Today is the 36th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, and that means it’s also Blog for Choice DayUnlike last year (and more like myself), I have little interest in the theme, pro-choice hopes for Barack Obama and the new Congress.

I’ve decided that I want to write about something else.  I want to write about the right to abortion and how it intersects with the issue of sexual violence.  It’s no secret that these are two issues that are perhaps closest to my heart, and I care and write about both regularly on a broad spectrum.  I think that the two issues are highly related.  Simply, both are reproductive justice issues.  Both are reproductive health issues.  And both are sexual rights issues.

In practice, the two are directly connected on a regular basis.  Sexual violence accounts for a particularly large number of teen pregnancies, many of which do end in abortion.  Adult women are also prone to pregnancy as a result of rape, especially depending on who they are and where they live.  Those women who have the highest risk of rape — say, immigrant women or women living in the Congo — also have the highest risk of getting pregnant as the result of that rape.  They also, due to oppressed status, have the least access to abortion services and are most often forced to carry to term, or to attempt risky abortion procedures themselves.

Most visibly — and again, intersecting oppressions are generally responsible for which issues are most visible — sexual violence and abortion rights intersect when it comes to abortion restrictions.  When potential abortion restrictions are put on the table, newspapers almost inevitably report breathlessly that the restrictions even apply to women who have been victims of rape.  If they don’t apply to women who have been raped, it’s reported in a way that presents the restriction as therefore reasonable.  And of course, hardcore anti-choice groups and individuals adamantly oppose exceptions for rape victims for any abortion restriction, whether it be forced ultrasounds, parental notification, “informed consent” or all out abortion bans.

I’ve long made clear my view that while the hardline “no exceptions for rape victims, because a baby is still a baby” rhetoric makes me throw up quite a bit in my mouth, it is at least consistent with their espoused ideals.  This is still certainly true.  But just as true is the fact that this rhetoric tells us something important about what is behind the words about “babies” and “life.”  It tells us about how those who spout the words view women’s bodies.

The question most often asked by anti-choicers defending their “no abortion ban/restriction exceptions for rape victims” stance is “why should a baby have to pay for someone else’s wrong?”  Yes, rape is horrible, they say.  Just horrible.  But the baby is a human being, and it deserves to live — no matter who its father is or what he has done.

On the surface, this sounds all well and good (or at least intellectually consistent).  But I notice something else.  I notice how strikingly similar this rhetoric is to the other rhetoric that anti-choicers use for abortions had by women who are presumed to have not been raped, and not just in terms of “fetus=baby.”

No, the question of “why should a baby have to pay for someone else’s wrong?” is common all around.  There is usually a wrong implied by anti-choicers in all unplanned pregnancies.  And usually, that wrong is heavily implied to not be on the part of the man who didn’t strap on a condom, but on the part of the woman who wasn’t “smart enough” to “keep her legs closed.”  You know, the one whose bodily autonomy now hangs in the balance.

So really, in their heart of hearts, are they referring to rapists when they ask why a baby should have to pay for someone else’s wrong with abortion?  Or are they just engaging in rape apologist rhetoric about women who shouldn’t have been wearing that, or who should have fought harder?  (Or are they only referring to rapists in the cases of “real” rape where the woman was a horribly brutalized Christian virgin?)

Assuming, even, that they are referring to the rapists, an important question still lingers: what about women?  I know, it’s a radical thought, but really: what of them?  Why should they have to pay for someone else’s wrong? What about their lives?  Don’t they matter a damn bit?  Or again, are we just assuming that they are partially at fault for the wrong committed?

Of course, anti-choicers will argue that we’re looking at disproportionate interests/rights.  The “baby” has a life; the woman just has “convenience” and her lazy, selfish desire to not have a physical reminder of her traumatizing experience every second of every day for 9 months, not to mention a child created by that rapist at the end of 9 months.

In fact, regaining control after a rape experience really can be about a woman’s life.  Thankfully, I don’t know the trauma of having been impregnated as the result of rape.  But I do know the trauma of rape itself.  And I know, or can read in tons of readily accessible literature, about how rape takes away a sense of control over one’s body.  It can, in fact, heavily make one question who that body belongs to.

And anti-choicers want that answer to be the government.  In spite of the fact that the right to an abortion after rape really can be about a woman’s life — since a woman may be easily made suicidal over a forced pregnancy as the result of rape, or simply traumatized forever because of it — anti-choicers think that a fetus’ rights overrule it.  When forced to choose between the life of a fetus, and the life of a woman (and often thereby her fetus due to simple biology), anti-choicers choose the fetus time and time again.

