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Rape, Incest and Abortion:
Searching Beyond the Myths
David C. Reardon, Ph.D.

 

 

“How can you deny an abortion to a twelve-year-old girl who is the victim of incest?”

 

Typically, both sides of the debate accept the presumption that most women who become pregnant following sexual assault want abortions. From this “fact,” it naturally follows that the reason women want abortions in these cases is because it will help them to put the assault behind them, recover more quickly, and avoid the additional trauma of giving birth to a “rapist’s child.”
 

But in fact, the welfare of a mother and her child are never at odds, even in sexual assault cases. As the testimonies in this book confirm, both the mother and the child are helped by preserving life, not by perpetuating violence. Sadly, however, the testimonies of women who have actually been pregnant through sexual assault are routinely left out of this public debate. Most people, including sexual assault victims who have never been pregnant, are therefore forming opinions based on their own prejudices and fears rather than the real life experiences of those people who have been in this difficult situation and reality.
 

For example, it is commonly assumed that rape victims who become pregnant would naturally want abortions. But in the only major study of pregnant rape victims ever done prior to this book, Dr. Sandra Mahkorn found that 75 to 85 percent did not have abortions. This figure is remarkably similar to the 73 percent birth rate found in our sample of 164 pregnant rape victims. This one finding alone should cause people to pause and reflect on the presumption that abortion is wanted or even best for sexual assault victims.1
 

Several reasons are given for not aborting. First, approximately 70 percent of all women believe abortion is immoral, even though many also feel it should be a legal choice for others.2 Approximately the same percentage of pregnant rape victims believe abortion would be a further act of violence perpetrated against their bodies and their children.
 

Second, many of these women believe that their children’s lives may have some intrinsic meaning or purpose which they do not yet understand. This child was brought into their lives by a horrible, repulsive act. But perhaps God, or fate, will use the child for some greater purpose. Good can come from evil.
 

Third, victims of assault often become introspective. Their sense of the value of life and respect for others is heightened. Since they have been victimized, the thought that they in turn might victimize their own innocent children through abortion is repulsive.
 

Fourth, the victim may sense, at least at a subconscious level, that if she can get through the pregnancy she will have conquered the rape. 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. While he was selfish, she can be generous. While he destroyed, she can nurture.
 

Adding Fuel to the Fire
 

If giving birth builds self respect, what about abortion? This is a question which most people fail to even consider. Instead, most people assume that abortion will at least help a rape victim put the assault behind her and get on with her life. But in jumping to this conclusion, the public has adopted an unrealistic view of abortion.
 

Abortion is not some magical surgery which turns back the clock to make a woman “un-pregnant.” Instead, it is a real life event which is always very stressful and often traumatic. Once we accept that abortion is itself an event with deep ramifications on a woman’s life, then we must look carefully at the special circumstances of the pregnant sexual assault victim. Will having an abortion truly console her, or will it only cause further injury to her already bruised psyche?
 

In answering this question, it is helpful to begin by noting that many women report that their abortions felt like a degrading form of “medical rape.” This association between abortion and rape is not hard to understand.
 

Abortion involves a painful intrusion into a woman’s sexual organs by a masked stranger who is invading her body. Once she is on the operating table, she loses control over her body. If she protests and asks the abortionist to stop, chances are she will be either ignored or told: “It’s too late to change your mind. This is what you wanted. We have to finish now.” And while she lies there tense and helpless, the life hidden within her is literally sucked out of her womb. In both sexual and medical rape, a woman is violated and robbed. In the case of sexual rape she is robbed of her purity. In the case of medical rape via abortion, she is robbed of her maternity.
 

For many women this experiential association between abortion and sexual assault is very strong. It is especially strong for women who have a prior history of sexual assault, whether or not the aborted child was conceived during an act of assault. This is just one reason why women with a history of sexual assault are likely to experience greater distress during and after an abortion than are other women.
 

Second, research shows that after any abortion, it is common for women to experience guilt, depression, feelings of being “dirty,” resentment of men, and lowered self-esteem. These feelings are identical to what women typically feel after rape. Abortion, then, only adds to and accentuates the traumatic feelings associated with sexual assault. Rather than easing the psychological burdens of the sexual assault victim, abortion adds to them.
 

