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Hannah Yost is embraced by her husband and fellow protesters as she speaks about her experience with sexual assault during an abortion-rights rally

Hannah Yost is embraced by her husband and fellow protesters as she speaks about her experience with sexual assault during an abortion-rights rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building on May 05, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Invasions of Privacy: The Deluded Exception of Rape and Incest

Exceptions are no more enlightened than total bans, excessive restrictions for abortion centers, laws prohibiting insurance coverage, or any of the myriad ways that women are being pushed back in time.

Alice Rothchild

We are hurtling towards a world where a group of conservative mostly white men will likely trample the rights of "post-born" women to control their reproduction in the name of saving the "pre-born." That word has only recently become an evocative and weighted term, designed to create a mindset that gives embryos and fetuses a host of constitutional rights. The idea that pregnancies resulting from rape or incest could be an exception to the no-choice-what-so-ever  rule is repeatedly offered as a kinder, gentler attitude that addresses the needs of women caught in tragic circumstances. One in five women will experience sexual assault at some time in their life. Many will become pregnant.

While the majority of the US population supports reproductive choice and some degree of autonomy for the decisions of pregnant women, (and nonbinary and transgender people who become pregnant), the Supreme Court exists in a parallel universe, hardly reflective of the country as a whole.

Before the Supreme Court summer recess, the nine justices are expected to release an official ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization which will likely overturn Roe v. Wade and toss abortion regulation back to individual states. The Northeast, Pacific coast, and a smattering of middle states are working to become protective havens for abortion access in opposition to everyone else. There are a growing number of trigger laws and increasing acceptance of a controversial definition of "when life begins" (and requires state protection) that is rolling back to shortly after conception. The government is not only invading the privacy of the bedroom, it is almost crawling under the sheets and checking women's apps for their last menstrual period. 

While the majority of the US population supports reproductive choice and some degree of autonomy for the decisions of pregnant women, (and nonbinary and transgender people who become pregnant), the Supreme Court exists in a parallel universe, hardly reflective of the country as a whole. According to the Guttmacher Institute, one quarter of women will have had an abortion during their childbearing years, over 90% in the first trimester, and these women represent a broad swath of the US public. 

At the same time, Americans are increasingly isolated, living in segregated islands of like-minded people, hijacked by fear: the loss of male privilege and white supremacy, the browning of America, the rising power of women in the work place, on the streets, in the courts speaking out against harassment and rape culture. These values wars are being used cynically to mobilize voters, poisoned by shaming, misinformation and conspiracy theories, further dividing the country, with little actual concern for the wellbeing of women. The states promoting restrictions to abortion are more likely to establish barriers to contraception as well, making unplanned pregnancies even more common. 

One of the tools in this misinformation campaign is the perversion of language, words like "the unborn," "pre-born," or fetal "heart beat" bills which prohibit abortion at a time when the embryo, (not yet a fetus), has a collection of pulsing cells that will develop into a recognizable heart later in the second trimester. These abortion bans are both deeply ideological and scientifically unsound. 

This delusional and punitive approach to women is also seen in the language of "exceptions to rape and incest." It is useful to understand the details of this argument in real life. A woman suffering the intense sexual violence of rape faces physical and psychological trauma. She may present for medical care and experience the painful intrusion of a vaginal exam, the collection of specimens for a rape kit, the repair of injuries in her most private places. Her care providers may or may not be sensitive, kind, and meticulous. 

This woman may or may not be ready to deal with the psychological trauma of the assault, she may want to bury the pain, pretend it never happened, be haunted by questions. Why did she walk home that night? Why did she drink too much? Was she wearing something provocative? Who would believe her anyway? She may see the rapist every day at school, at work. The rapist may be her intimate partner, a powerful man, her pastor, or her employer. She may never report the attack to police for fear of another traumatic experience, of being doubted, of a disturbing, humiliating investigation into her life, her sexual experiences—with little chance of justice. If she is a woman of color, a woman who doesn't speak English, a woman who is isolated and living in a rural conservative setting, a woman who does not feel empowered to defend herself in this time of incredible vulnerability, then the barriers are infinitely higher.

Then her period is late. She may be in denial or frightened. She may be emotionally unable to face the possibility of an unwanted pregnancy. She may have no one to turn to, but the fact won't go away. What happens then?  A pregnancy termination is safest in the first trimester. How long does it take for this woman to acknowledge her pregnancy and feel able, emotionally and financially, to act? Does she have to see a medical provider to "prove" belatedly that she was raped? She has no evidence except her own pain and the knowledge of her experience. 

Does she have to report the assault to the police and face their interrogations, identify witnesses, (which is often impossible)? Does she have to face the rapist who adamantly denies the attack or claims it was consensual? Is she required to prove in court that it was "actual" rape? Does she have to find a lawyer willing to take her case? How much does this cost? Who is supporting her emotionally and financially during this time of repeated trauma, of repeated reliving of an event she would like to forget? Every week is critical. What if her pregnancy is now beyond the first trimester, is it too late? Does she have to travel to another state for care? Who pays? How does she find an appointment, get there and back? Who takes care of her other children during this ordeal? While complications from the procedure are rare, what if she comes home and spikes a fever, starts hemorrhaging.  Who is willing to treat her then? 

Now imagine this woman is a girl, maybe twelve, only recently menstruating. She is raped by her brother, her father, her uncle. Maybe this has been going on for years and she has hidden the ugly fact from her mother. Maybe she never told anyone or was threatened when she did. Her period is late. Maybe it hasn't yet become regular. How long does it take for this child to understand that she is pregnant? That it could happen to her. That if she doesn't do something, she may be forced to deliver an unwanted child, born of violence and fear. How does that work? 

The loss of the right to choose whether or not to have an abortion creates a world where women and girls rapidly lose their autonomy, where intrusions into a girl's or woman's privacy are inevitable, where mostly men and the structures of the state become inherently part of the reproductive lives of half of the population. Exceptions are no more enlightened than total bans, excessive restrictions for abortion centers, laws prohibiting insurance coverage, or any of the myriad ways that women are being pushed back in time. 

The pre Roe v Wade era was epitomized by the trauma of illegal abortions that sickened and killed many women, by hospitals that had entire wards dedicated to treating the injuries and infections created by ill-trained, illegal abortionists. No matter the barriers, we know that women will seek out pregnancy terminations, that the poor and disenfranchised will be most vulnerable, that women want to have control over their own bodies, to have babies when they feel able to care for them emotionally and financially. Women and nonbinary and transgender people who can become pregnant deserve to have safe, available, shame-free medical care when they need it most. 


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Alice

Alice Rothchild

Alice Rothchild is a physician, author, and filmmaker with an interest in human rights and social justice. She practiced ob-gyn for almost 40 years and her retirement she served as Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Harvard Medical School. In the 1970s, she was the Medical Director, Women’s Community Health Center, Cambridge, MA, where she performed abortions and she served on the Rape Crisis Committee, Beth Israel Hospital, Boston.

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