On the Pro-Life Movement and the Rape Exemption

On the Pro-Life Movement and the Rape Exemption December 19, 2012

I just came upon this image of an anti-abortion postcard produced and handed out by the Students for Life of America.

The image shows the pictures of four babies and asks “Can you tell which child has a criminal father? Should a child die for his or her father’s crimes?” The intent is to attack the rape exemption. The argument is that a person’s rights and value don’t depend on how a person is conceived or who a person’s father is.

You know what I find interesting about this image? It’s not aimed at those who are pro-choice. Instead, it’s aimed at those who oppose abortion but support a rape exemption, i.e., those who believe abortion should be banned except in the case of rape (and, generally, incest). In other words, this image is part of a struggle within the pro-lifer movement. How do I know this? Well, quite simply, because the argument only makes sense if someone accepts that a zygote, embryo, or fetus is the moral equivalent of a person, and those who are pro-choice, like myself, don’t.

What exactly is going on here? Why do some opponents of abortion make a rape exemption while others don’t? And what explains all of these arguments over rape exemptions, which seem only to be accelerating?

I was raised deep within the pro-life movement. Growing up, I had trouble understanding why anyone who opposes abortion would make an exception for rape. After all, like the image and excerpt argue , we don’t determine a person’s rights based on whether or not their parents are criminals. [Actually, this isn’t strictly true – bastardy laws are an example of determining a child’s rights based on the parents’ legal standing, but that’s really beside the point.] If abortion is murder, then, how is aborting a pregnancy conceived in rape not murder?

And yet, there are numerous Americans who oppose abortion and yet support a rape exemption. A CNN poll found that 83% of Americans want abortion legal in cases of rape or incest. This despite the fact that 51% of Americans believe that abortion is “morally wrong.” (It’s complicated.) In other words, if we assume that the 17% of Americans who think abortion should be illegal even in the case of rape and incest also believe that abortion is morally wrong, we’re left with 34% of Americans believing both that abortion is morally wrong and that it should be legal in case of rape and incest.

Question: What is the difference between a woman who wants an abortion after accidentally becoming pregnant with her boyfriend and a woman who wants an abortion after becoming pregnant through rape? Answer: The first woman voluntarily chose to have sex while the second woman didn’t.

In other words, people who want to see abortion banned but want to keep a rape exemption care very much whether a woman chooses to have sex or not. A woman who chooses to have sex should be required to deal with the “consequences,” i.e. pregnancy, birth, and child rearing. But a woman who becomes pregnant after being raped? Well, she didn’t choose to have sex so she shouldn’t have to deal with the “consequences.” In other words, if someone allows for a rape exemption, their opposition to abortion is not about “saving babies” but rather about making sure women who voluntarily choose to have sex and then become pregnant have to deal with the “consequences” of their decision to have sex.

It is likely that there are some people who believe abortion is murder but also support rape exemptions simply because they haven’t thought through the consistency of their position. They believe abortion is murder, but it seems instinctively wrong to force a woman who never chose to have sex in the first place but was instead forced against her will to carry and bear her rapist’s baby. This is the audience the image at the beginning of this post targets when it argues that if you really do believe abortion is murder, you can’t also allow a rape exemption.

It’s worth pointing out that in the last electoral cycle, we saw the rape exemption under attack more than in the past. Why? I can’t say for sure, but I have a suspicion. I think that while early opposition to abortion was rooted in the idea that sex must have consequences and that women shouldn’t be having sex if they don’t want children, younger generations of anti-abortion activists have come to believe the rhetoric about abortion being the murder of babies, rhetoric that was originally little more than a smokescreen. As more and more opponents of abortion really believe that abortion involves murdering babies, and as they become more consistent about the implications of this, the rape exemption will likely become less popular.

What does this mean on a practical level? Well for one thing, it means that those who are pro-choice have several different arguments to focus on. We need to effectively respond to what some proponents are now calling “the prenatal rights movement.” We need to point out that awarding zygotes, embryos, and fetuses rights always involves curbing and limiting women’s rights, and we also need to effectively communicate about things like fetal development and personhood. But we also need to combat “slut shaming” and the virgin/slut dichotomy. Until we can remove the stigma from sex and especially from premarital sex, there will always be people who oppose abortion not because they believe it is murder but rather because they believe sex should have consequences, and, quite simply, it is these individuals who are the biggest supporters of the rape exemption. It is also these individuals pro-lifers who believe all abortion is literally murder are trying to reach with ads like the one above.

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