What About Rape?
Many people, including pro-life individuals, avoid the question of whether abortion is OK in cases of rape. Oftentimes, when considering abortion legislation, they admit exceptions for rape, incest, and the health of the mother. But are those really exceptions to the premise that abortion is always wrong?
While a majority of pregnancies are the result of consensual sex, rape-based pregnancies present a unique dilemma. If a woman did not choose to engage in sex in the first place, why should she have to carry to term a child that was the result of her forced union?
What is Sexual Assault?
Sexual assault is broadly any variety of sexual contact without consent, which can include forced sexual intercourse. This encompasses both psychological coercion as well as physical force. Sexual assault always involves a lack of consent and transcends age, race, sexual orientation, and gender.
If you think abortion in cases of sexual assault is okay, consider these questions:
First, if you are generally pro-life, consider why you are against most abortions. Is it because abortion takes the life of an innocent baby? If so, do the circumstances of a child’s conception change the fact that he or she is a living, preborn person?
Second, do you believe that the assault survivor did anything wrong? Would you excuse her actions because it is her body and her baby was inside of it?
Abortion is not a mere “removal of support” – it actively destroys and dismembers another human. Even if this new human person is forced upon you unwillingly, there is no way to remove them without actively killing them. While the intention may be to lessen another person’s suffering, this is a great injustice to the second victim involved because they did not choose to be placed in this situation, either. If both victims of the situation can walk away with their lives intact, isn’t this the best option?
Rape Does Not Justify Abortion
Thought Experiment #1
Suppose a woman conceived a child in rape and decided to carry her child to term and raise her son herself. After five years, however, she realizes that the boy is starting to resemble his father and that becomes very emotionally difficult. Should that mother have the right to kill her five-year-old son due to the pain his presence causes her?
Obviously not. No matter what the circumstances are regarding the little boy’s conception, he is a human being with a right to life that cannot be taken away. The circumstances surrounding conception do not change that reality. The boy's location or the crime of his father has no bearing on his human rights.
Thought Experiment #2
Imagine a woman who has survived a sexual assault that resulted in a pregnancy. Justifiably, she is distraught and anger towards the perpetrator (who is someone she knows, as most rapists statistically are) is her prevailing emotion. As an outlet for her hurt and rage towards her assailant, she waits until she is six months pregnant to arrange for an abortion, using it to cope with the trauma, establish some sort of power over the situation, and punish the father.
Following the ideology behind rape exceptions to its farthest conclusion is scary. Most would say that Thought Experiment #2 is not morally permissible - but why? Because the child can feel pain? Because he or she is 'too developed' at that point? Trying to determine why it's wrong at that point but not wrong any earlier is lethally arbitrary. No matter what gestational age the child is, abortion in cases of rape is the execution of an innocent third party 'involved' with a heinous crime.
"But It's Rare"
The fact that pregnancies resulting from sexual assault is rare does matter, but not perhaps in the way you may think. Using, "But it's rare," as a catch-all response when confronted with this issue is insensitive and even evasive when used alone. The issue of abortion and sexual assault is complex, emotional, and deserves a longer dialogue than a throw-away statement.
Let's say you're a consistent pro-life advocate, that is, you believe all abortions are wrong from the moment of fertilization with no exception, and you are being challenged by an abortion supporter about abortion in cases of rape.
Abortion supporter: "You want to force rape survivors to carry their rapist's children? I think that's wrong."
Pro-lifer: "There are three people involved - two are innocent and one is not. I think it's wrong to punish one of the innocent parties, the child, for the crime their father committed."
AS: "Well, the mother is still being punished with a pregnancy and child she didn't ask for. That's why abortion should be allowed in these cases."
PL: "You say, 'in these cases.' Does that mean you think abortion shouldn't be allowed in cases of consensual sex?"
AS: "No, I think abortion should be safe and legal for everyone."
PL: "Well, it's a bit dishonest to use sexual assault as your defense of why all abortions should be legal, since they make up such a tiny percentage of total abortions. This is why I think abortion is wrong..."
