By David C. Reardon
The accusations that Indiana U.S. Senate candidate Richard Mourdock believes “God intends pregnancies resulting from rape” reveal a despicable attitude toward justice and truth.
But even worse, the commentary and debate taking place about rape pregnancies is profoundly hurtful to both women who became pregnant through rape and their children.
While the comments may not be intended to hurt, they reflect a profound ignorance and disregard of the real needs and interests of women who have experienced pregnancies resulting from rape.
As Kathleen DeZeeuw, a woman who raised a son conceived in rape, wrote in the book Victims and Victors: Speaking Out About Their Pregnancies,Abortions,and Children Resulting from Sexual Assault:
“I, having lived through rape, and also having raised a child ‘conceived in rape,’ feel personally assaulted and insulted every time I hear that abortion should be legal because of rape and incest. I feel that we’re being used to further the abortion issue, even though we’ve not been asked to tell our side of the story.”
Her feelings are shared by many women who have experienced pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. Following the publication of Victims and Victors, for which I was one of the editors, a number women who contributed their stories to the book banded together to form the Ad Hoc Committee of Women Pregnant by Sexual Assault (WPSA).
For the last eight years, WPSA has been petitioning Congress to hold hearings at which women who have actually been pregnant following rape or incest could tell policy makers and the media what their experiences were truly like, and what they and other women facing such a situation really want and need.
The average person might think that WPSA’s efforts would be supported by legislators and people on both sides of the abortion debate. One might also think, given all the media attention devoted to the statements that Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock have made regarding rape pregnancies, that once these political stories broke, the major media would be eager to interview WPSA members for their thoughts on these issues.
Instead, WPSA spokeswomen are getting zero calls. The media and many politicians and leaders on both sides of the abortion debate continue to ignore WPSA and their petition.
Why? Because their stories don’t easily fit into the already well-established narrative of how abortion in cases of sexual assault is traditionally debated.
The Extent of Misunderstanding
Typically, this issue is discussed by people on both sides of the abortion debate without any input from women who have actually been there. But if we were to stop and listen to the women who have actually experienced pregnancies following rape, what might we learn?
First, according to the best study of the incidence rate of rape pregnancies in the United States, there are approximately 32,101 women who become pregnant following rape each year. Approximately 12,230 of these rape victims continue the pregnancy. Another 3,790 have spontaneous miscarriages.
And this is important: only half of those becoming pregnant through rape end up having an abortion.
Even more importantly, our survey of women who became pregnant through sexual assault found that in many of the cases where the pregnancy is aborted, women feel pressured by their families, friends, doctors and counselors to undergo an abortion they don’t really want.
Assuming these statistics have been constant over the last 40 years, there are approximately 500,000 American women who have given birth to a child conceived in rape. Together, these mothers and their children, numbering approximately one million Americans, have a very personal interest in how the rape and abortion issue is being discussed. But so far, they have had very little actual influence on the discussion.
Another 640,000 women have had abortions following a rape. They too have a strong personal connection to this issue and the discussion surrounding it.
So, it shouldn’t be too hard to find women who would be willing to share their stories.
In fact, many already have. Nearly 200 women contributed information about their own personal experiences to Victims and Victors, which I co-edited with Julie Makimaa and Amy Sobie. (Despite the valuable perspective of the women who shared their stories, however, and despite sending copies to major book reviewers, the book’s publication was largely ignored.) Unfortunately, the public’s ignorance about the real needs and experiences of pregnant sexual assault victims is causing real harm to women like them who have experienced pregnancies resulting from rape or incest.
Why “Pro-Choice” Presumptions Are So Hurtful
Opinion polls have shown that the vast majority of women, including those who believe abortion should be legal, believe it is a bad thing, morally wrong, or, at best, a necessary evil. Other polls have found that more than 70 percent of the public believes abortion involves the taking of a human life. Put another way, support for “choice,” whether for any pregnancy or for those accompanied by particularly difficult circumstances, does not automatically mean disregard for the fact that a life is at stake, even if it is “only” a very little human life.
