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Monday
Oct162000

Abortion Politics and the "Rape and Incest" Exception

[Citizen, October 2000] 

Coming soon to a podium near you: local politician Bluster K. Fluster, running for re-election, asserting his deeply held personal belief that abortion is wrong. There’s an exception, of course: cases where the woman conceived due to rape or incest.

A lot of his audience is nodding in agreement. Their reaction is typical; across the nation, polls show that approval of anti-abortion laws rises dramatically when this exception is made. According to a 1999 Wirthlin poll, for example, 62% of Americans would endorse a law prohibiting abortion except in cases when the pregnancy would kill the woman, or when it was caused by rape or incest. Remove that last clause and agreement drops thirty points.

 It seems like common sense. Sexual violence is a nightmare. Dragging it out for nine months of pregnancy seems an added cruelty. Then there’s the child, for whom the truth about his father could be devastating. Fluster’s audience is sure abortion is the most compassionate course for the victims of sexual violence.

But did anyone think to ask the victims themselves?

In the new book, "Victims and Victors" (Acorn Books, 2000), editors David Reardon, Amy Sobie, and Julie Makimaa draw on testimonies of 192 women who experienced pregnancy as a result of rape or incest, and 55 children who were conceived in sexual assault. It turns out that when victims of violence speak for themselves, their opinion of abortion is nearly unanimous — and the opposite of what the average person expects.          

Nearly all the women who conceived due to rape or incest, then had abortions, said that they regretted it. Of those giving an opinion, over 90% said that they would discourage other victims of sexual violence from having an abortion.

On the other hand, of the women who conceived due to rape or incest and carried to term, not one expressed regret about her choice. Of those giving an opinion, 94% of rape victims and 100% of incest victims said abortion was not a good option for other women in their situation.

"I feel personally assaulted and insulted every time I hear that abortion should be legal because of rape and incest," says Kathleen DeZeeuw, whose testimony is included in "Victors and Victims."  "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 side of the story starts with skipping a church meeting to go with a girlfriend to a local coffeehouse. The sixth of eight children, Kathleen was raised in a Christian home with strict rules against associating with anyone outside their congregation. So perhaps Kathleen was naive when she agreed to go to a movie with a young man she met at the coffeehouse.

Soon after her head was being bashed against his car window until she was too weak to resist. Somehow she knew the rape that followed would make her pregnant. "I remember screaming this over and over again. This only served as a terrifying source of hideous laughter." He threw her out of the car, with a warning that he’d hurt her worse if she told anyone. She made her way home feeling shattered and dirty.                            

Kathleen, only 16, kept the secret until it couldn’t be concealed. When the pregnancy became obvious, her parents were distressed and her siblings were disgusted. "Because I wouldn’t talk about it, many rumors started about me and everyone had his own interpretation of what must have ‘really’ happened." She was sent to a maternity home a thousand miles away.

But something had begun to change in her heart. At first, she was repulsed at the thought of carrying "this man’s child," yet as she felt the baby kick and move, her horror began to change to sympathy. "I began to realize that this little life inside me was struggling too…I was no longer thinking of the baby as the ‘rapist’s’… I now thought of this baby as ‘my baby.’ My baby was all I had. I felt abandoned by everyone. I had only this life inside me to talk to."

Not that everything was easy. The first time Kathleen held her son she felt ‘revulsion,’ because he looked exactly like his father, a resemblance that remained as he grew. "The laughter of my little boy often reminded me of the hideous laughter of this guy as he had raped me." But Patrick kept telling his mother she needed to forgive, as he himself had forgiven her sometimes pained reactions to him, as well as the actions of his unknown dad. In the end, forgiveness set Kathleen free.

Victims of sexual violence need counseling and care, Kathleen says, and plenty of time for healing. "To encourage a woman to have an abortion is to add even more violence to her life…Two wrongs will never make a right."              

