A year ago this week, Representative Todd Akin made the explosive statement that in the case of legitimate rape, women’s bodies have ways of shutting down pregnancies.
It was a truly public and spectacular screw up, after which women’s rights advocates, and, well, women in general, seized upon his remark as indicative of a Republican party out of touch with reality and utterly ignorant of science and facts.
A year later, the frightening truth, however, is that we’ve come to realize that Todd Akin’s comment wasn’t an anomaly. It wasn’t a fluke, a mistake, or even that far out there when it comes to Republican’s views about rape, abortion, and women. But also that as a society, we’re nowhere close to where we need to be in understanding the deeper issues about judgment, responsibility, and choice.
The National Women’s Law Center just released a report detailing the frightening relationship between Republican efforts to deny abortion access and survivors of rape and sexual assault. According to the report, in 2013 state governing bodies have introduced a record number of provisions to restrict abortion access, of which a staggering 86% apply to rape survivors. Of those there were enacted by the states, 71% would affect women whose rapes resulted in pregnancies.
Apparently, not only are rape survivors getting pregnant, they’re also seeking abortions. And legislation being proposed and enacted by Republicans to ban abortion is not providing exceptions to these women.
This should come as no surprise to anyone who noted that during the Republican National Convention this past August, Republicans reaffirmed their opposition to abortion in all cases, with no exceptions, even for rape. In a country in which 74% of people believe abortion should be legal in cases of pregnancies resulting from rape, this is wildly out of touch with how Americans feel about the issue.
And yet I wonder – is that good enough? What should the relationship be between rape and abortion access? Just as Todd Akin wanted to question legitimate rapes (which he claims don’t lead to pregnancies), are there legitimate abortions? What makes an abortion (or a rape for that matter) legitimate versus illegitimate?
The question of judgment in our society is a serious one. Who do we have a right to judge – as a collective community – and what rights do we have the right to restrict in protection of other rights? In general, we can say and print what we like because of the 1st Amendment. That said, we are not allowed to threaten others with physical violence (unless you’re telling a doctor performing abortions that you might put a bomb under her car. That’s apparently legal).
But otherwise, judging which behaviors are acceptable for what reasons, who deserves what opportunities and benefits, is what our system does, every day, for millions of people. Take, for example, the fight about food stamps. Should people on food stamps be allowed to purchase junk food? Are they best equipped to make the “right” decision for their health, or is the government? Many people believe that those on food stamps are clearly irresponsible enough to need to be on food stamps, just as women who got pregnant were by and large irresponsible enough to get themselves pregnant. This means you need to suffer the consequences of fewer choices, of the government deciding what’s best for you.
The problem with abortion is that Republicans like to think that when it comes to whether a child should be born, they know better – automatically – than a woman and or her doctor would know. Just as apparently some people believe the government knows better how to squeeze the most out of a dollar than a person living near the poverty line who struggles with it every single day.
Being unsuccessful at banning abortion entirely, Republicans have tried other methods – all of which are grounded in the idea that women are stupid, ignorant, or incapable of making the right decision. This includes forced ultrasounds, during which women are required to describe the movements of the fetus, and mandatory counseling sessions, for which medical practitioners will direct patients to notoriously misleading “crisis pregnancy centers,” where women are pressured and manipulated into changing their minds.
But women seeking abortions aren’t stupid. In fact, the very fact that they are seeking abortions speaks of a precise awareness of what pregnancy means, of what carrying a child means, and of what responsibility would be required of them going forward.
As feminist author Soraya Chemaly puts it so eloquently: “Just because you cannot get pregnant does not mean I cannot think clearly, ethically, morally, rationally about my body, human life or the consequences of my actions. Just because you cannot get pregnant does not mean that I do not have rights when I am pregnant.”
More than half of women seeking abortions in the United States already have children. 33% have had two or more children. They, more than anyone else, know what it means to be pregnant. What it means to carry a child to term, and to raise it. 0% of Republican male legislators pushing these regulations and restrictions can say that they have the knowledge these women have.
On top of that, the same percentage of Republican male legislators – zero – can say one more thing: that they know what it means to be raped, become pregnant, and carry a pregnancy to term.
Passing legislation that bans or limits abortion , but allows exceptions for rape and incest, is deeply troubling. For one thing, it simply reaffirms the idea that someone – anyone – other than a woman or her doctor has any right to judge whether a woman’s reasons for wanting an abortion are acceptable. Legitimate, if you will. Who are any of us to judge such a decision for anyone else?
But equally important, it simplifies a rape to some sort of black and white condition that can be determined via litmus test. Never mind that rape is the most underreported crime in the country, that rape victims are often doubted by law enforcement (until recently, police policy in Virginia stated that officers should assume all rape victims were lying), and sometimes that even by speaking out against a system that didn’t support a victim, that person can be threatened and accused of intimidating their own rapist. Never mind that rape victims have a hard enough time getting help and attention and assistance in seeking justice or mental and emotional well-being. Even those who don’t come forward with their stories are sometimes “outed” and then harassed to death.
