Investigating reproductive coercion and violence towards women with disabilities

About the project

For centuries, women with disabilities have been subject to multiple and intersecting forms of violence, including reproductive violence or coercion, a form of violence designed to control women’s reproductive choices. This violence can include pushing women to make particular choices about their bodies and/or constraining their reproductive decisions. Within Canada, there is a long history of sterilization and reproductive coercion, particularly towards women who are Indigenous, racialized and disabled. Despite this long history of reproductive injustice within Canadian and international contexts, reproductive violence toward women with disabilities has received little attention in the literature.

This knowledge synthesis assembles and examines the literature related to all forms of reproductive coercion towards women with disabilities. Based on a disability justice framework, we conducted a scoping review, investigating and synthesizing the research literature related to reproductive violence against women with disabilities within Canadian and international contexts. Throughout our research, we identified key concepts related to reproductive violence, and potential research-knowledge gaps to inform future research, policy and service delivery.

Following a rigorous research strategy, 48 publications were included in this scoping review. Although heterogeneous, this review provides an overview of the meaning and types of reproductive violence towards women with disabilities, the perpetrators and the location of violence. The scoping review mainly came from legal disciplines and questions related to the ‘best interests’ of women with disabilities and informed consent were widely addressed in the selected publications.

Key findings

Despite the growing body of literature exploring reproductive coercion against women with disabilities, it has been evidenced that this type of violence continues to plague the lives of these women. The results of this scoping review are centred on legal analysis and most of the publications are related to women with intellectual disabilities. Publications within the study are from countries around the world. The main findings of this scoping review are as follows:

  • Women with disabilities continue to be constructed as children (are infantilized), asexual, dependent, and unfit for marriage and motherhood. These ideologies underpinned many of the decisions within court applications for sterilization.
  • Access to information on sexual and reproductive health services and reproductive rights remains largely inadequate. For example, women with intellectual and developmental disabilities are rarely provided with information that is adapted to their learning and communication styles. That constrains their ability to make free and informed reproductive choices.
  • Women with disabilities are often coerced into long-term contraception methods.
  • Sterilization can be considered as
    1. a valid alternative if no other contraceptive option can be followed;
    2. a valid option for managing menstruation-related issues (specifically the hysterectomy); and
    3. a routine procedure.
  • The notion of decision-making and capacity to consent to sterilization is at the heart of the legal publications. A tension between the ‘best interest’ of the woman with the disability and the ‘best interest’ of the caregiver was identified in the literature.
  • We found little empirical evidence on sterilization that occurs outside institutions and scant research that explores the perspectives of women with disabilities.

Policy implications

  • The results of the scoping review illustrate how intersectionality is at play in reproductive violence (gender, disability and poverty, for example) and for women with disabilities there is an elevated risk for living diverse types of abuse (sexual, physical, reproductive). Based on these findings, policies should be more inclusive and consider an intersectional approach in devising, revising and implementing policies.
  • The scoping review revealed the types and nature of reproductive violence, scarcity of women’s voices and experiences, and gaps in research knowledge that could be helpful in developing interventions aimed at reducing such violence.
  • A future step within this research would be to conduct a textual analysis of relevant policies that could be used to combat reproductive violence experienced by women with disabilities within the Canadian context.

Further information

Read the full report

Contact the researchers

Laura Pacheco, Assistant Professor, School of Social Work, Memorial

Coralie Mercerat, Professor in Psychology and Mental Health, University TELUQ:

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