The study was published online June 17 in the American Journal of Public Health.
“Women seeking termination of pregnancy comprise a particularly high-risk group for physical or sexual assault,” said Audrey Saftlas, UI professor of epidemiology and lead author of the study. “In our study, almost 14 percent of women receiving an abortion reported at least one incident of physical or sexual abuse in the past year.
“These findings strongly support the need for clinic-based screening with interventions. These high-risk women need resources, referrals and support to help them and their families reduce the violence in their lives,” Saftlas added.
The researchers estimated the one-year prevalence of intimate partner violence among 986 women who had elective abortions. Participants completed anonymous, self-administered, computer-based questionnaires to estimate physical and sexual abuse and battering (chronic nonphysical abuse characterized by controlling behaviors and abuse of power).
Overall, the researchers found the combined one-year prevalence of physical or sexual abuse by any perpetrator was 13.8 percent. The prevalence of physical and sexual violence by an intimate partner was 9.9 percent and 2.5 percent, respectively.
Of the women who reported intimate partner violence, nearly three of every four women (74 percent) identified a former partner as the perpetrator, and slightly more than one in four women (27 percent) identified the current partner as the perpetrator.
“These figures suggest that women seeking abortions have frequently left abusive relationships in the months before the abortion,” Saftlas said.
The study was the first to comprehensively evaluate battering among abortion clients, with 8.4 percent of those in a current relationship screening positive for battering. The study was also among the first to examine the frequency and severity of physical violence. The investigators found that injury severity increased with the reported number of physical assaults, rather than in relation to a pattern of infrequent but very severe abusive events.
“We were excited about participating in this project,” said Penny Dickey, Planned Parenthood of the Heartland chief operating officer and a study author. “Women in violent relationships don’t speak openly about such private matters, unless they are asked. We now need to go that next step to screen all patients for intimate partner violence and get them the support they need to get out of their violent situations.”
In addition to Saftlas and Dickey, article co-authors include Anne Wallis, Tara Shochet and Karisa Harland with the UI Department of Epidemiology; and Corinne Peek-Asa with the UI Department of Occupational and Environmental Health.
The study was funded by the UI Social Research Center, UI Injury Prevention Research Center and the National Institutes of Health.
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