Women who become pregnant through rape are probably not significantly different than the general public in their beliefs. Our research suggests that the vast majority believe they are pregnant with a human life and that abortion has negative moral aspects.
Since rape victims are already dealing with the aftermath of the rape trauma, the discovery that they are pregnant is no doubt shocking, disorienting and frightening, to say the least, and many face both internal and external struggles in the months ahead. But, as many women have reported, this does not change their underlying core beliefs about the morality of abortion or the nature of what is growing inside them. Despite the unborn child’s paternity or the circumstances of the conception, most women likely believe it is a life, a developing child, a child that is also hers.
While many women reported difficulty in processing their feelings toward the unborn child, in general they did not lack empathy for the child or concern about doing the right thing. Among those who continued their pregnancies, initial negative emotions about the pregnancy tended to become more positive over time and often developed into strong maternal feelings by the time of birth.
Most pregnant sexual assault victims also clearly separated the unborn child from the rape. Many saw the birth of the child as a positive good coming out of evil, as opposed to the destruction and violence of rape. To use an analogy, while people would condemn burning down a forest through arson, the new growth that ultimately comes after the fire is not seen as a manifestation of that evil, but of something good coming out of a bad circumstance.
Women who spoke of God did not believe that He was adding another evil on top of that which had already occurred or that He was unconcerned that an evil had taken place, but rather, that He was working through the circumstances to bless the mother, the child and those whose lives they touched. As one contributor put it in describing the baby, “he was the only good thing that came out of the rape.”
Many of the approximately 12,200 women per year who give birth to children conceived in rape would likely find that simply dismissing their pregnancies, and by implication their children, as “evil” is deeply offensive.
Pressured to Abort
Furthermore, our survey of women in Victims and Victors found that many, if not most, of those who become pregnant through rape or incest feel pressured to abort by their families, friends, counselors, physicians, or even the perpetrators themselves.
Among the women whose stories and surveys we collected, 43 percent of rape victims who had abortions volunteered information indicating they had felt pressured to undergo the abortion. Following are some examples from their testimonies:
“I was 22 weeks pregnant and had decided I really wanted to keep my baby. But I felt a tremendous pressure from all sides—especially to please my parents—and I finally gave in.”
“My mom told me abortion was the only answer and I was such an emotional wreck that I just thought if that’s what she thinks, she must be right. So that day she took me and paid for my abortion.”
“My parents were embarrassed about the pregnancy and insisted I have an abortion . . .”
“When I look back, she [the counselor] was more of a salesperson than a counselor. I mentioned all of my doubts about the abortion and she would try to tear them down.”
“Basically my friend took me by the hand and led me to the clinic where there was no discussion about alternatives, just an appointment made for me . . .”
In most cases, those doing the pressuring simply assumed, as most people do, that abortion is the “best” or even only solution to pregnancies resulting from rape, despite the fact that many women and girls would actually wish to choose otherwise. As one woman noted in Victims and Victors:
I think that rape victims with pregnancies are discriminated against because people seem to think you’re nuts to have a baby by the man who raped you. We’re looked upon as being liars, or stupid.
As long as this social myth is left unchallenged, it is a direct and real danger to those who become pregnant through sexual assault. This myth is the driving force behind the well-intentioned advice, and even pressure, on women and girls to submit to the abortion as “the only sensible thing to do,” even when they are not so convinced.
Further, women and girls face this pressure at a time when they are likely traumatized or in crisis as a result of rape, and have few emotional resources to fall back on. Research has shown that a history of sexual assault or abuse is among the preexisting factors that increase a woman’s likelihood of experiencing emotional trauma after abortion. On the other hand, there are to my knowledge no published studies showing any measurable benefits associated with having an abortion.