This was the experience of Jackie Bakker, who reports:

 

I soon discovered that the aftermath of my abortion continued a long time after the memory of my rape had faded. I felt empty and horrible. Nobody told me about the pain I would feel deep within causing nightmares and deep depressions. They had all told me that after the abortion I could continue my life as if nothing had happened.3
 

Those encouraging abortion often do so because they are uncomfortable dealing with sexual assault victims, or perhaps because they harbor some prejudice against victims whom they feel “let it happen.” Wiping out the pregnancy is a way of hiding the problem. It is a “quick and easy” way to avoid dealing with the woman’s true emotional, social and financial needs.
 

Kathleen DeZeeuw, whose son Patrick was conceived in rape when she was 16, writes,
 

I, having lived through rape, and also having raised a child “conceived in rape,” feel personally assaulted and insulted every time I hear that abortion should be legal because of rape and incest. I feel that we’re being used by pro-abortionists to further the abortion issue, even though we’ve not been asked to tell our side of the story.
 

Trapping the Incest Victim
 

The case against abortion for incest pregnancies is even stronger. Studies show that incest victims rarely ever voluntarily agree to abortion. Instead of viewing the pregnancy as unwanted, the incest victim is more likely to see the pregnancy as a way out of the incestuous relationship because the birth of her child will expose the sexual activity. She is also likely to see in her pregnancy the hope of bearing a child with whom she can establish a truly loving relationship, one far different than the exploitive relationship in which she has been trapped.
 

But while the incest victim may treasure her pregnancy because it offers her the hope of release from her situation, it poses a threat to her abuser. It is also poses a threat to the pathological secrecy which may envelop other members of the family who are afraid to acknowledge the abuse. Because of this dual threat, the victim may be coerced into an unwanted abortion by both the abuser and other family members.
 

For example, Edith Young, a 12-year-old victim of incest impregnated by her stepfather, writes twenty-five years after the abortion of her child:
 

Throughout the years I have been depressed, suicidal, furious, outraged, lonely, and have felt a sense of loss . . . The abortion which was to “be in my best interest” just has not been. As far as I can tell, it only ‘saved their reputations,’ ‘solved their problems,’ and ‘allowed their lives to go merrily on.’ . . . My daughter, how I miss her so. I miss her regardless of the reason for her conception."
 

Abortion providers who routinely ignore this evidence and neglect to interview minors presented for abortion for signs of coercion or incest are actually contributing to the victimization of young girls. Not only are they robbing the victim of her child, they are concealing a crime, abetting a perpetrator, and handing the victim back to her abuser so that the exploitation can continue.
 

Finally, we must recognize that children conceived through sexual assault also deserve to have their voices heard. Rebecca Wasser-Kiessling, who was conceived in a rape, is rightfully proud of her mother’s courage and generosity and wisely reminds us of a fundamental truth that transcends biological paternity: “I believe that God rewarded my birth mother for the suffering she endured, and that I am a gift to her. The serial rapist is not my creator; God is.”
 

Similarly, Julie Makimaa, who works diligently against the perception that abortion is acceptable or even necessary in cases of sexual assault, proclaims, “It doesn’t matter how I began. What matters is who I will become.”
 

That’s a slogan we can all live with.
 

 


Originally published in The PostAbortion Review 2(1) Winter 1993. Copyright 1993 Elliot Institute.

NOTES

1. Mahkorn, "Pregnancy and Sexual Assault," The Psychological Aspects of Abortion, eds. Mall & Watts, (Washington, D.C., University Publications of America, 1979) 55-69.

2. Francke, The Ambivalence of Abortion (New York: Random House, 1978) 84-95, 167.; Reardon, Aborted Women - Silent No More (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1987), 51, 126.

 

3. David C. Reardon, Aborted Women, Silent No More (Chicago, IL: Loyola University Press, 1987), 206.

4. Zakus, "Adolescent Abortion Option," Social Work in Health Care, 12(4):87 (1987).

5. Maloof, "The Consequences of Incest: Giving and Taking Life" The Psychological Aspects of Abortion (eds. Mall & Watts, Washington, D.C., University Publications of America, 1979) 84-85.



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