Imagine it’s Friday, and you are waiting for your child’s father to pick her up for his weekend visitation. When the doorbell rings, it will mean seeing your rapist again, and handing your child over to him. If this mind-boggling scenario seems far-fetched, think again. The prospect of spending the rest of your life co-parenting with a rapist-father is nauseating, but that could become the law of the land under Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.
When Romney aligned himself with Ryan and the militant, absolutist Republican majority in Congress, he signed up to oppose all abortions without exception—even if a woman’s life is at risk or a pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. Thousands of women all over the country who now can legally end a pregnancy caused by rape would instead be forced to carry the child to term. In most states, that means submitting to the rapist-father’s assertion of paternal rights regarding visitation, religion, education, health care and countless other issues. And this week, the GOP convention will adopt a platform endorsing the no-exceptions abortion plank. Welcome to the GOP’s shocking approach to women’s rights.
It turns out that in 31 states, a woman who carries a rape pregnancy to term has no effective way to block the rapist from asserting his paternal rights over the child he forced on her. In those 31 states, it is not unusual for a rapist to assert his parental rights over his victim’s rape-child, according to lawyer Shauna Prewitt, who wrote a 2010 article about it in the Georgetown Law Journal. The mother will be at risk of spending decades co-parenting with her rapist and encountering him at family events for the rest of their lifetimes. The stakes are enormous for the estimated 25,000 to 32,000 girls and women impregnated by rape each year.
This legal respect for rapists at the expense of their victims is an appalling, mind-bending amplification of the punishment already inflicted on a woman by the rape itself. Prewitt, who endured a legal nightmare when she sought to keep sole custody of her daughter, is fighting to change the laws to protect women from being sentenced to the same scenario. She wants to allow rape victims to recover from the assault. Prewitt points out that raped women “who are required to share custody and visitation privileges may be unable to undertake some of the steps raped women have found necessary to move forward and heal.” In such a situation, a raped woman would be unable to seek recovery by relocating, she said. Since many rape victims suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome, those unable to escape from the “triggers” that cause stress reactions would be more likely to fall into substance abuse, psychological disorders, anxiety attacks, and suicidal thoughts, and that would negatively affect their performance as a parent, Prewitt said.
Approximately 25,000 women become pregnant through rape each year. In response, many states have passed special laws, devised streamlined procedures, or both, to aid pregnant women who seek abortions or wish to place their rape-conceived children for adoption. However, few states have passed laws to aid the large numbers of raped women who choose to raise their rape-conceived children. Without such laws, in most states, a man who fathers through rape has the same custody and visitation privileges to that child as does any other father of a child. Moreover, as a result of this legal void, raped women and their children are left to face substantial and potentially terrible consequences.
This Note argues that the absence of these laws stems from the societal images and other rhetoric concerning the pregnant raped woman that depict raped women as hating their unborn children and viewing their rape pregnancies as continuing their rape experience. These societal constructions have created a biased “prototype” of the pregnant raped woman and of the prototypical rape pregnancy experience by which all pregnant raped women are judged. Women who raise their rape-conceived children depart from the prototype and are, as a result, viewed with suspicion. Legal protections, such as alternate custody rights, are then denied to them because, being viewed as “impostor” rape victims, it is thought that there is nothing special about these women or their conceptions requiring any change in the manner in which custody and visitation determinations are made.
The platform of the Republican Party, which makes no exception for abortion in the case of rape, incest, or protection of the mother’s life, codifies the extremist worldview of Akin, Ryan and many other GOP officeholders who have repeatedly voted for this policy in Congress. Akin and Ryan are co-sponsors on many pieces of extremist anti-choice and anti-women’s health legislation. Unfortunately, the reproductive-rights policy of Akin and Ryan is in harmony with that of the entire GOP. In an interview last week, Ryan said, “I’m very proud of my pro-life record, and I’ve always adopted the idea that, the position that the method of conception doesn’t change the definition of life.”
Since finishing his one term as a pro-choice governor of Massachusetts, Romney has embraced a level of extremism that once might have been unthinkable. Romney has erased his past views as a moderate technocrat. On everything from his signature health reform law in Massachusetts to his positions on global warming and abortion rights, Romney jettisoned them to appeal to GOP extremist fantasies. Among these policy shifts, no flip-flop has been more profound than Romney’s backtracking on a woman’s right to control her own body and end a pregnancy. His campaign last week said Romney would favor an exception for rape, but no one knows whether Romney, who has so readily abandoned so many other pledges, would hold fast to this line of thinking.
It’s terrifying enough to imagine a woman losing control over her body as the government infringes on long-established reproductive rights. It’s especially frightening that the new normal for the GOP is to take away this right absolutely. How else to explain Rep. Todd Akin’s idiotic and astonishing utterances about “legitimate rape?” In the context of the GOP’s anti-choice culture, his words may have been ludicrous, but his position was mainstream. In 2011, state lawmakers enacted a record number of abortion restrictions. Anti-choice legislators passed bills imposing mandatory waiting periods for abortions, defining fertilized embryos as “persons” whose rights trumped those of the mothers, forcing women to view an ultrasound prior to an abortion, barring insurers from covering pregnancy terminations, forcing abortion clinics to submit to excessive regulations and banning medical abortions.
Last week, amid the political firestorm surrounding Akin’s comments on “legitimate rape,” Prewitt wrote an open letter to Akin:
Today, I am an attorney and the busy single mother of an amazing second grader. My rape is responsible for both of these roles. You see, I enrolled at Georgetown Law School after learning, firsthand, that pregnancy from rape creates unimaginable obstacles for women who decide to raise the children they conceive through rape…
I believe that the way we as a society, and especially legislators, speak about rape — often wrongly and without a sound, reasoned basis — restricts our ability to pass laws offering meaningful protections. After all, why pass a law restricting the parental rights of men who father through rape when too many legislators argue (without any reliance on science, fact, or experience) that “legitimately raped” woman never would decide to raise a child from that crime? Why pass a law when raped women cannot get pregnant from their rapes?
Rep. Akin, your statement poses another setback to the cause that I have fought passionately for since my life changed forever when I was raped and became pregnant from that rape at 21. But your statement has not landed on deaf ears or weak legs. My rape did not end my life and, in a profound way, I have become a stronger person after my rape. I will fight to extinguish your inflammatory statements just as ardently as I fought to reclaim a vibrant life. I hope you will find my concerns “legitimate.”