Being Honest About the Gut Wrenching Realities of Rape and Abortion

Being Honest About the Gut Wrenching Realities of Rape and Abortion August 29, 2012

Author’s note:  This piece is a good bit longer than most posts will be.  But given the topic and central theme of this post, it seems appropriate to devote more time and space to this conversation.

If you’ve turned on the news at all in the past week you are likely to have heard MO Congressman Todd Akin’s offensive comments that “legitimate rape” is not likely to result in pregnancy because the woman’s body has “ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”  With the start of a new week, I’m sure Republicans would like nothing more than to put the whole Akin controversy to bed and turn the page to the national convention they are trying to host (if Isaac will let them).  But the issue is not going away.  While the comments have been widely condemned by leaders across political parties, including President Obama and Governor Romney, condemnation is not enough.  There is more here that needs to be said.  What we need is an honest discussion about the reasoning that led to these statements and an acknowledgement that our politically charged rhetoric is preventing us from having necessary conversations on abortion and leading to policies that endanger women.

To begin to unpack this we must first realize that Rep. Akin’s remarks were not thoughtless throw-away words.  He meant what he said, and many others share his views.  As one of their first acts when they regained the majority, House Republicans, including Rep. Akin, tried to introduce the term “forcible rape” into law, raising legal and moral questions about what exactly “non-forcible rape” is and whether there are degrees of severity when it comes to rape.  Akin was joined in these efforts by Rep. Paul Ryan, the newly minted GOP Vice Presidential candidate.  Only a few days after Rep. Akin’s recent remarks, Iowa Rep. Steven King told a reporter that he didn’t know of any cases where victims of statutory rape have gotten pregnant.  When most people were quickly putting distance between themselves and Rep. Akin, the Family Research Council stated in a release that they “enthusiastically endorse his candidacy.”  And Brian Fischer, host of the radio show Focal Point on American Family Radio (one of the largest Christian radio networks in the country), went so far as to say that Rep. Akin’s claim that women who are raped cannot get pregnant is “absolutely right.”

There’s a lot more going on here than a debate over whether rape is really rape.  What is really at issue are the gut-wrenching and morally impossible questions that the reality of rape poses to the issue of abortion.  When it comes to most of our abortion debates, the focus is often on what the woman could or should have done to keep from getting pregnant.  Women are often reduced to a catalog of their mistakes and sins, and compassion for their circumstances is frequently removed from the equation and our legislation.  But being the victim of rape is not a sin.  Ironically, rape humanizes women in a climate where the majority of our rhetoric around abortion dehumanizes them.  Everyone, including Congressman Akin, feels extreme compassion for the victims of rape.  And so the question naturally arises, is abortion morally justified when the woman is not only not responsible for her pregnancy, but is the victim of an incredibly traumatic and violent assault?  It’s a legitimate question and an extremely difficult one.

This is the question Rep. Akin was responding to when he made his harmful comments.  It is pretty clear from the rest of his response that Rep. Akin does not support abortion in the case of rape.  Before too many people decry this position as an example of his “extreme anti-abortion views” I would question whether his position is really that different from pacifists who oppose all war, even to prevent genocide.  Polling shows that 75% of Americans believe abortion is permissible in the case of rape or incest, putting Rep. Akin in the minority view.  But expressing a minority position is not inherently extreme or offensive.  In fact, I would say that for those who believe that the sanctity of life is absolutely inviolable, holding genuine love and compassion for a victim of rape while believing she should not have an abortion does take moral courage.

But Rep. Akin did not show moral courage.  Instead, he chose the wide and easy path of avoiding moral complexity by delegitimizing (literally) the experience of women who become pregnant as a result of rape.  Rather than have the hard, honest (potentially politically costly) discussion about his moral convictions, Rep. Akin made up medical facts to dismiss the gut-wrenching decisions thousands of women face each year.  The essence of his comments was a fictive assertion that pregnancy as a result of rape is a non-issue, therefore abortion as the result of rape is not a significant concern.  Opposing abortion in the case of rape would certainly be easier if this was true, but wanting to avoid a difficult position does not justify harming thousands of women.  This is where the abortion wars have led us.  We are now in a place where compassion for a woman faced with abortion is completely removed from our discourse and our policies, and is replaced instead by fictional facts and altered reality.

I suspect the reason Rep. Akin responded the way he did is the same reason many of our public debates have become so polarized.  Our system, from our media to our politics, thrives off an us vs. them mentality.  We need everything to be cast as clearly defined choices.  Admitting that there are issues where the moral choice is not easily defined (or at a minimum is not made without a great deal of pain and soul searching) is acknowledging that people of good will can disagree on important issues, even issues of life and death.  Running a 30-second political ad saying your opponent has wrestled with a morally complex issue and come to a different conclusion than you is a lot harder than just calling him a baby-killer or anti-woman.  And so we find ways to avoid the tough questions.