At the end of the day, discussions about abortion eventually need to circle back to abortion itself. There are evils in this world and rape is among the very darkest of them. But we don't live in a world where one evil is solved by another. This is why re-orienting the conversation back to abortion itself is critical; deliberately killing another human being is violent, wrong, and cannot be glossed over - even when discussing sexual assault.
Sexual Assault Has Hurt Us ALL
The statistics for our generation are overwhelming: 30% of women were between the ages of 11 and 17 at the time of their first completed rape. (1) Between 20% and 25% of women will experience a completed and/or attempted rape during their college career, according to some studies. (2) Some studies will show lower numbers, but since not all rapes and sexual assaults are reported, definitive numbers are hard to establish. (3) Nevertheless, any amount of sexual assault is too much. And the survivor is never at fault.
If you or a friend is raped:
1. Get somewhere safe.
2. Tell someone you trust.
3. Seek medical care.
4. Meet with a counselor.
We all know someone who has survived a sexual assault. Talking about sexual assault is not easy for anyone. However, there is something very sensitive we must discuss. Rape and incest are horrific wrongs. A woman violated in a sexual assault should be surrounded by love and support. If that assault results in pregnancy, aren’t there now two people affected by the assault? Two people in need of protection and care?
The perpetrator must be punished to the fullest extent of the law, but does the helpless child, who is guilty of no crime, deserve death? Is the violent act of abortion a good solution to the violent act of rape?
People hurt by sexual abuse deserve healing, hope and love. The emotional effects of rape on the woman must be addressed. Will her grief or the memories of the rape disappear if she aborts her child? No. Aborting a child conceived through rape simply extends this pattern of violence and complicates her grief further. It does not “unrape” the woman, but it will most certainly increase her regret and misery.
Rape is an act of violence for which she bears no responsibility; abortion is an act of violence for which she would be morally culpable. Abortion is not a healing or compassionate act for the mother or her child and will not erase the rape. In many abuse situations, serial rapists will use abortion to continue their crimes and avoid detection.
If you are the survivor of sexual abuse and want to seek help, please contact the follow resources:
Rape Survivors Speak Up
In an open letter to the U.S. Congress, 38 rape survivors who became pregnant wrote:
“Our experiences are varied. Many of us carried our pregnancies to term. Some of us raised or are raising our children, while others placed our children in adoptive homes. Others of us had abortions. In many cases, we felt pressured to abort by family members, social workers, and doctors who insisted that abortion was the “best” solution. For many, the abortion caused physical and emotional trauma equal to or exceeding the trauma of the sexual assault that our abortions were supposed to ‘cure’.”
The Elliot Institute surveyed 192 women who conceived during a rape or incest. Of those victims, 70% carried the baby to term and either raised the child or made an adoption plan, 29% had an abortion, and 1.5% had a miscarriage.
- 43% of these women said they felt pressured to abort from family or health workers.
- 78% of those who aborted had regrets and said that abortion was the wrong solution.
- None of the women who gave birth said they regretted their decision. (4)
If you discover that you are pregnant as a result of sexual assault, please contact the following resources for help and understanding:
More Personal Stories
Ryan Bomberger’s mother was raped in 1971. She made a selfless choice in choosing life for her son. Six weeks after he was born, she placed him with an adoptive family and he grew up in a loving family of 13! 10 of the 13 children were adopted.
Since then, he has gone on to touch countless lives through adoption and foster care advocacy. You can read more about his story here, and watch his video below:
"UNWANTED" A Story About Choice
- Read more personal stories about the rape exception here.
- Read more about how to respond here.
Start the conversation on your campus by distributing SFLA’s “What About Cases of Sexual Assault’ topic card. You can order this topic card via our online store, or by contacting your SFLA Regional Coordinator for FREE cards. Just email [yourstate]@studentsforlife.org to get in touch.
- National Sexual Violence Resource Center https://www.nsvrc.org/node/4737
- U.S. Department of Justice. Yoffe, Emily. Slate.com September, 24 2015.
- Victims and Victors: Speaking Out About Their Pregnancies, Abortions, and Children Resulting from Sexual Assault, edited by David C. Reardon, Julie Makimaa and Amy Sobie (Acorn Books, 2000)