How the drama surrounding 'The Bachelor' creator reminds us to factor reproductive coercion into our conversations about abortion

Earlier this month, Laura Fleiss was granted a temporary restraining order against her husband, Bachelor creator Mike Fleiss, after he attempted, through a series of verbal, physical, and financial attacks, to coerce her into having an abortion.

In court documents, Laura explains that her 55-year-old husband (with whom she has a 4-year-old son, Ben) “vocalized many times that he did not want to have a second child.” After learning of her pregnancy, Fleiss, who had "frequently been verbally abusive toward" Laura, became irate. Between July 4th and 6th, he threatened to cut her off financially and isolate her from her son and family. He physically assaulted her, leaving her with bruises on her arm and a scratch on her neck, and threatened to “shove [her] down the stairs” and “punch [her] face in,” all before taking her phone and leaving her stranded at their home. Laura filed a police report after a neighbor heard her screaming for help and drove her to the police station.

Laura claims that although she had “not personally committed to having an abortion,” she made an appointment for one due to her husband’s “insistence and pressure.” “You have a choice, you can choose,” he told her, “Have an abortion or go back to Wisconsin, but you are not taking Ben." He also told her, “If you have an abortion, then we can just go back to the way we were." Weiss eventually demanded to see bank statements showing the abortion had been paid for as well as flight information to and from Oahu, where the procedure was scheduled to take place.

More than one woman's story

Laura did not go through with the unwanted abortion and was granted custody of their son. The bravery she demonstrated by standing her ground is remarkable. Given the circumstances, it’s not difficult to imagine things ending differently. And we have reason to believe that, for women in similar circumstances, it often does. As such, her story forces us to consider an uncomfortable reality: that abortion isn’t always a woman’s free choice.

How frequently women are pressured into abortion is difficult to say. Anecdotally, we know that it happens, but reliable statistics are hard to come by. We have evidence to suggest that reproductive coercion is particularly prevalent in abusive relationships. A study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that intimate partner violence (IPV) “was associated with greater involvement by men in pregnancies ending in abortion and greater conflict regarding decisions to seek abortion.”

But reproductive coercion occurs outside of physically violent relationships as well—and in subtler ways. A study led by Dr. Priscilla K. Coleman, a Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Bowling Green State University, surveyed women with a history of abortion about their experiences. Among the 987 women who completed the survey, 74 percent “disagreed that their decision to abort was entirely free from even subtle pressure from others,” and 28 percent reported aborting “out of fear of losing their partner if they did not.”

Reproductive coercion does not affect all populations of women equally. A systematic review of available research on the issue found that it disproportionately affects “women of lower socioeconomic status, single women, and African American, Latina, and multiracial women.”

And of course, coercion is not the only reason that women have unwanted abortions. Forced abortions are extreme examples of a broader phenomenon, in which a woman ends a pregnancy, not out of desire, but due to other external pressures—fear of familial or societal judgment, loss of employment, financial instability, and so on.

Taken together, the many factors that influence a woman’s decision to end her pregnancy complicate the narrative on reproductive autonomy. But if we are going to do right by women, we can’t ignore the fact that guaranteeing options does not guarantee free choice.

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