In our own sample of rape victims who had abortions, almost all the women expressed regret that the abortion had occurred or believed that abortion had been the wrong solution for them. Moreover, 94 percent of those who responded rejected the idea of abortion as a good option for other women in their circumstances. They were not advocates for encouraging more of the same.
Whether our sample was random enough to represent the entire population of women who have experienced a pregnancy resulting from sexual assault is beyond our current ability to determine. But it is certainly substantive enough to conclude that at least some, and perhaps the majority, of women who have abortions after rape believe they were badly counseled to have an abortion.
How and Why the Mourdock Story is so Distorted
Here is how Mourdock actually explained why he did not support abortion in cases of rape:
I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize life is that gift from God. I think that even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.
For most reasonable people, it is obvious that the antecedent for “it” was “life,” not rape, as Mourdock himself later clarified, saying, “God creates life, and that was my point. God does not want rape, and by no means was I suggesting that He does. Rape is a horrible thing, and for anyone to twist my words otherwise is absurd and sick.”
In video from the debate, you will further see that Mourdock’s intonations and body language underscore (a) his concern and empathy for women who experience the horror of rape and (b) his religious conviction that every human life is a sacred gift made in the image of God.
Both are viewpoints that were expressed by women in Victims and Victors. For example, one contributor wrote about her daughter’s birth:
At seven pounds, four ounces, with blue eyes and dark hair, Jennifer was perfect in my eyes — so tiny, so vulnerable. As she was placed in my arms and I kissed her cheek, I knew in my heart of hearts that she belonged to God. I knew she was a sacred gift. …
She has touched many lives in untold ways in her 24 years, and we are certain that God has a divine plan and purpose for every human being he creates. …
During my pregnancy I was completely stripped and void of every single resource. There was not one person to cling to or depend on. … Yet I had one magnificent secret gift, a hidden treasure that only God knew. A gift of immense value that went beyond any measure or comprehension. That gift was the flourishing life of my unborn baby.
In accepting the wonderment of this little one, I was brought to the light of a hope that I never knew before her existence.
Any fair interpretation of Mourdock’s statement regarding God’s intent is clearly not that God intends rape, but that every life, even one conceived in rape, is sacred because God intends all children to be a gift from Him. Indeed, in biblical terms, they are children of God, made in the image of God.
But fairness was the last thing on the minds of the critics who saw in Mourdock’s statement a chance to twist his meaning in order to create a trap for abortion opponents. This twisting is seen in the question MSNBC correspondent Chuck Todd put to a Romney campaign official about Mourdock’s comments, and which was even more pointed: “Does the Romney campaign believe God intends rape?”
This is a variation of what is called a loaded question, rather like the question, “Yes or no: have you stopped beating your wife?” Todd’s question creates the presumption that Mourdock’s comments prove that at least some of Romney’s supporters believe that “God intends rape.” Given that premise, Todd simply wants to know if Romney himself actually agrees with the crazies who want women to happily accept the babies that God “intends” to force on them through acts of rape?
As seen in a New York Times editorial, the Mourdock story, as slanted by the media, is seen as an opportunity to expose the logical inconsistency of social conservatives. Their objective is to simply force conservatives to admit that that God does not intend rape or the resulting rape pregnancies. From there it logically follows that if these pregnancies are not intended by God, how can anyone oppose aborting pregnancies that God never intended? And since every woman is entitled to discern God’s intent in her own life, doesn’t that mean that abortion should be allowed anytime a woman believes that having a child is not God’s intent?
Thus, the whole purpose of asking pro-life politicians about abortion in cases of rape or incest is to prove that they are either heartless or inconsistent. It appears to be a perfect Catch-22.
Why Women Pregnant By Sexual Assault Must be Silenced
The really “clever” part is that the reporters always avoid posing these questions to women who have actually experienced a pregnancy resulting from rape.
