Abortion In The Case Of Rape: What Are Romney, Ryan, And Akin Really Talking About?

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Khadijah White wants to know: If Romney/Ryan took office this November, what else will victims of rape and incest have to endure?

In case you’ve somehow missed it, during an interview several days ago on a local political news show in St. Louis, Congressmen Todd Akin (who, ironically, is running against one of only 17 women in the 100-member Senate) responded to a question about whether he supported the termination of pregnancies that resulted from rape. “From what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare.” Akin said. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

As soon as the quote began to circulate, essentially everyone in the Republican Party jumped all over themselves trying to get some distance from Akin (while still officially approving a no-exception party platform opposing abortion two days later). The Romney/Ryan campaign, in particular, released a statement that made it clear that the Republican Party and its very own presidential candidate don’t exactly see eye-to-eye when it comes to abortion law. “Gov. Romney and Congressman Ryan disagree with Mr. Akin’s statement, and a Romney-Ryan administration would not oppose abortion in instances of rape,” they declared.

Whew! Well, that’s a relief. A prospective American president in the 21st century would allow a woman to terminate an unwanted pregnancy in the event that it’s not due to her own promiscuity (leaving aside all that pesky illegitimate rape that’s really the woman or girl’s fault). I mean, it’s kind of nice in a way—Republicans cap the limit on how many times people are able to force their will onto a woman’s body. After one bout of coercion, trauma, and force, you can have your abortion! 

But, here’s my real question (and I’m honestly hoping that one of these GOP lawmakers can answer it): If Republicans oppose abortion except “in the case of rape,” how does a pregnant woman prove that she was raped? Will a female rape victim be required to file a police report immediately after a traumatizing sexual assault just in case she needs an abortion a few weeks later? Do doctors in these “in the case of rape” states require rape receipts or something? Where would a rape victim obtain such receipts and would she have to pay? Who would approve and evaluate the request? It for sure won’t be a state-funded therapist or clinician—GOP governors are cutting social services all around the country in the name of austerity. If the Romney/Ryan platform would allow abortion in the case of incest or rape, how would such a policy actually be enforced?

I’ve tried to understand how a restrictive rape/incest-only abortion system would work. As it turns out, most of the Republican Party embraces this policy without specifying exactly what it would entail. And, no surprise, at least 75% of American voters also support this stance. But no one really seems to provide a plan about how a pregnant woman would be able to secure an abortion even if these conditional pro-lifers got their way. For a topic that elicits such passionate and rigid viewpoints, there seems to be little clarity about how anyone would ever evaluate a woman’s abortion-worthiness in a system based on such specific exceptions.

In 1967, Colorado was the first state to legalize abortion in the case of rape or incest. Under that law, the District Attorney had to provide certification that “unlawful sexual behavior had occurred.” A 1972 law article argued that such determinations were “resolved easily” because “definitions of rape and incest can [be] drawn from specific criminal statutes.” In Louisiana, the state’s 1992 “rape” exception law allowed abortion only when the assault qualified as “aggravated,” “forcible,” or “simple” and excluded women raped by their husbands—their own version of “legitimate” rape. Women in these situations were expected to “resist to their utmost” if it really was a rape. And under the Louisiana statute, rape victims had only a seven-day window to purchase and ingest preventative contraception, obtain a medical exam, and file a police report, or else she lost her ability to qualify for an abortion in the event that she actually needed one. A similar law in Utah also had a law enforcement reporting requirement. Is this what Mitt Romney is imagining?

Studies have found that at least one in three American women have experienced some form of sexual assault—that’s at least 52.3 million of our sisters, mothers, daughters, and friends. Forcible rape statistics estimate at least 88,097 incidents, but these numbers exclude minors, require “force,” and rely on law enforcement data. One national study of rapes on college campuses found that fewer than 5% of rapes are reported to law enforcement officials. Accounting for rape-related pregnancies is even harder because of contraceptive use, the decision to carry to full term, or non-disclosure.

Women remain silent about rape for a variety of reasons, including the fear of retaliation and a desire to avoid the humiliation and retraumatization of medical examinations, police interviews, and criminal trials that publicly scrutinize their sexual history. Last year, a police officer’s incendiary comment about a rape victim prompted women to organize SlutWalks throughout the United States and the rest of the world and protest a global culture of rape apologetics and victim shaming. 

Rape and incest are intensely private events that take many victims years to admit and share with someone they trust. But most people in the United States, including our political leaders, seem to ignore this reality. Instead, they advocate for ill-defined legislation in which these women would have about eight weeks to obtain some indeterminate official certification and approval to deal with not only the violation of their will and devastation of their spirit, but the continuing occupation of their bodies. And conservatives believe this is the compassionate option.

On the other hand, even those victims who decide not to terminate the pregnancy and “choose life” (as some conservatives put it) end up on the losing end of the justice system. At least 31 states allow rapists to obtain parental rights and maintain lifelong contact with their victims.

So where does that leave America’s women and girls? Vulnerable.

Being pro-choice is not about advocating for or against abortions—it’s about recognizing that women can and should make sound decisions for their own bodies, about acknowledging that pregnancy itself is always a life-threatening condition, about being a full citizen in a society that values every life equally and making legislators live by the Golden Rule. It’s about giving women more options, not less (and, definitely, not worse).

If Mitt Romney were elected in November and somehow was able to limit abortions to pregnant women who met his rape or incest requirements, what more would these people have to endure?

Khadijah White is a PhD candidate and Fontaine Fellow at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Previously she worked as a journalist at NOW on PBS and served as a White House intern on the Obama administration’s Broadcast Media team. Her research focuses on the intersection of culture, media, and politics.

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