An Open Letter to Rachel Maddow: Stop Calling Opposition to Rape and Incest Abortion Exceptions “Extreme”


Over the last year Rachel Maddow has been one of the few news reporters to cover the efforts of anti-choice politicians to limit access to safe abortion care through draconian state laws. Her outrage is appreciated, but I find myself increasingly concerned about her focus on the Republicans politicians who oppose abortion “even” in cases of rape and incest—a position she deems “extreme.”  Her language seems to suggest that the desire to deny abortions to the vast majority of women with unwanted pregnancies is “mainstream” and only these few outliers are “extreme.” This perspective reinforces the idea that some abortions are more justified than others, that people should innately have more sympathy for women who did not voluntarily participate in the sex act that resulted in the pregnancy. Politicians do not get to a better rating simply because they believe that abortions are justified if women are victims. Mr. Romney is extreme on this issue whether or not he accepts the rape and incest exceptions.

From a fundamental human rights perspective denying abortion for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest is just as problematic as denying abortions to women who can’t afford another child, are in unstable relationships, do not want to be a parent, or want to pursue other life opportunities. The reason a woman decides to have an abortion should be irrelevant to society’s recognition that restricting her decision is unacceptable.

In many ways people opposed to abortion in all cases have a more consistent, and I would say, honest position. For them, either a blastocyst, embryo, or fetus has a right to life, no matter how it was conceived, or a woman doesn’t have the right to terminate a pregnancy, no matter the circumstances. In contrast, the politicians who believe it is within their domain to decide which of women’s reasons for abortion are legitimate, lack a moral core and are using abortion simply as a political tool to mobilize a conservative base while trying not to appear too “extreme.” Unfortunately, it is extreme to oppose the right of any woman to make decisions about the direction of her life, no matter the circumstances under which she finds herself pregnant.

Further damage is done by the focus on rape and incest exceptions on Maddow’s show and in the general public dialogue on this issue. In exalting how incredibly awful it would be for the law to make a woman bare the child of their rapist, you make it seem abnormal that some women might choose not to terminate a pregnancy following a sexual assault. However, women make many different decisions in these circumstances, all of which need to be respected. 

Several years ago my colleagues and I conducted a study of women obtaining abortions in the Southern Midwest. One of the interviewees told us a story of a pregnancy that had resulted from a rape which she had decided to carry to term. She noted that she believed something good came from a terrible situation. Later in her life, when we met her, she found herself pregnant again and unable to care for another child. This time she decided to have an abortion. In her life, continuing the pregnancy from rape was more tolerable than continuing the one for which she lacked the resources to adequately care for that child. 

During a subsequent study of women’s emotions following abortion, another interviewee discussed her decision to terminate a pregnancy following a sexual assault. She had just left an abusive relationship but knew she loved her children even though she now hated the man with whom she had them. She wondered if this new child might love her, no matter the circumstances of its conception. Her concern was that the pregnancy would be evidence of the rape and she did not want anyone to know about the assault.  She wanted respect for her decision because it was what she needed to do to manager her life not to feel justified in having the abortion because she had been raped. She wanted control over her life, not more pity for being in a bad situation.

There are, of course, many women for whom the idea of a child born from a sexual assault is unbearable, and these women need access to abortion care. They also need social and emotional support for their sexual assault, regardless of whether there is a resulting pregnancy. But as a society we also need to respect women’s decisions to not terminate pregnancies resulting from sexual assault and not to disparage that decision in an effort to paint politicians as extremists. 

So Dr. Maddow, while I appreciate your attention to the unrelenting effort of abortion opponents to eliminate access to abortion, please stop labeling some opponents of abortion rights as “extreme” and others as “mainstream.” Pandering to polling data that suggests that more people support abortion for reasons of rape and incest is short-sighted and harmful to the efforts to ensure that all people have the resources, rights, and respect to make their own sexual and reproductive decisions.  You of all people should understand this. 

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  • coralsea

    Good letter — and it gets to the heart of the issue of a woman’s freedom to control what happens to her body.  It really is outrageous to expect a woman to be a “victim” in order for her to be “allowed” to have an abortion–which is what the rape/incest exception is basically saying.  Although I believe that this exception is brought up as a hypothetical to get those who are “on the fence” about abortion to imagine such scenarios, it plays into the concept that women who willingly have sex should “live with the consequences” (for being sluts!).

     

    Particularly now, when so many people are struggling economically and hunger among children and adults is on the rise, there is a subtext among conservatives that people have made their own beds (e.g., had kids they now can’t afford to raise “properly”).  Kids ARE expensive — and if we, as a society, value them, we need to make sure that the resources to help them grow into healthy adults (including a decent education) are made available.  We don’t really do that.  For all of the rhetoric about “family values,” many conservatives only value well-off families.

     

    But economics is, as this piece pointed out, only part of the issue.  If a woman is not in a place emotionally to deal with a child (or another child), we as a society have to honor this.  I am clinically depressed and have other health problems.  I don’t have kids — and this is probably a very good thing, because I don’t think I could have been there for them to the extent that I would have wanted or they would have wanted.  I was raised by a mother with mental problems, and mine was far from a happy childhood.  I am not saying that people who are depressed shouldn’t have kids (we can certainly manage depression better now), but if a woman doesn’t believe that she is “up” to the challenge of raising a kid, we should do her the honor of believing that she has more insight into her life than politicians in Washington D.C. or any of the state capitols.  

     

    Someone (I don’t know who) once said that all children should be wanted.  I believe that is true.  I also believe that, with so many other things in life, that part of the equation should involve allowing women to decide if this is the right time or circumstance to have a child.  It’s not always an either/or decision.  It’s a decision that can have many components to it, which may or may not be relevant at a particular time and in a particular place in a woman’s life.  

  • cmarie

    When it comes to abortion Americans are split just about down the middle.  Almost half approving of it in ALMOST any case and most of the other half opposing it in ALMOST any case.  But both sides have their radicals.  Peter Singer (who doesn’t believe children are fully alive until they’re about two and has no respect for the disabled at any age) is a radical.  Almost no other pro choice people support his ideas.  He is a professor of bio ethics at Princeton University.  In years gone by they just would have been honest and called him a professor of Eugenics.  You don’t have to be as out there as Peter though to be a radical even to most other pro choice people.  Very few support pulling a five month fetus out of the mother except for his head, then forcing the birth canal closed so the head will not follow, then sucking the brains out of the head before allowing it too to be delivered.  This is also known as partial birth abortion.  There are also radicals on the anti abortion side.  These include people who would withhold EC from a rape victim.  I agree with Rachael Maddow.  That final group of people are extremists too.