Pregnancy should be a time for connection and celebration. Unfortunately there is an increase in family and domestic violence (FDV) for some expecting parents during this time. Expecting parents, who find themselves in this situation, are encouraged to seek support throughout their pregnancy with healthcare professionals who can provide necessary referrals and support services.
This article discusses:
- How common is domestic abuse during pregnancy?
- Warning signs of domestic abuse during pregnancy
- Finding help for forced pregnancies
- How health professionals can help pregnant women facing domestic violence
- Support available for women facing domestic abuse during pregnancy
- Behavioural change organisations for abusive partners
Read more to access support or provide support to friends and family experiencing family and domestic violence during this time.
How common is domestic abuse during pregnancy?
In 2017, the Australian Bureau of Statistics recognised that 1 in 6 women experience physical or sexual violence by a current or former partner, with a significant number of these women reporting domestic violence escalating or commencing during pregnancy (ABS, 2017). Other concerning statistics indicate that:
- The risk of attempted/completed murder is tripled when women are abused during pregnancy (McFarlane, 2002)
- Violent or abusive men may find pregnancy threatening and seek to re-exert control over their partners during this time (Jasinski, 2004)
- Women’s preoccupation with their baby and their lesser physical and emotional availability during pregnancy may limit their ability to perform expected traditional caring and homemaker roles, leading to increased violence (Jasinski, 2004).
- Estimates indicate that around 17% of women (aged 18 and over) experience violence during pregnancy from their previous or current partner.
- The risk of FDV has been found to be higher in pregnant women and in the period following birth, posing serious health risks to both pregnant women and their babies.
- There is known under- reporting of FDV due to its complex and sensitive nature (including patients’ reluctance to report) and under identification by health workers (AIHW, 2015).
Warning signs of domestic abuse during pregnancy
Family and domestic violence can significantly impact the mental and physical health of expecting mothers during pregnancy. Signs can include experiencing:
- fear of partner/ex-partner
- controlling behaviour
- threatening behaviour
- being slapped/kicked/hurt (ANROWS, 2020)
- Being four times more likely to report depressive symptoms
- Being ten times more likely to report anxiety symptoms (Brown et al, 2008)
Symptoms often persist through the postnatal period affecting the mother’s ability to form secure attachments with infants (AAPG, 2015).
There are also significant risks to the unborn child’s health if the mother experiences family and domestic violence.
Finding help for forced pregnancies
Unfortunately for some women, pregnancy can result from having their reproductive health choices taken away from them. Reproductive coercion is the act of taking away a person’s choice to control their own body and can be experienced by both men and women. Examples of reproductive coercion can be:
- Deliberately sabotaging contraceptive methods
- Pressuring someone into pregnancy
- Forcing someone to terminate or carry through with a pregnancy
- Convincing someone into sterilisation
Reproductive coercion can be carried out through physical violenchealthcareiolence and even emotional abuse.
People experiencing reproductive coercion are encouraged to talk to health care professionals. In some cases, medical staff may be able to assist the victim-survivor in accessing reproductive tools such as contraception or channel them to other support services (MSI Australia, 2022)
How health professionals can help pregnant women facing domestic violence?
Antenatal care allows women to seek support from health professionals during their pregnancy. Many health allies are proactive in asking women to disclose safety issues in an environment where their partner isn’t present:
- General practitioners, nurses, midwives and senior medical officers are in a unique position to provide confidential support and intervention during pregnancy through regular appointments that the mother might not otherwise be permitted to attend
- These health professionals can supply crucial referrals to emergency relief accommodation, support payments and even police assistance
- Reporting family and domestic violence to a doctor is a very credible source of evidence in family law court
- There are up to 11 opportunities to discuss safety concerns during the antenatal care schedule
- Many hospitals and health centres providing antenatal care have discreet ways for pregnant patients to signal they need a private conversation. These are displayed on posters in female bathrohealthcare
Support for women facing domestic abuse during pregnancy
Women are encouraged to seek support through their health care professionals if it is safe. Yourtoolkit.com also offers a free step-by-step guide that connects women to the services and provides tips for protecting their financial and personal well-being. In addition, the Act Now step lists several available services that can be contacted from a secure device to find support:
- 1800 Respect 1800 737 732
Telephone service for confidential counselling support and referral options for people impacted by domestic or family violence or sexual assault.
- Crisis Care 1800 199 008
Information and counselling services for people in urgent need, including those escaping domestic violence. Crisis care can also refer to Emergency accommodation refuges in Western Australia.
- Domestic Violence Liaison Officer (WA Police) 131 144
To report a breach of a Family Violence Order or for Police help during an incident. More information on how the Police can help can be found at the WA Police website.
Telephone support for women experiencing family and domestic violence, including help to talk with Police, some child-related services and referral to Emergency accommodation at refuges.
Behavioural change organisations for abusive partners
When partners choose to be violent during pregnancy, they pose a significant risk to the pregnant woman and the unborn child. Therefore, healthcare workers must not escalate the perpetrator’s behaviour by discussing what the victim-survivor has disclosed. Instead, healthcare professionals are encouraged to talk about the role of a new parent and refer abusive partners to available support services:
- Men’s Domestic Violence Helpline 1800 000 599
A 24/7 confidential helpline where men can talk privately to a trained professional. Male victims of FDV can also use this line to get support.
- MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78
A 24/7 confidential telephone and online support, information and referral service for men, specialising in family and relationship concerns.
- Breathing Space: 9439 5707 (located metro Perth)
A 3-month therapeutic residential program for men who have been abusive to their intimate partners or family members.
- Men’s Behaviour Change Programs
Numerous organisations deliver therapeutic behaviour change programs.
Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2017). Personal Safety, Australia. ABS. https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/people/crime-and-justice/personal-safety-australia/latest-release
McFarlane J, Campbell JC, Sharps P, Watson K. (2002). ‘Abuse during pregnancy and femicide: urgent implications for women’s health. Obstetricians and Gynecologists. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/11275075_Abuse_during_pregnancy_and_femicide_Urgent_implications_for_women%27s_health
Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety Limited (ANROWS). (2020). ‘Identifying and responding to domestic violence in antenatal care’. ANROWS Research reports. https://www.anrows.org.au/publication/identifying-and-responding-to-domestic-violence-in-antenatal-care-key-findings-and-future-directions/
Brown J, McDonald E, Krastev A. (2008). ‘Fear of an intimate partner and women’s health in early pregnancy: findings from the Maternal Health Study’. Volume 35. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1523-536X.2008.00256.x
All Parties Parliamentary Group AAPG. (2015). ‘Conception to Age 2’. London: First 1001 Days.
Jasinski, J. L. (2004). ‘Pregnancy and domestic violence: A review of the literature’. Trauma, Violence & Abuse. Volume 5. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/8571148_Pregnancy_and_Domestic_Violence_A_Review_of_the_Literature.
MSI Australia. (2022). ‘Reproductive Coercion’. https://www.mariestopes.org.au/advocacy-policy/reproductive-coercion/
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2015) Screening for domestic violence during pregnancy: options for future reporting in the National Perinatal Data Collection. Cat. no. PER 71. Canberra: AIHW.