Even If She’s Raped

***Trigger Warning***

In the debate between those who support abortion rights and those who do not, a certain familiar cliche will often tend to rear its head. One side or the other will offer up the hypothetical situation of a woman seeking an abortion after being impregnated by rape. It seems almost an inevitability, like a particularly grim analogue of Godwin’s Law, and there are many who are opposed to abortion except in cases where the woman has been raped. It seems simple, obvious even, that people might make this exception, but it’s worth considering the motivation behind it.

I broached this on Twitter, and @Rattlecans suggested that the kind of people who debate abortion from an anti-choice perspective don’t think of it as something that will ever affect them personally; for whatever reason, they and the women they know are not the kind of people who suffer unwanted pregnancies. Rape is the only way, they believe, that this kind of crisis might actually occur within their lives, and so they frame their discussion of the right to an abortion around that issue. This is probably a bit simplistic to be taken as a universal maxim but it’s a thought worth bearing in mind when these arguments come up.

My understanding of it is different, though. I think there’s an inherent subtext to that line of moral debate, which runs something like this: ‘Imagine a woman. She is pure and innocent, virginous, even, until a corrupting sexual force is imposed on her. She has absolutely no control over the circumstances of her pregnancy. She is blameless. Unlike other women, she should be allowed an abortion to restore her and nullify the rape.’

The problem here is that it reinforces some particularly damaging and illiberal attitudes to female sexual behaviour. It suggests that women who consent to sex (and maybe even enjoy it) have forfeited their right to sympathy and support in the event of unwanted pregnancy. It suggests that any woman who becomes pregnant without having been raped has no right to complain about their pregnancy.

The second major problem with rape exceptions is that they cast women entirely as victims, denying them the autonomous agency to engage responsibly in the sexual world. The abortion is a way of cleansing the sullied body, protecting the victim from the ravages of sex, rather than a way for a woman to take responsibility for her own medical state. Ultimately, framing one’s position with hypotheticals like this only allows for women to conform to one of two narrow roles: the victim, who is entirely passive and needs to be looked after, or the whore, who brings whatever befalls her upon herself and gets what she deserves.

Since this blog largely preaches to the converted, I’m directing this appeal to pro-choice readers. I understand that if you are trying to reason with someone who says that abortion is unacceptable under any circumstances, asking their feelings on cases involving rape can be an effective way to draw them away from moral certainty and make them accept that there are complex issues at play. However, not only is it a bit crass and exploitative to use hypothetical rapes to manipulate the course of a debate, but as far as I can see it’s a dead end which reinforces too many anti-choice prejudices. Abortion to avoid delivering a rapist’s child can be justified as a necessary evil, but to do so accepts that abortion in general is evil. Furthermore, it posits a kind of moral hierarchy of women seeking abortion, with some (rape survivors) as more deserving than others. Another cliche in these discussions is the woman who ‘treats abortion like emergency contraception’. This woman, because she is reckless and irresponsible, because her reason for wanting an abortion is something as unimpressive as simply not wanting to have children, is undeserving; her choice to have an abortion is far less forgivable than the rape survivor’s. It is essential to resist this kind of prejudice and not to build arguments based on the idea that some women are more or less deserving than others. As far as I can see, the only argument which pro-choice people (especially men) need to justify supporting abortion rights is this: neither I nor anyone else has the right nor the moral authority to dictate to another person the choices they make about their body. And that’s that.

EDIT: As a perfect illustration of the paternalistic misogyny that lies at the heart of this exceptionalism, @Boudledidge has sent me a link to the comments of Senator William Napoli.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO [Journalist]: Napoli says most abortions are performed for what he calls “convenience.” He insists that exceptions can be made for rape or incest under the provision that protects the mother’s life. I asked him for a scenario in which an exception may be invoked.

BILL NAPOLI: A real-life description to me would be a rape victim, brutally raped, savaged. The girl was a virgin. She was religious. She planned on saving her virginity until she was married. She was brutalized and raped, sodomized as bad as you can possibly make it, and is impregnated. I mean, that girl could be so messed up, physically and psychologically, that carrying that child could very well threaten her life.


A good friend of mine has just been sent to prison where, for a limited time, he will join other men in paying off his debt to society. Each of these men has committed, or at least been found guilty of, a crime and has been locked away. For most, if not all, of them, this custodial sentence is not keeping them off of the streets for our safety; these are not people sufficiently dangerous to the general public that they must be incarcerated at all times. Instead, there is a more complex and symbolic philosophy at work; these men are being punished, and their punishment will make amends for their crimes. Their debt to society will be repaid.

I’ve never understood it, personally. I can see how a fine or community service may be seen to fit this accepted rhetoric, with the convicted person making some formal contribution to the broader community, but a prison sentence seems to strive for an oddly karmic sense of equilibrium. A criminal has (presumably) inflicted some suffering by their crime, and in so doing has incurred a societal debt. By being caused to suffer themselves they are able to pay it off. They have been punished. I believe that’s how the logic goes, and yet unlike direct restorative justice, which sees perpetrators and victims brought together in communication to find a way to make amends, prison is not in the interests of either the victims or the wider community to any greater degree than that ‘justice’ can be seen to be done – prison costs the tax payer money. Yet, in spite of all of this, my friend was told that he had to repay his debt to society.

What I find most egregious about this phrase, and the ideology it represents, is the hypocrisy. It is the idea that we suffer and heal and forgive collectively. This is, in itself, a beautiful notion, but it is inconsistent with the nature of our judicial system. The idea of a ‘debt to society’, of a common interest, of all our fates being interwoven and our prospects interdependent is the philosophy of solidarity and comradeship, it is the philosophy of the hard left; the ideology underpinning the concept of a ‘debt to society’ can best be summarised with the phrase “an injury to one is an injury to all” – the language of the organised labour movement. And yet the idea of a ‘debt to society’ is invoked by the establishment, it is the mantra of the right, of Law and Order loving conservatives, of the children of Thatcher, who told us there was no such thing as society, of those who promote individualism and self sufficiency, and it is a hypocrisy. If we truly believed that we each have a duty to society, and that failure to act in the interests of others is a crime, we wouldn’t waste prison space with petty offenders; the cells would be filled with the the self-serving individualists; the politicians, journalists and business tycoons who place their own advancement over that of those around them. If there is such a thing as society, and if by victimising individuals within it one deserves the condemnation of the whole and incurs a debt, then we must act like it at all times, not just when it comes to sentencing criminals. If not, then we should be honest about what the justice system stands for; not to protect the shared interests of us all, but to preserve the power of the establishment and maintain the status quo.
I believe in society, and Jonnie Marbles doesn’t owe me any debt.


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