A few days ago, I was part of an infuriating argument on Facebook about abortion. It started out with much civility: a pro-life person asking nicely for people’s views, and people responding with their own views. But it was largely men who responded (myself included), and when a couple women chimed in to point out the gender disparity, the response ended up being something like, “So you’re saying I can’t have an opinion because I don’t have a uterus?” The conversation only continued to plummet further downhill.
But at some point early on in the discussion, one of the commenters asked the question, “But what about rape?” It’s a common question when discussing abortion. In fact, it has come up quite early on in almost every discussion I’ve ever had about abortion. What do pro-life people1 think about situations where a woman is raped and now is pregnant with her attacker’s child? It is a question, however, of which I’ve grown tired. It generally does not progress the discussion, and I think it holds the potential to be hurtful. So I’d like to ask people to stop asking that question, and talk about the reasons why they should stop.
Principles and Policies
First, it does not advance the discussion. Pro-life individuals are typically pro-life for reasons of principle. Regardless of what others feel about the importance of those principles, the pro-life position is generally founded on beliefs about the “sanctity of life” and so forth. Asking them whether abortion should be allowed in cases of rape may cause them to add an exception to their rule, but it won’t cause them to budge on the rule itself. They just say, “Well I’m against abortion except in cases of rape.” And while it is nice to know that the person with whom you are discussing the issue is able to feel basic human empathy for one of the most traumatic situations a person can go through, it’s hardly a breakthrough. Asking people if stealing is okay if it involves stealing food from the Nazis to provide for one’s family might get people to agree with you on that specific hypothetical, but it doesn’t change their general notions about the legitimacy of stealing. Nor should it, really.
The truth is that any policy which would only allow abortion in cases of rape is simply not enough. It might be a tiny step in the right direction, but small progress is worth small victory. And more than that, it is progress for the wrong reasons. Allowing abortion is not a matter of feeling sorry for pitiable women in difficult situations. It is an issue of bodily autonomy, of the ability to have influence over the decisions that affect your very own body. If one does not have the right to control one’s own body, then what rights can one truly have? Allowing abortions for rape victims might offer such control to a select few, but only as a small consolation for being victimized. Should women only have control over their bodies if control has already been wrested from them once before? Such a policy would not be victory for women’s rights. It would be a pitiable attempt to keep the status quo. For this reason, it makes little difference if a pro-life person—even a policy-maker—would be willing to allow abortion in cases of rape. Changing their mind in this one respect does little to change their mind about the principles they hold.
But beyond the question of whether the question is effective at changing people’s minds, I think the “what about rape?” question is detrimental in other ways. For one thing, it portrays women who get abortions as emotionally and physically vulnerable. While this is of course sometimes the case, in many other cases women who receive abortions are emotionally stable and their decision is the result of a rational analysis of their situation. Abortion can absolutely be a process that is wrapped up in a mix of emotions, but immediately making a connection between rape victims and abortions draws an association between vulnerability and abortion that I don’t think is justified.2 And considering that only 5% of reported cases of rape end in pregnancy, it seems unjustified for that to be the immediate counter-point to a pro-life argument.3 Rape is terrible, and dealing with a pregnancy on top of such a situation must be incredibly more difficult, but it is not the usual state of affairs.
Tokenism and Myth
Using rape as the go-to counter-example also serves to tokenize rape victims. It removes the context to create a generic “rape victim”, which trivializes the nature of victimization. It is the equivalent of bringing up Hitler in a debate, i.e. finding the “worst possible” scenario to make an extreme point. Not only is it cliché, but it turns rape into a tool to make a rhetorical point. And, as mentioned earlier, it’s a rhetorical point that is likely to be ineffective anyway. It is not a part of a reasoned argument, but a ploy to get people to empathize with “the most pitiable woman in the world”, so to speak. By trotting out such a woman, the person can ask, “Well surely you wouldn’t deny this woman’s right to an abortion, would you?” This woman is largely a myth: not in the sense that no women face pregnancy after sexual assault, but in the sense that the spectre of a pregnant rape victim looms larger than life. In the real world, real women face real victimization, face real consequences, and make real decisions as a result. The “pregnant rape victim” as mythos, on the other hand, is a hypothetical being that lives in a world where choices are sterilized and devoid of consequence. The pro-life discussion partner makes a choice: allow or deny her the right to abortion, and upon that choice being made, she dissolves as if a ghost. The point is made, the appropriate emotion evoked, and the pro-life person is either trapped into justifying their exception, or scorned for their lack of empathy. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not arguing against hypothetical examples. Nor am I against discussing the very important issues surrounding rape and sexual assault. What I am against is setting up a hypothetical rape victim as a “worst case scenario”, and then using this rape victim as a rhetorical tool to force someone into a corner.
I can’t go so far as to say that one should never bring up the question of “what about rape?” in a discussion about abortion. I’m sure that there can be some situations where such a question is justified—but it must be within the context of a broader discussion regarding the realities of sexual assault. However, I think it is important to take that question away from being the prime counter-example when someone’s views about abortion are being discussed. It needs to stop being the first question people ask when someone says, “I don’t think abortion is right.” If you are looking for questions to challenge a pro-life person, try these: “What about the needs of real women? Why is a pro-life position so rigid in its insistence that abortion is never justified? Why are pro-life advocates more concerned about the rights of a fetus that may or may not be a person, than they are about the rights of a woman who we know is a person with rights? Do you not think it disturbing that women’s right to have autonomy over their own body and reproductive organs are being challenged? Why should a woman not be allowed to make her own decision about the morality of abortion, instead of others forcing their own moral viewpoints upon her?”
These are all real questions, with important answers. They don’t imply that women seeking abortions are weak and vulnerable, they don’t trivialize or tokenize rape, and they may actually be more effective in challenging and changing the views of the person with whom you are discussing the issue. Please, let’s leave the “what about rape?” question behind and find better ways to advance the moral discourse surrounding abortion.
- The more accurate term, I think, is “anti-choice”, but for reasons of avoiding pointless rhetoric over labels, let’s save that discussion for another time. [↩]
- I should, of course, emphasize that equating all rape victims with vulnerability is not fair, either. To suffer through that trauma and come out on the other side takes a form of courage and bravery that deserves commendation. [↩]
- Holmes, Resnick, Kilpatrick, & Best (1996). Rape-related pregnancy: Estimates and descriptive characteristics from a national sample of women. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 175(2), 320-324. The article is available here. [↩]