When it comes to sexual assault and abortion, we’ve already seen the policy implications of this shift in our social conscience.  With their “forcible rape” legislation, House Republicans have already tried to limit the circumstances in which victims of rape can seek an abortion.  The party platform Republicans are preparing to adopt this week in Tampa currently includes no exceptions for abortion in the case of rape, incest, or life of the mother.  Whether one believes that abortion is permissible in the case of rape or not, do we really want that incredibly personal, exceptionally difficult decision to be legislated by the government?  And the ripples reach well beyond abortion.  Earlier this year, Senate Republicans moved to block reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act because it expanded protections for victims of sexual assault.  In 31 states, women who do choose to carry their pregnancy to term after being raped have no protections to prevent their rapists from turning around and asserting their full parental rights.

The way we talk about rape and abortion matters because it shapes our culture; it determines how we view victims of sexual assault, pregnant women, and single mothers and influences whether the laws we adopt are beneficial or harmful for them.  If Rep. Akin is opposed to abortion in the case of rape, then he should be crusading for policies that prevent sexual assault, not making medically inaccurate statements about when and how women can get pregnant.

Our language on abortion matters for our policies.  It also matters for people of faith.  As Christians, we are never allowed to duck moral complexity or dismiss compassion.  Even in the face of unrepentant sinners (whether you put women who seek abortions in this category or not), we are commanded to show love.  Jesus models this over and over again from the woman caught in adultery to his prayer for forgiveness from the cross.  Defending the sanctity of life in the womb does not give us the right to dehumanize or delegitimize the worth of the person we oppose.

Before I am accused of saying that Republicans and conservatives do not have compassion for women facing unintended pregnancies or victims of rape, that is not what I believe.  But the policies we are implementing, and the language we have adopted, do not reflect those values.  Framing issues in black and white terms may be the best way to score political points and win elections, but it is not how we build a more just and compassionate society.

Central to the Christian faith is the conviction that the compassion we show is not only because of Jesus, but it is literally for Jesus.  Mitt Romney stated recently that his favorite Scripture is Matthew 25, which is a well loved passage for me as well.  In it, Jesus reminds us that whatever we do for “the least of these” – from clothing the naked, to feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, and visiting the prisoner – we do for him.  We would do well to apply that standard to all the issues we face.  Whatever we do for the college freshman faced with an unintended pregnancy, we do for him.  Whatever we deny the “welfare queen” with four children, we deny him.  Whatever we say about victims of rape, we say about him.

It’s time to stop dehumanizing one another in our rhetoric and in our laws and to start having honest conversations about the painful, messy, complex challenges we face.

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  • Niemand

    Do you really believe that a newly conceived zygote is a person? I have a hard time believing that you do. For one simple reason: Abortion is the least of the risks the newly conceived “baby” faces. A majority of embryos fail to implant or fail just after implantation and are flushed out with the next menses. If you truly believed that every zygote is a person then you would be a lot more interested in these 60-85% of “babies” lost in the first two weeks. You’d be calling for research to cure the disease or diseases that are killing them. You’d be willing to have your taxes increased to pay for that research. No sane person would want to neglect the death through disease of billions of newborns just because there was such a thing as infanticide in the world, yet I’ve never seen a “pro-life” organization that had any real interest in preventing miscarriage. No, not even later miscarriages that could be prevented with, oh, say, better prenatal care such as might be available to poor women if the US had universal health insurance. So, no, I can’t really take your claim that a zygote is a person seriously. Sorry, but I think you should examine your reasons for wanting to restrict abortion. I think an honest examination will find that they’re a lot more to do with wanting to control women, especially poor women, than about saving “babies.”

    • Therese

      There are many communities of people who adhere to a “life ethic”, including atheists and agnostics, that absolutely require a consideration of how society supports pregnancy prevention, prenatal care, and parenting support. Supporting social and medical programs empower women to make their own best choices. It’s my belief that, by providing more services, fewer women will see abortion as the best choice. We’re hearing initial findings from MA that indicates the state health care program may be reducing abortions. Rates are also lower in countries with state health care and maternity leave policies.

      There are diverse reasons why someone may relate to pro-life ethics, and they are not all about restricting abortion. Nor are these communities all religious, nor are they all men, nor are they all Republican. You might find that they agree with you, not only about the importance of access to prenatal care for underserved women, but in a lot of other ways.

      As you point out, nature can sometimes be violent. However, human beings sometimes have an option to choose non-violence.

      Below is a sampling of the many organizations that advocate for compassionately reducing the need for abortions outside of legal bans on the procedure.

    • Courtney

      You make a very persuasive argument about anti-abortion advocates, and I share you opinion on that matter. However, I disagree with your conclusion that the author is necessarily pro-life. If you read the article carefully, you’ll see that she does not take a stand one way or the other on the abortion issue. Her point here is merely that advocates on all sides must not dehumanize the women who are faced with this decision, whether in word or deed. It’s a clarion call for civility and compassion.

  • Compassion is the missing piece in most, if not all, of the Republican platform.

  • As a pro-lifer, I very much appreciate this post’s attempt to draw us all into a more nuanced – and more realistic – discussion of this fraught topic. We do need to listen to each other in greater depth, and it is far easier to do so in writing, I think, which gives us more time to take in and digest what the other person is saying.

