced to do something under threat of negative consequences that will disadvantage or harm , yet this important aspect seems to get lost when the term is used in practice. Returning to the case of forced fatherhood, we agree that it does take an important decision—one that happens to be related to reproduction—out of a man’s hands, yet realistically we cannot argue that men are being “abused” just because a child exists that shares their DNA.
On the other hand, an issue that is clearly coercive but is often neglected within the remit of RCA is forced sterilization by family members—typically of women with disabilities. Although this behaviour can occur with “good” intentions [26, 27]—ostensibly to protect vulnerable women from unwanted pregnancies due to sexual assault or to manage menstruation—it is nonetheless an attempt to control bodily and reproductive autonomy. We do not wish to venture too much into this territory, since it engages with issues that are beyond the remit of this commentary, however, recent literature [27, 28] supports an understanding of this behaviour as a form of abuse. We recommend further investigation of this area to improve our understanding.
We also acknowledge that forced sterilisation, forced abortion and forced pregnancy have historically been perpetrated (and in some cases, still are) against women from racialized or marginalised groups. For example, studies report these behaviours in the context of colonisation [29, 30], eugenics and genocide , as well as being forms of gender-based violence. These state-sanctioned tactics, however, may be driven by different motives to those of the individual perpetrator. For example, Sifris  describes involuntary sterilisation as being primarily motivated by intersectional discrimination, whereas we typically understand violence in heterosexual relationships as being a product of male entitlement, fear and control  (acknowledging that, for some, the experience of IPV is also intersectional). As with the case of women with disabilities, however, we suggest that this is an issue that also merits further research to determine whether it ought to be considered within the same category as interpersonal abuse.
Lastly, we argue that referring to “reproductive coercion” obscures the fact that perpetrator tactics—such as the use of physical violence to induce miscarriage or threats to kill or harm existing children if a woman has an abortion—venture well beyond the realms of “coercion” and into abuse and violence. Consider for example the below quote from a recent study by Grace and colleagues  with Latina women in the US:
He made me abort by kicking me. After he hit me, the very next minute I started to have contractions in my spine. And then I started to bleed... blood gushed out of me. And then he took me to the doctor, and they did the curettage... (p.4)
As health researchers working with women and practitioners we have often heard participants express confusion about the term, thinking that physical or sexual violence are not within its remit . Some researchers have attempted to address these issues by referring to “reproductive control”, with reproductive coercion as a subset of psychological behaviours . This certainly has merit, however, again the word “control” does not necessarily encompass circumstances in which fear is present. We have also seen it referred to as “non-consensual insemination” , which also fails to acknowledge the abusive nature of the behaviour and does not encompass forced abortion. In our own work we have previously suggested “reproductive coercion and abuse” (RCA) as an alternative [17, 18]; this clearly positions the phenomenon as abusive while also allowing space for behaviours that are more subtle to be included. Yet, it is also somewhat unwieldy. For the remainder of this commentary we will refer to RCA, however, we welcome suggestions from other researchers and practitioners working in this area around how to more accurately and clearly refer to this form of violence against women.
Failure to focus on intent as central
Another important consideration in understanding RCA is the issue of intent. By this we mean that in order to qualify as RCA, a behaviour has to be perpetrated with the intention of either impregnating a woman or preventing her from becoming or remaining pregnant. In other words, behaviours that incidentally have reproductive impacts ought not be included. This is best illustrated through examining the issue of stealthing (non-consensual condom removal during sexual intercourse). Given that RCA typically includes “condom sabotage” as one of its forms, some researchers have included stealthing as an example of this behaviour . In many ways, this makes perfect sense. However, the removal of a condom during sex can be performed for a variety of reasons, most of which have nothing to do with reproduction. For instance, research points to loss of pleasure/sensation as a prime motivator of men’s condom “non-compliance” . Brodsky, in her examination of men’s online conversations about stealthing, argues that perpetrators are motivated by a desire to force a woman to “take the guy’s load”, not as a means of reproduction but as a symbol of power and male dominance . Similarly, we have argued elsewhere  (based on an analysis of women’s stories about their experiences) that stealthing is characterised by disrespect and selfishness whereas RCA is about intent and control. It is therefore more accurate in many cases to describe stealthing as a form of sexual violence rather than RCA.