Of course, most Americans disagree.  Most Americans think that rape victims deserve a right to abortion. But significant numbers also support restrictions on abortion in other cases.  As a result, pro-choice organizations and advocates do admittedly exploit the rape angle in fighting anti-choice legislation.  Rape victims are, seemingly, the perfect case for tugging at people’s heart strings.

Why are rape victims treated like the holy grail in abortion arguments?  And why do supposed abortion “moderates” think that they deserve special treatment?

Granted, the most vulnerable people do deserve most of our concern, so to some extent focusing on their needs above the majority of American women who need abortions is appropriate.  However, it would be silly to pretend that there is no political angle here that has little to do with social justice.  And I think that this focus traces back to ideas about who is to blame, and to women’s sexual rights.

In other words, only some women are seen as worthy of having sexual rights.  And it’s the women who have already had their sexual rights violated.  In order to gain sexual rights, women first have to have them abused.

Further, those women then have to prove that they deserve those sexual rights, no matter how unfair the criteria for proof is.  They usually have to report their rape just to have access to a medical procedure; they may have to provide a name of their rapist, or provide DNA samples from their aborted fetus for “evidence.”  And then they still may be forced by law to undergo ultrasounds and diatribes about how having an abortion makes them a bad person.

Basically, they have to “prove” that they’re a rape victim by playing the part of the right kind of rape victim.  The “real” rape victim.  The good, moral chaste rape victim.  And so either way, rape victim exception or no rape victim exception, women’s bodies are commodified and devalued.

This tells us something about the abortion debate itself — something that most of us probably already knew.  Anti-choicers say that their stance is about “babies” and how those babies are valued.  For that reason, they’d prefer to push women out of the picture all together, and ignore the fact that even if a fetus was a “person,” that would still make two people whose bodies are facing serious consequences.  They prefer this because otherwise, we’d also have to also discuss how women’s bodies are valued.

And the answer to that question when it comes to the act of committing rape, the act of denying a woman the choice of an abortion, and the moment when those two acts intersect, is the same.  Not at all.

I support Roe vs Wade, I support “choice,” and I support reproductive autonomy and non-coercion of all kinds, because women deserve better.

cross-posted at Feministe

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{ 3 comments }

1 Madama Ambi January 22, 2009 at 3:24 pm

“In other words, only some women are seen as worthy of having sexual rights. And it’s the women who have already had their sexual rights violated. In order to gain sexual rights, women first have to have them abused.”

This jumped out at me because it fits with what would probably be my PhD dissertation if I ever went back to school to do it. I don’t know if my theory holds up, but here is what I’m thinking: female sexuality is defined by injury.

Physical and/or emotional assault on a developing girl’s sense of wholeness is the foundation for what is then called “female sexuality.” IOW, injury to the self is the sine qua non of female sexuality.

Wow. I can’t believe I’ve been carrying this thesis around for more than 20 years and haven’t really addressed it. There’s so much work do!!!

And why haven’t I done my PhD or in some other way articulated my insights? Because I’ve been busy surviving…

2 SunlessNick January 22, 2009 at 7:15 pm

For that reason, they’d prefer to push women out of the picture all together, and ignore the fact that even if a fetus was a “person,” that would still make two people whose bodies are facing serious consequences. They prefer this because otherwise, we’d also have to also discuss how women’s bodies are valued.

Anti-choicers claim that a foetus has a greater right to a woman’s body than she has herself. As you say, that is the logic of rape and rape-apology.

It’s also the logic of slavery – and in my view, slaves are entitled to kill in order to be free.

In other words, only some women are seen as worthy of having sexual rights.

And if only some women can have those rights, that establishes those rights as being given (and we know by whom), not innately held by the women concerned. By “letting” a woman have an abortion, the choice is still out of her hands, and ownership over her body is still imposed by another.

3 MomTFH January 24, 2009 at 3:03 pm

Great post! I also rejected the blog for choice theme initially, figuring it was a very well covered, not very nuanced theme.

This is yet another example of how the abortion discussion is always pushed to the graphic extremes. Yes, I think discussing sexual assault victims can be very important,as you do a great job of here. But also, I think rape exceptions and other extreme conditions dominate the abortion legislation discussion and even any abortion discussion (it came up on my blog’s comment section even though it was irrelevant to the original post.)

It’s too bad. I wish we could discuss abortion in a more normal fashion.

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