Rape, Incest, and Abortion: Searching Beyond the Myths
By David C. Reardon, Ph.D.
“How can you deny an abortion to a twelve-year-old girl who is the victim of incest?”
Typically, people on both sides of the abortion debate accept the premise that most women who become pregnant through 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 stories of many women 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. Many people, including sexual assault victims who have never been pregnant, may be 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.
Why not abort?
Several reasons were given for not aborting. Many women who become pregnant through sexual assault do not believe in abortion, believing it would be a further act of violence perpetrated against their bodies and their children. Further, many 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.
The woman may also 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 to the Trauma
Many people assume that abortion will at least help a rape victim put the assault behind her and get on with her life. But evidence shows that 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 for a woman’s life, then we must look carefully at the special circumstances of the pregnant sexual assault victim. Evidence indicates that abortion doesn’t help and only causes further injury to an already bruised psyche?
But before we even get to this issue, we must ask: do most women who become pregnant as a result of sexual assault want to abort?
In our survey of women who became pregnant as a result of rape or incest, many women who underwent abortions indicated that they felt pressured or were strongly directed by family members or health care workers to have abortions. The abortion came about not because of the woman’s desire to abort but as a response to the suggestions or demands of others. In many cases, resources such as health workers, counselors and others who are normally there to help women after sexual assault pushed for abortion. Family pressure, withholding of support and resources that the woman needed to continue the pregnancy, manipulative an inadequate counseling and other problems all played a role into pushing women into abortions, even though abortion was often not what the woman really wanted.
Further, in almost every case involving incest, it was the girl’s parents or the perpetrator who made the decision and arrangements for the abortion, not the girl herself. (See Accomplices in Incest for an example.) None of these women reported having any input into the decision. Each was simply expected to comply with the choice of others. In several cases, the abortion was carried out over the objections of the girl, who clearly told others that wanted to continue the pregnancy. In a few cases, victim was not even clearly aware that she was pregnant or that the abortion was being carried out.
Second, although many people believe that abortion will help a woman resolve the trauma of rape more quickly, or at least keep her from being reminded of the rape throughout her pregnancy, many of the women in our survey who had abortions reported that abortion only added to and accentuated the traumatic feelings associated with sexual assault.
This is easy to understand when one considers that many women have described their abortions as being similar to a rape (and even used the term “medical rape), it is easy to see that abortion is likely to add a second trauma to the earlier trauma of sexual assault. Abortion involves an often 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. Even if she protests and asks the abortionist to stop, chances are she will be either ignored or told that it’s too late to stop the abortion.
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.
Research also shows that women who abort and women who are raped often describe similar feelings of depression, guilt, lowered self-esteem, violation and resentment of men. Rather than easing the psychological burdens experienced by those who have been raped, abortion added to them. Jackie wrote:
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.
Those encouraging, pushing or insisting on 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. As Kathleen wrote:
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 exploitative relationship in which she has been trapped.
But while the girl may see her pregnancy as a possible way 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 or forced into an unwanted abortion by both the abuser and other family members.
In my best interest?
For example, Edith, 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 businesses 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.
Parent Plead Guilty
For example, the parents of three teenaged Baltimore girls pleaded guilty to three counts of first-degree rape and child sexual abuse. The father had repeatedly raped the three girls over a period of at least nine years, and the rapes were covered up by at least ten abortions. At least five of the abortions were performed by the same abortionist at the same clinic.
Sadly, there is strong evidence that failing to ask questions about the pregnancy and to report cases of sexual abuse arewidespread at abortion clinics. Undercover investigations by pro-life groups have found numerous cases in which clinics agreed to cover up cases of statutory rape or ongoing abuse of minor girls by older men and simply perform an abortion instead.
In 2002 a judge found a Planned Parenthood affiliate in Arizona negligent for failing to report a case in which a 13-year-old girl was impregnated and taken for an abortion by her 23-year-old foster brother. The abortion business did not notify authorities until the girl returned six months later for a second abortion. A lawsuit alleged that the girl was subjected to repeated abuse and a second abortion because Planned Parenthood failed to notify authorities when she had her first abortion. The girl’s foster brother was later imprisoned for abusing her.
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 Post-Abortion Review 2(1) Winter 1993. Copyright 1993 Elliot Institute.
Victims and Victors: Speaking Out About Their Pregnancies, Abortions and Children Resulting From Sexual Assault
Special Report on Sexual Assault Pregnancy and Abortion
Rape Hurt My Mother, But Abortion Devastated Her
I Was 17, Drugged and Raped … But Abortion Wasn’t Best for Me
Women Who Have Experienced Pregnancy From Sexual Assault Plead for Public Hearings
Resources to share:
The Hard Cases: New Facts, New Answers
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. David C. Reardon, Aborted Women, Silent No More (Chicago, IL: Loyola University Press, 1987), 206.
3. Jean Marbella, “Satisfactory explanations of sex crime proved elusive,” Baltimore Sun, Oct. 31, 1990; M. Dion Thompson, “GBMC, doctor suspected nothing amiss,” Baltimore Sun, Oct. 31. 1990; “Family Horror Comes to Light in Story of Girls Raped by Father,” Baltimore Sun, November 4, 1990; Raymond L. Sanchez, “Mother Sentenced in Rape Case,” Baltimore Sun, Dec. 6, 1990.
4. “Planned Parenthood Found Negligent in Reporting Molested Teen’s Abortion,” Pro-Life Infonet, attributed to Associated Press; Dec. 26, 2002.
5. Dr. George Maloof, “The Consequences of Incest: Giving and Taking Life,” The Psychological Aspects of Abortion, David Mall and Walter Watts, eds (Washington, DC: University Publications of America, 1979) 84.