But if reporters spoke to the women who have been there, such as the women who contributed to Victims and Victors, they would likely receive a different answer. None of the women who contributed to the book expressed the view that God intended them to be raped. But many expressed the view that their children were gifts from God or that they were glad to have the child in their life. For example, Kathleen DeZeeuw wrote:
My son is truly an example of God’s great love and grace. He is not a “misfit” nor has he, in any way, gone the way of his biological father. His life, as everyone’s, is truly unique and special. I’m so very blessed by and proud of my son.
For a reporter or anyone else to twist DeZeeuw’s or other women’s words to press toward the “logical conclusion” that since they are glad to have their children in their lives, they must therefore be glad that they were raped, is outrageous.
Indeed, most reasonable viewers would also instantly recognize such a line of questioning as the calculated, insensitive baiting that it truly is. That is exactly why no reporter wants to pose such questions to any of the 500,000 women who have actually given birth to a child conceived from sexual assault. So why is this line of questioning okay when the question is posed to a politician?
The bottom line is that WPSA members simply have no patience for sophomoric syllogisms of the type, “if rape is bad, then children conceived during rape are bad.” Or conversely, if the children conceived in rape are a blessing, then rape is a blessing. Such despicable attempts to twist the truth are deeply offensive.
But the truth that over half of women who become pregnant by rape do not have abortions, and that many or most of those who do have abortions are further traumatized, just isn’t something that the mainstream media wants to explore. Doing so might put an end to all the entertaining “gotcha” moments that occur when ill-prepared pro-life politicians can be portrayed as heartless, inconsistent, or both.
How Pro-Lifers Can Avoid Contributing to the Problem
Unfortunately, during the last eight years there has been little support for the WPSA petition for congressional hearings from most pro-life politicians or major pro-life organizations.
In some cases, I’ve been told by some pro-life leaders that they believe “we can never win the rape and incest issue.” Given the overwhelming public support for abortion in cases of rape, these leaders see it as a lost cause. Some have argued that rape pregnancies represent only 2 percent of all abortions and so it is better to budget their political capital on arguing about the 99 percent of abortions that are not due to rape and for which there is less public support.
In my view, this thinking is entirely upside down and inside out.
WPSA members, and many other women like them, will step forward if given an opportunity to tell the truth about their real experiences and needs. Many have already done so in Victims and Victors.
Unless they listen to women who have been there, many pro-life politicians will continue to misspeak and mishandle the issue and see their words twisted. Not only do they need to listen to women who have been there, they need to continuously redirect reporters to ask WPSA women themselves.
The question, “Do you support abortion in cases of rape or incest?” needs to be countered with, “Does abortion make the lives of women who become pregnant following sexual assault better, or does it just add to their trauma and troubles?”
And the way to answer that question is to support efforts to give WPSA members, and other women like them, an opportunity to focus the attention of policy makers, the media, and the public on what their real experiences, needs and insights are.
A Call to Action
We need a broad grassroots effort to build a platform by which women who experienced a pregnant resulting from sexual assault will finally be heard. So far, the WPSA petition has been largely ignored by politicians, the media, and leaders on both sides of the abortion debate.
Please call your state and federal legislators and ask them to take a public position in favor of having the hearings requested by WPSA.
Please call any of the pro-life groups you support, especially any with lobbyists in Washington D.C., and ask them to support hearings.
Perhaps these controversies will point to the need to learn how to better address this issue, and we can finally get support for the WPSA petition from leading pro-life and pro-family groups.
But we need your help.
To be a part of this effort, fill out the web form below to become a WPSA supporter.
Then, please share this information and the petition, with your legislators and with pro-life leaders and lobbyists. And share it with fellow pro-lifers, family members and friends and ask them to support WPSA too.
If you are a woman who has experienced a pregnancy resulting from rape or incest, you can join WPSA and add your name to the petition (you need not go public to join WPSA).
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David C. Reardon, Ph.D., is the director of the Elliot Institute and one of the editors of Victims and Victors: Speaking Out About Their Pregnancies, Abortions,and Children Resulting from Sexual Assault.