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.

19 Responses to Even If She’s Raped

  1. I’ll never understand why anyone, friend, family or stranger would dare to presume to dictate to me what I do or do not do ,my uterus. The idea that others would presume to take control of any part of my body and therefore my future is thoroughly threatening to me. They are arguing to take control of my future, to dictate my future. Who are these people who are supposedly far better qualified to make decisions about the rest of my life than I could? It isn’t a pregnancy that has the potential to wreck my life, it is these people who would presume to destroy my dreams, my hopes, my plans.

  2. Mackenzie says:

    “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.”

    No. Those who use abortion as a contraceptive are awful, awful people and should be sterilised.

  3. It’s rare (for me at least) to read a contribution to the debate on abortion that says something different and insightful. You’ve brought up an issue that I genuinely hadn’t thought of before, and I think you make a very good point.

    It is difficult, because the hypothetical rape victim is a pretty powerful trump card in this debate, but may be one of those that isn’t entirely helpful to play in the big picture.

    Good stuff.

  4. Sofie says:

    I agree with you. Strikes me that when we pose the ‘what about in the case of rape?’ question to the anti-choice side some of them might say ‘yeah, ok, in that case it should be lawful’. Then what? They’re not as wrong? They just *mostly* oppose women’s bodily autonomy?

    Also, it makes me uncomfortable that by repeatedly bringing up abortion in the case of rape, we’re almost making it a feminist assumption that women will want to abort in these cases, couldn’t want anything else, that carrying a foetus conceived during rape to term is the most unthinkable thing ever. I’m sure for lots of women it is, and that should *always* be their decision, but what about women who do choose to have that child?

    I’m not sure about figures or prevalence for this, but I sometimes worry we make it sound almost unfeminist to do so, or cut those people out of supporting us by making the rape-exception such a common argument.

  5. I have met a lot of people on the right who argue that pregnancy is a natural consequence of sex and so a woman who doesn’t want to become a mother shouldn’t have sex. The assumption is always that a woman wanting an abortion must be unmarried, and that marriage offers a form of protection for women, a safe environment for sex, because then there will be a man around to provide for the offspring. The natural consequence of which, one would think, would be the average married man being expected (on his sole wage) to provide for a dozen or more children, which doesn’t sound good for anybody.

    • Some crazy American religionists do seem to think that way though – see the Quiverfull movement for example, & the Mormons who practice polygamy & end up spawning massive, massive families. I have no idea how they manage to pay for them all.

  6. Invariably, the problem with the “thin end of the wedge” approach is that the thin end needs to be palatable to the person on whom you’re trying to use it. Which means that in trying to convince somebody who is thoroughly anti-choice, you’re dealing with some ugly views there, and in order to reach them you might have to venture into that ugliness yourself.

    As you point out, it can be a useful tool in breaking that moral certainty, and in creating an environment where an abortion’s “validity” is assessed on a case by case basis. But I don’t personally see the argumentative route from “but you’d allow it for raped women, right?” to “but you’d allow it if a woman just wanted it, right?” – perhaps it’s a failing on my part, but I just don’t see how you gradually build up from rape to the idea that a woman always has the right to choose.

    Effectively, providing examples of external factors that would make rape permissible is to ignore the central issue that a woman’s right to choose is a right, not a privilege granted by circumstances. Which I think is probably just re-stating what you’ve already said. As such, I’m obviously adding no value and will desist :o)

  7. I’m hoping that we agree that abortions as a primary form of contraception is not good?

    • Sofie says:

      No one has ever used it as a ‘primary form of contraception’.

      So we’d be condemning a myth. And a right-wing one at that.

      • Personally, I don’t feel comfortable condemning right wing myths – I feel like my efforts could be better spent on reality.

        Therefore, by Tory logic, I must condone abortion as a primary form of contraception… :(

    • My understanding is that the word ‘contraception’ means ‘against conception’, or ‘in prevention of conception’.

      As an abortion takes place *after* conception, it can’t very well be considered a form of contraception anyway. Perhaps a pedantic point, but one I felt compelled to make nonetheless.

  8. M says:


    Great post – just wondering if you could possibly reconsider you’re use of the word ‘mother’ in the opening? A woman who is pregnant isn’t a mother unless she already has children she’s chosen to parent. If I were pregnant and seeking an abortion, the last thing I’d want was to be referred to as a ‘mother’ rather than a woman.


  9. sianushka says:

    I thoroughly agree with your post and many of the comments here.

    There’s not much i can add to the debate except to ofer my support for a great post.

  10. God says:

    If you hit alt + 0233, you can get an accent for when you write words like ‘cliché’, just sayin’ :)

  11. I’ve been arguing from a similar standpoint for years. The moment an anti-choicer makes any exceptions to their opposition to abortion, they are (without realising it) admitting that they aren’t really opposed to the procedure, they just want to punish women who have had sex outside of marriage. (Most anti-choicers seem to find it incomprehensible that an unwanted pregnancy could occur from consensual marital sex.)

    If one truly believes that abortion is the murder of an unborn child, the circumstances of conception shouldn’t matter.

  12. W.Kasper says:

    Just thought I should let you know you’re posts have been first rate so far. Although it’s clear where you’re coming from, it’s refreshingly free of cliche and lazy flag-waving. Far from mediocre! So hopefully you’ll be blogging a bit more in the near future?

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