As Todd Akin and the country at large learned during the 2012 elections, pregnancies resulting from rape are very real and sadly all too common. If there was one silver lining in the entire debacle and “debate” over Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment, it was that it helped expose a previously under-reported problem: 31 states allow rapists to sue for custody or visitation of children conceived by rape. It might initially seem like it wouldn’t be much of a problem—most of us probably ask ourselves why rapists would bother to want these children at all—but the fact of the matter is that rapists rape because they like to hurt and control women. How better to make your victim’s life a living hell than going after her through her children? Nothing says “I have power over you” like forcing yourself into someone’s life through their children. Now a bipartisan group of congressmen are trying to close up this loophole in custody laws, with the Rape Survivor Child Custody Act, which creates financial incentives for states that bar rapists from suing their victims for custody.
Shauna Prewitt, a woman who chose to give birth after her rape resulted in pregnancy, was with the congressmen when they announced the bill. Prewitt filed charges against her rapist after she gave birth, and he retaliated by suing her for custody. There aren’t any numbers out there to assess how common it is for rapists to abuse the family court system in this way, but there are thousands of women who choose to raise children conceived by rape every year, and we know that rapists are often dogged in their sadism, making suing their victims a tantalizing opportunity for many of them. Wife batterers are notorious in legal circles for their eagerness to abuse the family court system to continue the pattern of hurting and controlling their victim, so it makes sense that rapists—who have a lot in common with and are often batterers themselves—would be attracted to the same strategy. And if they get visitation rights or custody? Now they have tons of access to manipulate and hurt their victim for 18 more years.
Needless to say, it’s probably not the greatest idea to let these men, who think it’s okay to force sex on unwilling women, raise children, especially if there are alternatives—like the mother—available.
While this bill seems like the sort of thing that both liberals and conservatives should support—it is a bipartisan bill—there’s a chance the bill will present a challenge to at least some Republicans in Congress. That’s because this bill has the potential to be a wedge between two factions of anti-feminists that have the Republican ear: anti-choicers and a group of anti-feminists that often call themselves by the misleading term “men’s rights activists.” Misleading, because they are opposed to many women’s rights. This group of anti-feminists tend not to be overly interested in the battles over reproductive rights—and some, like Glenn Reynolds, even claim to be pro-choice—but instead focus exclusively on their claim that men are being oppressed by their female overlords.
These anti-feminists mostly focus on trying to restore the social and economic power men have over women. They rage against equal pay legislation, defend sexual harassment, denounce the existence of child support, and peddle half-baked theories of female inferiority to defend discrimination. They have a special enthusiasm for pushing back against any effort to reduce gendered violence, aggressively promoting the idea that women routinely lie about rape and downplaying the statistics on rape and domestic violence. Most of the time, their goals overlap neatly with the anti-choice movement. For instance, when anti-choicers started to attack the Department of Health and Human Services mandate that insurance covers contraception, this other breed of anti-feminist—eager to believe women get “goodies” denied to men—jumped right in and agreed. This anti-rape bill, however, could reveal a major point of conflict.
It makes perfect sense for abortion opponents to support measures that make it harder for a rapist to sue for custody of children. If a woman impregnated by rape has reason to believe her attacker will try to get custody, that creates more incentive to abort. And unlike other attempts to reduce incentives to abort, ranging from greater access to contraception to a better social safety net, this bill doesn’t come into conflict with the baseline anti-choice motive to punish women for sex. After all, rape victims didn’t have sex. They were raped. They were trying not to have sex, so this presents an opportunity for anti-choicers to demonstrate consistency both with their stated values (to be pro-life) and their actual values (to oppose consensual non-procreative sex). Everyone is against rape, right?
The problem with that is that Republicans have become increasingly beholden to that other group of anti-feminists, and that group really, really doesn’t like legislation that strengthens women’s protections against violence and abuse from men. To make it worse, there’s a subset of “men’s rights activists” who focus strongly on doing everything they can to make it weaken mother’s rights. And, alongside fighting the very existence of child support, they also fight to make it difficult for women to move on after a divorce, even from an abusive husband, by manipulating custody and visitation rights to give themselves more control over and access to their ex-wives. This combination makes it highly likely that this group of anti-feminists will not be happy with this law, not one bit.
In the past, the squawking of men who attack domestic violence victims and spread myths that protect rapists wouldn’t matter to Republicans. That’s why the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which has been a particular object of hate for “men’s rights activists,” was reauthorized with bipartisan support easily for years. But recently, for various complex reasons, this anti-feminist faction clearly got the ear of Republicans, which is why the party nearly blocked the reauthorization of VAWA in 2012. To be clear, there is no party consensus on the claims of “men’s rights activists.” Plenty of Republicans crossed the aisle to support VAWA. But an ever greater number sided with the kind of anti-feminists who want to shut down battered women’s shelters and rape crisis hotlines. Should this bill come to the floor, it’s possible that many Republicans will have a dilemma: Do you support a bill that manages to both reduce incentives to get abortion and works as a shield against accusations of misogyny? Or do you embrace the “misogynist” label and vote how the more libertarian anti-feminists want you to? How that shakes out will be very telling indeed.