Similarly, the issue of female genital mutilation (FGM) could be considered by some to be a form of RCA, since it impacts women’s sexual and reproductive autonomy  and is associated with intimate partner violence . However, literature  suggests that FGM is undertaken primarily to control women’s sexuality—with reproductive outcomes being a secondary side effect, which would place it as a form of family or sexual violence rather than RCA.
Katz and colleagues  have argued that the perpetrator’s intent is irrelevant, and that measures ought to contain only behaviourally-specific items. Indeed, they went so far as to remove the “in order to promote pregnancy” from the reproductive coercion measures developed by Miller and colleagues when conducting their survey. Their rationale is that RCA should follow the example of IPV research, where the majority of measures focus on behaviours without mention of intent . However, IPV research avoids mention of intent specifically because it can be seen as excusing the perpetrator’s behaviour when intent is not present (i.e.: if the perpetrator did not “mean” to cause harm then it is not IPV). This is not the case for RCA, where the choice is between defining a behaviour as RCA versus another form of violence and harm is present either way.
One reason why it is important to focus on intent is to improve the quality of the evidence base around RCA. The lack of clarity around intent may explain why prevalence rates for RCA vary so widely across existing research . In some studies, for instance, RCA measures specify that condom removal must be for the purpose of getting a woman pregnant, whereas in others it simply asks whether women have had a partner “tamper with or remove a condom during sex” (e.g. Black et al. ). Obviously, asking the latter is more likely to result in a higher prevalence rate, especially amongst the younger age group who may be engaging in more casual relationships and “hook-ups” and be more at risk of stealthing. In fact, in Katz’s study  on college students, the lifetime prevalence rate of 30% is the highest reported in the literature. This is precisely because by removing the intentional element from survey measures they are in fact reporting a mixture of RCA, sexual violence and IPV and thus potentially falsely elevating the prevalence.
Data on risk factors and associations may also be skewed if we do not define exactly what is meant by RCA as opposed to sexual violence or IPV. For example, a recent paper reporting on associations between race/ethnicity and experiences of “reproductive coercion” suggested that Black and Hispanic women were at greater risk than white women . However, the study drew on data from the US National Intimate Partner and Domestic Violence Survey where RCA is defined by two questions, one of which is whether a partner has “refused to wear a condom when you wanted them to wear one”. Given that the question does not specify that the condom refusal was to cause pregnancy, it is unclear whether the risk for Black and Hispanic women relates to RCA or sexual violence. Similarly, the authors’ finding that RCA can occur without any other type of IPV is called into question, since it is far more likely that stealthing rather than RCA is not associated with IPV . Although the authors do acknowledge the limitations around how RCA is measured in the NIDVS, the ongoing use of RCA data from this particular survey (from a large representative community sample) by many researchers in the field continues to be problematic.
A similar problem occurs in a recent study by Grace and colleagues that used a survey to examine the prevalence and correlates for RCA amongst college students . The study measured RCA using one question about contraceptive sabotage and another that asked “Have you prevented a pregnancy by using emergency contraception or ended a pregnancy using other methods, and did not tell your partner about it because you were afraid of your partner?” Arguably this question does not measure RCA at all, but rather, measures IPV.
Insufficient exploration of the nuances between pregnancy preventing and pregnancy promoting behaviour
There are currently few studies where analyses of RCA take into account whether the perpetrator’s behaviour was pregnancy promoting or pregnancy preventing. Some commonly-used measures of RCA, such as the Reproductive Coercion Scale , do not even cover the full spectrum of behaviours (items asking about forced abortion are not included). Although there is not yet an empirical basis to support the theory that the context of RCA differs by type (pregnancy promoting vs pregnancy preventing), it is logical to think there may be some variance. For instance, studies report that perpetrators can seek to promote pregnancy in the hope that it will create a permanent connection to their partner [7, 44]. On the other hand, forced or coerced abortion can occur after an unintended pregnancy, where the male partner seeks to prioritise his own needs and wishes over those of his partner . Qualitative work by Buchanan and Humphreys  similarly suggests different ways that coercive control can play out in the context of pregnancy promoting or preventing behaviours. It should also be acknowledged that both types of RCA can occur simultaneously, although little is known about the circumstances under which this occurs.
Although Miller and colleagues defined these different aspects of RCA in their ground-breaking work , subsequent research has paid little attention to the nuances of each of the types and RCA is treated as a homogenous phenomenon. Yet, there is a critical need for a more complex understanding of how RCA intersects with both IPV and sexual violence, as well as its association with other health issues.