Kathleen’s association of abortion with "even more violence" gives us a first clue to why victims of sexual violence would resist abortion. As Reardon points out, "Abortion is not some magical surgery which turns back the clock."

What rape takes away from a woman, abortion cannot restore. Instead, though outsiders picture abortion as a quick and sanitary event behind closed doors, to the woman it is a second assault, one that disturbingly resembles the violence she has already endured.

 "[M]any women report that their abortions felt like a degrading form of ‘medical rape,’" Reardon writes. "Abortion involves a painful intrusion into a woman’s sexual organs by a masked stranger…For many women this experiential association between abortion and sexual assault is very strong…[W]omen with a history of sexual assault are likely to experience greater distress during and after an abortion than are other women."

 Second, Reardon says, post-abortion women typically feel guilty, "dirty," depressed, and resentful of men, the same feelings which are common after sexual assault. Rape and incest victims who abort get a double whammy of these difficult emotions. "Rather than easing the psychological burdens of the sexual assault victim, abortion adds to them."

For victims of incest the case is even stronger (and, of course, incest is often just a particular form of rape). For these girls, pregnancy can represent their only hope to get out of the abusive situation. They may have been threatened and beaten; they may have been told, for example, "If you tell Mommy, I’ll kill her." But the girl knows that if she gets pregnant someone will have to see her plight and rescue her. To such a girl, pregnancy is not the problem; incest is the problem, and pregnancy may be the solution. Reardon writes, "Unlike pregnancies resulting from rape, most incest pregnancies are actually desired, at least at a subconscious level, in order to expose the incest."

Reardon found that in virtually every case of pregnancy following incest, the abortion was not the girl’s decision. "In several cases, the abortion was carried out over the objections of the girl who clearly told others that she wanted to give birth to her child." Instead, the abortion was planned by adults in her life, and frequently  — for obvious reasons — by the perpetrator himself. Abortion turns out to be a great way to destroy evidence. It’s the best friend a sexual abuser has. And you’d be surprised how many people don’t ask any questions.

One woman writing under the pseudonym "Mary Jean Doe" recounts that when she was 12 years old, after some months of molestation by her older brother and his friend, she was late for a period.

"I turned to my Sunday School teacher for help…She gave me a hug and said I should go to Planned Parenthood…She never asked who the male partner was or why I was sexually active at that age.

"So my older brother took me to Planned Parenthood…No one expressed any dismay, concern or even interest that a 12-year-old girl needed a pregnancy test. I heard a lot of talk about ‘being responsible’ and ‘taking control of my body.’ Someone gave me a handful of condoms on the way out and made a joke about it being an assortment — red, blue, and yellow."

No one asked the brother any questions, and he understandably refrained from getting chatty. Two days later the clinic phoned to tell Mary Jean that the test was positive and gave a time for her to return for an unspecified procedure. "The caller never used the word ‘pregnant’ or ‘abortion.’"

That evening her period started, so Mary Jean never kept the appointment. Only years later in biology class did she learn what sexual intercourse is — and that she had not been doing it. The abuse inflicted on her was not of a type that could result in pregnancy. Mary Jean was horrified to learn that she had been scheduled for an abortion none the less.

She concludes, "Abortion on demand, no questions asked, makes it easier for incest and child abuse to continue. Abortion for incest victims sounds compassionate, but in practice it is simply another violent and deceptive tool in the hand of the abuser."

In a similar case in Baltimore, Maryland, Dr. Julio C. Novoa performed five abortions on three sisters who had been habitually raped by their father. The doctor didn’t suspect a thing. "When these patients came to my office, they came with a mother, and you, as a doctor, feel comfortable that the family knows," he said. "They never, never made a mention or a hint" that anything was wrong. The girls were between the ages of 13 and 19, and their mother facilitated both the incest and the abortions. The situation ended only when the youngest girl scrawled at the bottom of a history test that she hated life and wanted to die. In the case of that young incest victim, speedy abortion with no questions asked did not set her free.

