The Legitimate Children of Rape

On the historical relationship between rape and pregnancy

Writing in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Dr. Felicia H. Stewart and Dr. James Trussell have estimated that there are twenty-five thousand rape-related pregnancies each year in the United States. While these numbers make up only a small part of this country’s annual three million unwanted pregnancies, the numbers are still extremely high. Nonetheless, the relationship between rape and pregnancy has been a topic of highly politicized debate since long before Todd Akin’s comments on “legitimate rape,” Paul Ryan’s bill with its category of “forcible rape,” and Sharron Angle’s suggestion, two years ago, that women pregnant through rape make “a lemon situation into lemonade.” There is a veritable war of statistics about rape and pregnancy, and the confusion is exacerbated by the competing agendas of the pro-choice and anti-abortion movements. It has been argued that fear promotes ovulation, and that women who are raped have a 10% risk of pregnancy; there are estimates of as little as 1%. Numbers are also skewed when they are adjusted to include or exclude women not of reproductive age; for sodomy and other forms of rape that cannot cause pregnancy; for rape victims who may be using oral birth control or I.U.D.s; and for women who are raped and become or are pregnant as a result of consensual sex with a husband or partner who is not the rapist, before or after the rape. Women who are being abused on an ongoing basis are particularly likely to conceive in rape. Catherine MacKinnon has written, “Forced pregnancy is familiar, beginning in rape and proceeding through the denial of abortions; this occurred during slavery and still happens to women who cannot afford abortions.”

I have been researching a book, Far from the Tree, that deals in part with women raising children conceived in rape, and have therefore met the living reproof to Akin’s remark. Life for these children may be extremely difficult. One of the few groups founded to address this population, Stigma Inc., took as its motto, “Rape survivors are the victims … their children are the forgotten victims.”

And yet there’s a lot of history behind their experience, and that of their mothers. Augustine saw a noble purpose in rape; while promising women that “savage lust perpetuated against them will be punished,” he also praises rape for keeping women humble, letting them know “whether previously they were arrogant with regard to their virginity or over-fond of praise, or whether they would have become proud had they not suffered violation.” The Roman physician Galen claimed that women could not conceive in rape—could not, in fact, conceive without an orgasm based in pleasure and consent. Classical mythology is full of rape, usually seen as a positive event for the rapist, who is often a god; Zeus so took Europa and Leda; Dionysus raped Aura; Poseidon, Aethra; Apollo, Euadne. It is noteworthy that every one of these rapes produces children. The rape of a vestal virgin by Mars produced Romulus and Remus, who founded Rome. Romulus organized the rape of the Sabine women to populate his new city. In much later civilizations, the rape of the Sabines was considered a noble story; in the Renaissance, it often graced marriage chests. The hostility such children inspired due to their origins has also long been acknowledged. In both the ancient and the medieval world, women who bore children conceived in rape were permitted to let them die of exposure—although in medieval Europe a few weeks’ penance was deemed necessary for doing so.

Historically, rape has been seen less as a violation of a woman than as a theft from a man to whom that woman belonged, either her husband or her father, who suffered an economic loss (a woman’s marriageability spoiled) and an insult to his honor. There was also the problem of bastard children, who were considered a social burden; the Athenian state, for example, was primarily occupied with protecting bloodlines, and so treated rape and adultery the same way. Hammurabi’s code describes rape victims as adulterers; English law of the seventeenth century takes a similar position. In Puritan Massachusetts, any woman pregnant through rape was prosecuted for fornication. In the nineteenth century, the American courts remained biased toward protecting men who might be falsely accused. In order to prove that an encounter was a rape, the woman had to demonstrate that she had resisted and been overcome; she usually had to show bodily harm as evidence of her struggle; and she had somehow to prove that the man had ejaculated inside her.