Still, people want it to be easy – they want to be able to say “Raped? Abortion Approved. Not raped? Tough luck.” Laws supporting this sort of judgment are already in place: in Iowa, if you’re a woman on Medicaid who’s been raped, the Governor himself needs to approve your use of those funds for abortions. A man with no training in medicine, social work, health, or sexual assault has the final say on whether your rape was legitimate enough for you to be reimbursed with Medicaid dollars for your abortion.
Rape is complicated. As much as we like to say that rape is rape (and don’t get me wrong, it is), the public policy issue of rape is complicated. And yet so often, our society wants to judge women for it. We engage in victim-blaming of the worst kind, in which we judge what a woman – or girl – did, said, wore, or implied, that led to her being raped.
Reporting rapes is complicated. Getting rapes investigated, and rapists convicted, is complicated. Getting rape kits tested is complicated. In all of these contexts, of course, by “complicated,” I mean to say that there are barriers to them and complexities because our society still engages in victim-blaming, in slut-shaming, and in judgment of women and of our lives and choices.
Providing exceptions for rape isn’t the answer. It doesn’t nearly solve the public challenge of convincing people that women really are the best and most capable decision-makers of what happens in their own bodies and to their own bodies.
To claim that permitting exceptions for rape shows compassion for those who got pregnant through no fault of their own actually shows the opposite. It shows that you are willing to “forgive” them and not force them to undergo an incredibly dangerous medical condition and procedure. But you want something in exchange. In exchange, you want to force rape victims to go through the judgment of our deeply flawed justice system. You want to force them to file reports, to undergo exams, to have a traumatic experience put under a microscope and relived – countless times – so that you can judge whether or not their rape is legitimate.
There is nothing compassionate or forgiving about putting the government in charge of judging a woman’s rape. Nothing.
The truth is that unplanned pregnancies happen for a variety of reasons. Sometimes those involved are simply unaware of how to prevent pregnancies – a travesty that is often the direct result of abstinence-only education and a lack of comprehensive sex education. Sometimes it’s because birth control has been too expensive or is otherwise inaccessible (Obamacare is addressing that). Sometimes it’s because some forms of birth control break. Sometimes it’s because alcohol has been involved and birth control has been forgotten. Sometimes birth control doesn’t work because . . . well, because sometimes birth control doesn’t work.
And sometimes people just make mistakes. For so many reasons in so many potential circumstances, sometimes people just make mistakes.
And Republicans want to punish women for this mistake. Republicans are not interested in comprehensive sexual education or in making birth control more affordable. They’re not even interested in making emergency contraception available and accessible to those who need it. They just want to say: “you shouldn’t have been having sex. Now that you have, see what’s happened? Deal with it.”
They also don’t want to help women raise those children to be healthy or well-adjusted. They’ve tried (and in many cases succeeded in) cutting funding to a range of public services that aid children, including public education, SNAP (food stamps), child care, foster care, free breakfast/lunch programs, working families tax credits, child abuse prevention services, and more.
But this is a judgment that doles out cruel punishments to mothers (who knew they couldn’t or didn’t want to care for the child), fathers (how many of them will pay the full child support that is required by law, for a child that wasn’t wanted?), and the children themselves.
This shouldn’t be what our society is about. It shouldn’t be about judging whether a woman who was raped was raped legitimately; it shouldn’t be about judging women who have sex, and it shouldn’t be about judging women who want or need abortions.
As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has written about health care in the United States, “We all make mistakes, and a humane government tries to compensate for our misjudgments. A civilized society compensates for the human propensity to screw up. That’s why we have single-payer firefighters and police officers. That’s why highways have guardrails, why drivers must wear seat belts, and why we have fire codes. When someone who has been speeding gets in a car accident, the 911 operator doesn’t sneer: “You were irresponsible, so figure out your own way to the hospital” — and hang up
To err is human, but so is to forgive. Living in a community means being interconnected in myriad ways — including by empathy. To feel undiminished by the deaths of those around us isn’t heroic Ayn Rand individualism. It’s sociopathic. Compassion isn’t a sign of weakness, but of civilization.”
On Judging Women’s Choices
Pregnancy is complicated. The question of whether couples (or individuals) ever want to have children is complicated. And as complicated as those things are, being forced into considering those complicated issues is even more complicated.
Rape can’t be judged, abortion can’t be judged, and women’s choices can’t be judged. We can’t be. The issues are too complex, too nuanced, and too individualized. Being raped is hard enough to cope with – must we also judge these women, and dictate how they will live out the rest of their lives? Becoming accidentally pregnant is hard enough to cope with – must we also judge these women, and dictate how they will live out the rest of their lives?
Rapes. Pregnancies. Rapes that leads to pregnancies. These issues are not separate and apart from one another. And the judgment Republicans want to force on the women who deal with these issues is the same. A judgment of women, of our lives, of our past choices, and most importantly, a judgment of our mistakes and how we made them.
Don’t be fooled. Todd Akin and his fellow Republicans haven’t learned anything this past year about the real issues underlying abortion rights and reproductive justice. But those who think separating pregnancy by rape and pregnancy by mistake is the answer are missing the broader point, too.
Moving forward on gender equality and women’s rights means we need to stop judging women, stop judging women’s choices, and stop condoning those who do.
Photo 1 Credit: KOMUNews