But surely a young girl who was pregnant shouldn’t be encouraged to have a baby, should she? She probably has unrealistic ideas that the baby will provide her with the unconditional love she craves. She may have naive fantasies that the child will be like a doll she can dress up and play with.

"It is precisely the young girl’s attachment to her baby, whether realistic or unrealistic, which insures with 100 percent reliability that she will be traumatized by the abortion," Reardon writes. "To the young girl, the abortion is not an act of free will by which she is regaining her future. It is the destruction of her baby, her ‘baby doll,’ even…Which would the young girl rather have? A baby or a traumatic surgery wherein she is forced to participate in the murder of her baby?"

While a young girl should be spared pressure to kill her child, the most loving thing she can do next is to place him for adoption. Reardon cites Dr. George Maloof, who strongly recommends that children conceived in incest be adopted, not only for the child’s sake but so that the original family can begin to heal. (Incidentally, children of incest are not doomed to be victims of deformity due to "inbreeding." Such problems emerge following repeated patterns of incest over several generations.) Maloof writes, "Only after having the child adopted can there be some assurance that this new life will not simply become part of the incestuous family affair. The family can be consoled by the knowledge that they have broken their incestuous pattern."

That pattern is shown in the testimony of Dixie Lee Gourley, who remained in contact with her birth family throughout childhood while "boarding" with several other families. When she was 11 her visiting dad began to molest her, a horror she kept secret. It wasn’t until she was forty years old that she learned she wasn’t the only one. Four decades before he had also molested and impregnated another girl, the woman she’d always called her "stepsister." This sister was also her mother, and her father was also her grand-dad.

Some women who had children after rape, then raised them, feel that adoption would have been the better course. Kathleen DeZeeuw, who has raised her son Patrick, writes:  "I personally believe that for her child’s sake, she should strongly consider adoption. That may sound strange coming from me, but I know the emotional problems that can result from being daily reminded of the assault. In many case it may be truly better for the child that he or she not be subjected to this added turmoil."

Sharon Bailey, who also gave birth after rape then raised her child, saw conflict over her daughter become one of the stresses that undermined her marriage. She believes that her daughter "would have had a more normal life" if she had been adopted. Nancy Cole, however, who raised a child after being impregnated by her own father, is satisfied with her decision. "[M]y daughter is now 18, loves the Lord, and is happy and well-adjusted. I have raised her all my life and I know I made the right decision."

But back to our friend Fluster, beaming and bowing to applause. Does he have a point, when we’re talking about the public square? Remember how a "rape and incest" exception makes laws protecting unborn life much more acceptable to voters. How, strategically, should we approach the laws we craft?

David Reardon believes that it was softening of laws for "hard case" rape and incest pregnancies that paved the way for abortion on demand. Indeed, the Doe v. Bolton decision, the companion case to Roe v. Wade, stipulated that if abortion was legal in those cases it could not be withheld for any reason concerning a woman’s health, including her emotional condition or her age. Legalization of the hard cases is the "camel’s nose" in the tent, Reardon says, yet "[M]ost pro-life activists will continue to squirm and equivocate when asked about abortion for rape or incest pregnancies."

The course of pro-life political strategy over the last decade was more complex than that. No pro-life activist believes that abortion is acceptable in cases of  rape or incest. While such a view has been popular with the public, pro-lifers believe that the child conceived in violence is obviously as worthy of protection as any other baby. She has done nothing deserving of death. Even someone who believed that every rapist should be condemned to death would balk at extending the sentence to the rapist’s child. The idea becomes even more appalling when we remember that it is, in reality, the rape victim’s child. Justice requires that innocent life be protected, and this unborn child is unquestionably an innocent bystander, if not a second victim, of the attack.

