I was pleased to watch “The Rachel Maddow Show” Thursday night, as Rachel dedicated not just one, but two segments on the surprising number of severely anti-choice candidates running for major offices this election cycle. As reported on the show, the story is getting very little mainstream attention, but it’s certainly a new thing to have three major Senate candidates—Sharron Angle, Rand Paul, and Ken Buck—come out not just for restricting abortions for choice, but also for criminalizing abortion in the case of threats to a woman’s health, and in the cases of rape or incest.
Since all three candidates reluctantly allow that they might allow an abortion should they be convinced that a pregnant woman’s life is in danger (though often said restrictions are so high they are functionally death sentences for the “crime” of being pregnant, for the doctors fear that a 5 to 10 percent chance of survival might be enough to prosecute), they adamantly stand for forcing rape victims to carry the rapist’s baby to term. Yes, even if the rapist is the father or brother of the victim. Melissa Harris-Lacewell came on the show to offer the perspective that hard times often make the populace more open to sadistic intrusions on a woman’s right to control her own fertility. She made some excellent points about how the increasing acceptance of forced childbirth, even for rape victims, coincides with other enthusiasms for control over reproduction, such as the new talk of repealing the 14th Amendment strictly to punish immigrant women who give birth.
I have some points I’d like to add to Melissa’s excellent commentary. This unwillingness to extend abortion rights even to rape victims may indicate more than simply a hard line attitude about abortion, but also a negative attitude about a woman’s right to live free from violence. As Rachel reported, the Paul campaign’s response to the issue of abortion rights for rape victims was to scold victims for not being more careful about “family planning.” Reasonable people might be as bewildered as Rachel about this point, but sadly, I feel these kind of responses indicate an acceptance of the widespread right wing myth that rape and other forms of violence against women are something that feminists made up in their supposed mission to get men. There’s widespread myths that rape victims are either lying about being raped or somehow brought it on themselves, and therefore if they get pregnant, they deserve to be punished for being liars or temptresses or both.
Add these stereotypes to the anti-choice fears that any exceptions to a ban would be exploited by slatterns eager to get away with being loose women, and you have a toxic brew. If you think the myth that exceptions are mainly used by liars isn’t widespread, may I remind you that 2008 presidential candidate John McCain expressed a belief that most late term abortions performed for health reasons were nothing but the patients and doctors lying to cover up abortions by choice, even though there’s not a lick of evidence to support that claim. The misogyny that prompts anti-choice beliefs tends to bring along a host of other anti-woman beliefs about how women are stupid, fickle, and deceitful by nature.
A lack of sympathy for pregnant rape victims brings up a lot more questions than just ones about a candidate’s view on reproductive rights. For instance, I’d worry that someone who has this attitude towards pregnant rape victims might generally not take the problem of violence against women seriously. Currently, it’s political poison to avoid nominal support for legislative efforts fighting violence against women, but that doesn’t mean that office-holders are necessarily dedicated to the cause of really taking steps to improve services and law enforcement in ways that would actually fight this problem. Already this election cycle, we’ve seen an anti-choice Senator get exposed for problems in this area. Even though Senator David Vitter knew one of his aides was convicted of domestic violence, he kept him on staff and, alarmingly, as an advisor on women’s issues, including the issue of domestic violence.
Fighting violence against women and supporting reproductive rights are so intertwined that it’s really hard to separate the two. Paul’s comments about “family planning” were illogical in really obvious ways, but they also showed a lack of understanding of how gendered violence undermines women’s ability to prevent pregnancy in the first place, often making the need for abortion rights all that more important. As Lynn Harris reported in The Nation, a new (albeit limited) study of 71 women who had suffered domestic violence reported being the victim of birth control sabotage by partners who used forced pregnancy as a way to dominate and control their victims. If the state takes a stance of supported forced pregnancy, that only makes it that much easier for domestic abusers to hurt and control their victims. And that, in turn, makes it that much harder for law enforcement and social services to fight the problem of domestic violence.
In a way, I appreciate it when anti-choicers take the “no exceptions for rape” stance. Not for the reason some give, which is that it’s at least more consistent with the belief that a fetus is a person. (I still don’t think they consistently believe that an embryo is the same as a 5-year-old.) But it is more consistent with the overall view that women are chattel, that their rights are unimportant, and that their bodies are objects to be controlled by men and the state. In a strict patriarchy, rape is considered a crime against the man who controls the woman, and after the rape has happened, her status plummets in the eyes of the community. Anti-choicers who make no exceptions for rape are being consistent with this view—since the rape victim is already ruined, there’s no reason to offer any sympathy or relief to her. “No exceptions for rape” is indeed a consistent worldview, but it’s mainly consistent with a pro-patriarchal one.