    Conservatives are often accused of a lack of compassion, which liberals tout as their particular strength. As a conservative, I have rarely found others of my ilk to lack compassion for those caught in tough circumstances, and particularly victims of rape. But what I see is that among liberals, “compassion” is often promoted without regard to personal responsibility. “The college freshman and ‘welfare queen’ faced with unintended pregnancies” alluded to above, unless they were raped, chose to engage in sexual behavior for which pregnancy is a normal consequence. So while we can feel compassion, certainly, for a woman in this position, the issue of her free choice does play a role. To simply give her an easy “pass” by aborting the child with full approval by society marks her deceptively as a victim of her circumstances rather than a responsible adult, and encourages a callous attitude toward the sanctity of sexual relations as well as the unborn.

    We live in a society where the prevailing norms of sexual behavior run wildly counter to Christian teaching. As Christians, we need to have enormous compassion for those caught in the traps that rampant sexual license sets, without watering down our commitment to a right understanding of sexuality and sexual behavior. How to truly offer compassion is the problem, and it is not an easy one.

    • Rachel Johnson


      Thank you for your thoughtful response. To your point about giving an “easy pass” to women faced with unintended pregnancies, though this post didn’t address all the issues around this topic, I believe there is more we could and should be doing there as well. I alluded to this when I said that if Rep. Akin is opposed to abortion in the case of rape he should be doing more to help prevent sexual assault. We know what reduces abortions. It’s been demonstrated that education, pre- and post-natal healthcare, expanded adoption services, support for single moms – including enabling young women to complete their education, all lead to lower abortion rates. The single most cited reason women give for getting an abortion is financial. Whether one is pro-life or pro-choice, these are all policies we should be able to support. I think being a society that shows compassion for women facing unintended pregnancy means letting them know we will support them. I don’t think we’ve done that at nearly the level we could or should.

      • Stephanie

        YES!!!!! Thanks for pointing out the logical consequences of a pro-life stance!!!!! This is what drives me absolutely bonkers about most pro-lifers, inconsistency. I believe abortion should be incredibly rare but I think you have it right about the route to making that the case. Pretending that we can go back in time before premarital sex was the norm is just silly and unrealistic, but that’s what most pro-lifers seem to think we need to do to prevent abortion. But even Christians end up with teenagers who get preggers, just ask Sarah Palin about that one.

        We need to deal with reality of modern life and prevent the conception of unwanted fetuses by making education, birth control, etc a reality for preventing most unintended pregnancies AND, like you said, making it so women who chose to have the baby when birth control fails, as it often does, aren’t throwing their whole lives away. Pro life doesn’t mean ignore the baby once it’s born! I want to have a kid soon and I don’t even know how we are going to afford it with my husband and me working: daycare and healthcare are sooooo insanely expensive in this country! I don’t know how single mommies do it unless they have parents who are extremely helpful and close in location. I think we could basically end abortion is we had heavily subsidized daycare and universal healthcare and free birth control. But you don’t see the pro-lifers fighting for that now do you! Shouldn’t pro-life also mean supporting universal healthcare in general, since healthcare saves lives???????

        I think you have it right, if pro-lifers are going to take a hard stance on protecting a fetus as a life at conception, then they also need to take a hard stance on preventing an unwanted fetus and protecting the life of the baby once it is born. Pro-lifers now just make me sick with their hypocrisy.

        • Ted Seeber

          Every fetus is wanted by the adult that fetus will eventually become if not murdered.

    • Niemand

      To simply give her an easy “pass” by aborting the child

      So you are willing to admit that you are “pro-life” because you want to punish a woman for becoming pregnant by forcing her to complete a life threatening pregnancy (and don’t kid yourself: every pregnancy is life threatening)? That’s clear enough, I guess, and explains the lack of interest in curing spontaneous abortion, but hardly the face the pro-life movement likes to present.

      • Ted Seeber

        Why is pregnancy a punishment at all? Even if from a rape? Why don’t we celebrate the birth of *EVERY* child and support *EVERY* mother regardless of how she became a mother?

        Bigotry is why. Pro-choicers are bigoted against the children of rape. No different from the KKK lynching a black man.

        • Niemand

          Ted, do you support funding research that might lead to a decrease in the miscarriage rate? Or do you seriously expect me to believe that you think that a zygote is a baby that you’d ignore a pandemic that is causing the death of 50% or more of babies just because the infanticide rate isn’t zero! No sane person would believe that. And don’t blame Asperger’s. People who really have Asperger’s syndrome have empathy, they just don’t know how to read others’ emotions. Inability to empathize with others is characteristic of antisocial personality disorder, not Asperger’s.

  • Ted Seeber

    If you were truly honest, instead of listening to Akin, you’d listen to a woman who was born because of a rape.

    • Niemand

      So rape is a good thing, then because there are women (and men) who are born because of rape? Let’s take this a little further. A relative of mine was born in Paris in the 1940s, the child of two people who would never have met if they hadn’t been in the Resistance together. Clearly, the Nazi occupation of Paris was a good thing because it led to her birth. It works at least as well as your argument that raping women and forcing them to risk their lives bearing the zygotes thus conceived is a good thing. And when your argument works well for justifying Naziism, you might want to reconsider it.