 Yet, about ten years ago, some pro-life organizations began to encourage state legislatures to pass laws that allowed an exception for rape and incest. Their reasoning was simply pragmatic. The numbers of rape and incest abortions each year are relatively small, 1% or less of the total. Let’s write a law that the public will accept, the thinking went, and save 99% of the babies. That will give a platform to build on, and with further education, over coming years, we can come back for the rest. At debates, pro-choicers who brought up the 12-year-old incest victim would sometimes be stymied when their bluff was called: "Okay, if I agreed to let rape and incest abortions remain legal, would you agree to outlaw all the rest?"

Other pro-lifers objected vehemently to this strategy. You’re abdicating the very principle of the sacredness of human life, they charged; you’re creating a category of "second-class babies." Visitors to the annual March for Life in Washington will no doubt recall that the theme almost every year reflected such a "No Compromises!" position. Advocates on this side would insist that such a concession dynamited the very foundation of the movement. They refused to be party to anything that would leave any baby behind. We can’t "come back" for the rape and incest babies later, they noted wryly. They won’t be there. They’ll be dead.

Those advocating what was called "the incremental approach" found this response unrealistic and frustrating. "Do you mean you’d let 99 children die in a burning building, just because you couldn’t get all 100 out?" was a frequent question. For several years this debate produced heated words almost any time pro-life leaders gathered, and led to no philosophical resolution.

Eventually, however, there was a practical resolution. Though a few states did pass versions of the "incremental" law, the Supreme Court soon made it clear that any such law was flatly unacceptable — exceptions or no exceptions. No prohibition of any abortion, under any circumstances, was allowed. The point was moot.

Thus in recent years there have been no pro-life attempts to outlaw abortion generally, either with or without exceptions. The attempt, in thirty states, to prohibit only one particularly gruesome method of late-term abortion, was recently ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. The only other initiatives have been narrowly crafted to hold clinics to safety standards or to ensure women are fully informed, to give parents a say in a teen’s abortion or to require a waiting period for reflection. None of these laws prohibit any abortion; they regulate it, like state liquor laws regulate sale of alcohol, without prohibiting anyone who can read the sign outside the store from buying as much booze as he wants. As such, these laws could end up backfiring on the pro-lifers who worked so hard for them. They may give the public the impression that, like liquor sales, abortion is now safe and tidy and reasonably regulated. Since pro-lifers fought for these laws, citizens may feel they should now politely go away. Pro-lifers got some of the pie and the pro-choicers got some, they might conclude, so everyone should be happy.

There isn’t much political application to the discussion of rape and incest abortion, when all abortions are absolutely legal. Yet the emotional, spiritual, and philosophical discussion continues. While it looks at first glance as if rushing victims of violence to an abortion clinic is the greatest kindness, when we listen to them we learn that it is not at all what they want. What they want is surprising, but most of all it includes not inflicting violence on another person.

"The victim may sense, at least at a subconscious level, that if she can get through the pregnancy she will have conquered the rape," Reardon writes. "By giving birth, she can reclaim some of her lost self-esteem. Giving birth, especially when conception was not desired, is a totally selfless act, a generous act, a display of courage, strength, and honor. It is proof that she is better than the rapist. When he was selfish, she can be generous. While he destroyed, he can nurture."

Perhaps the most poignant passages in "Victims and Victors" are from the testimonies of women who did instead what most Americans assume they should, and aborted their abuse-conceived children. The next time you hear Fluster express his "compassionate" views, think of these words from Patricia Ryan:

"[Abortion] only compounds the trauma and pain of rape and incest. I was an innocent victim of a horrible crime. I was not to blame for what the rapist did to me. But in choosing to abort, to kill the innocent child growing within me, I lowered myself to the level of the rapist. I too committed a crime against a defenseless baby who had done nothing wrong, who was also a victim of the rapist. That child may have been fathered by a criminal, but I was the mother, and I killed a part of myself when I had the abortion. It only compounded my pain; it didn’t solve a thing."

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