Reflections on Rape and Abortion

Rape and abortion are much in the news these days. Sad to say, an otherwise good politician incompetently waded into a politically explosive area and lit a match.

A rape is often the most physically and emotionally devastating event in a victim’s life. She may be overcome with guilt, sadness, and depression. Rape victims speak of feeling dirty. One may never even seem to belittle this horrific crime.

And this is why the case against the rape exception is among the hardest for pro-lifers to articulate and for others to understand. It happens to be the position of most mainstream pro-life groups and, indeed, the teaching of the Catholic Church that killing an innocent child can never be justified, even if that life began as a result of rape.

The logic is unassailable. An unborn child is a unique human being who, by nature, is the bearer of certain rights. These rights, chief among them the right to life, may never be abrogated, not even in furtherance of another good, attempting to ease the terrible pain of a rape victim. An unborn child cannot be punished for the crimes of a biological father.

Quite honestly, many people think this sounds simply nuts and, for some, it makes pro-lifers seem rather heartless. As Feminists for Life President Serrin Foster makes so clear, the victim of rape deserves all the love and help we can muster. And we should seek swift and just punishment for her attacker.

But some will argue: “if you force a woman to carry her rapist’s child, it will be there every day for nine months reminding her of the most traumatic moment in her life.” There is truth to that. If you make the baby a co-conspirator in the crime, then her daily presence will be a daily assault. Actually, research shows that this is the emotional reality for many young women with unplanned and unwanted pregnancies, not just rape. She sees the baby as a threat to her very life.

But some rape victims who find themselves pregnant may come to another understanding of the baby. There is gripping testimony from women who did indeed fear seeing their attacker in the face of their child, only to find that what they saw instead was the face of a sweet baby. 

Children conceived in rape can be the most compelling witnesses of that unanswerable truth: that every human child is a gift from God. And we have prominent examples: Attorney and much sought after speaker Rebecca Keissling and activist Ryan Bomberger come to mind.

         Lisa Askew and son Callum

Savvy public advocates always try to fight on their own ground and not on the ground of their opponents. This is why the partial-birth-abortion fight was so successful in changing the abortion debate in America. It was fought on the ground of pro-lifers. It was idiotic for abortion advocates to fight on ground that made them look so profoundly bad. But they could not help themselves. No less a figure than Frances Kissling, then head of Catholics for a Free Choice, said that defending partial-birth abortions cost her movement many “moderately pro-choice Catholics.”

Our opponents on the life issues like to fight on their own ground, too. They want to make it about the hard cases – but most especially rape. Any person who talks with friends, family, or strangers almost immediately gets drawn into the same thing that Congressman Todd Akin got drawn into last weekend. Making abortion available for rape victims is the pro-choice argument par excellence. It places us in the position of having to defend what seems indefensible.

One fairly easy parry to this thrust is – for the sake of argument – simply to give in. “OK, fine, you can have all the hard cases. You can have abortion for rape, incest, and the life of the mother. That amounts to less than 2 percent of all abortion cases, or about 20,000 per year.”

This angle of defense shows that the hard cases, while admittedly hard, are darned few in the larger abortion regime. Many Americans think the hard cases are the majority. Making the real case clear puts the pro-abortion advocates back on having to defend the other 1,180,000 abortions that are done for other reasons.

Keep in mind that most Americans believe that most abortions should be illegal. The vast majority of abortions are done on healthy mothers with healthy babies.

But here’s the thing. Unless you work on this issue full time either as a professional or a volunteer, these arguments don’t come easy or quick. And in the heat of conversation almost anyone is capable of making mistakes.

This is especially true for politicians who have dozens of issues running through their brains at any one time, and need to be prepared to answer for all of them at a moment’s notice. This makes abortion-for-rape a complicated minefield.

The pro-life movement largely allows politicians to hold the exceptions and still be called pro-life. George Bush allowed for the hard case exceptions and the pro-life movement considers him the most pro-life president in our history.

If we’re going to be consistent pro-lifers, we must help rape victims understand that keeping the baby may not destroy their lives, but rather may be the very thing that makes them joyful and meaningful.

Lisa Askew, now in her twenties, told the Sun newspaper that she was raped when she was 16. She kept the baby, but rejected him and could not be left alone with him. Then something happened. Love took over: “I know he has his father’s eyes and hair but when I look at him, all I see is my beautiful son. It never ceases to amaze me that something so precious and wonderful came from something so terrible. Hes my beautiful boy and I wouldnt change him for the world.”


Austin Ruse is the President of the New York and Washington, D.C.-based Center for Family & Human Rights (C-Fam), a research institute that focuses exclusively on international social policy. The opinions expressed here are Mr. Ruse’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of C-Fam.