In the early and mid-twentieth century, rape remained underreported because women feared adverse consequences if they spoke out about what had happened to them. In 1938, Dr. Aleck Bourne was put on trial in England for performing an abortion on a fourteen-year-old rape victim, and his acquittal reflected a populist movement to liberalize abortion, especially for rape victims. The trial was widely covered in the U.S. and led to open debate about the validity of abortion; the following year, the first hospital abortion committee in the United States was formed, and by the nineteen-fifties these committees were ubiquitous. Although they approved only “therapeutic” abortions, they increasingly accepted the recommendations of psychiatrists who said a woman’s mental health was endangered by her pregnancy. Well-connected and well-to-do women could obtain psychiatric diagnoses fairly easily, and so abortions became the province of the privileged. Ordinary rape victims often had to prove that they were nearly deranged. Some were diagnosed as licentious, and had to consent to sterilization to obtain abortions. Here is a typical caseworker report about a woman who had been raped in the postwar, pre-Roe era:

She became a passive object and could not say “no.” Here we see a girl who having lost parental love, continues to search for love and her primary motivation became centered in getting her dependent needs met. She took the man’s sexual interest as love and an opportunity to be loved by somebody.

That is to say, mentally stable people are not the kind who get raped. The emerging field of psychoanalysis did not help matters. Though Freud himself wrote little about rape, Freudians in the early and mid-twentieth century saw the rapist as someone suffering a perverse, uncontrolled sexual appetite, who fed into women’s natural masochism. This position seemed to exonerate the rapist; in 1971, the psychoanalyst Menachem Amir called rape a “victim-motivated crime.” A rapist was the embodiment of virility, while those who were raped were utterly abject; the aggression was deplored less than the disenfranchisement was pitied.
Appalled at such positions, feminists of the nineteen-seventies began the reclassification of rape as an act of violence and aggression rather than of sexuality. Susan Brownmiller’s 1975 landmark Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape maintained that rape had very little to do with desire and everything to do with domination. She proposed that rape was a much more frequent occurrence than had previously been acknowledged, that it was not the obscure behavior of a very occasional person with severe mental illness but rather a common result of the power differential between men and women. She also tied the problem of rape to the issues of pregnancy, writing, “Men began to rape women when they discovered that sexual intercourse led to pregnancy.”

For several of the women I interviewed, the crisis was exacerbated by the question of what rape means, by the idea that some rape is not forcible or legitimate. Men who have gotten away with rape seldom retreat in shame or repentance; they often play out their ghoulish exuberance by claiming their reproductive successes. Among the women I interviewed, such men’s bids for custody or visitation rights felt far more like acts of further aggression than expressions of care. Nevertheless, in instances where rape cannot be proven or charges were never filed, the threat of joint custody is real. Many women who cannot cope with prosecuting their assailant are then left without any proof of assault. In a time when DNA evidence can establish biological ties scientifically, this lack of evidence as to the social circumstances of conception can be a serious problem. Stigma Inc. had a posting that read, “The father/rapist is thus deemed ineligible for visitation or custody of the minor child. However, as in the case of rape victims in general, the burden of proof that a rape took place is often placed upon the woman who has suffered the crime. Often it comes down to a ‘he said/she said’ issue.”

The aftermath of rape is always complicated. Many victims are simply in denial that they are pregnant in the first place: a full third of the pregnancies resulting from rape are not discovered until the second trimester. Any delay in detection reduces women’s options, especially outside major urban centers, but many women struggle with the speed of the decision; they are still recovering from being raped when they are called on to make up their minds about an abortion. The decision of whether or not to carry through with such a pregnancy is nearly always an ordeal that can lead, no matter which choice is ultimately made, to depression, anxiety, insomnia, and P.T.S.D. Rape is a permanent damage; it leaves not scars, but open wounds. As one woman I saw said, “You can abort the child, but not the experience.”

Even women who try to learn their child’s blamelessness can find it desperately difficult. The British psychoanalyst Joan Raphael-Leff writes of women bearing children conceived in rape, “The woman feels she has growing inside her part of a hateful or distasteful Other. Unless this feeling can be resolved, the fœtus who takes on these characteristics is liable to remain an internal foreigner, barely tolerated or in constant danger of expulsion, and the baby will emerge part-stranger, likely to be ostracized or punished.” One rape survivor, in testimony before the Louisiana Senate Committee on Health and Welfare, described her son as “a living, breathing torture mechanism that replayed in my mind over and over the rape.” Another woman described having a rape-conceived son as “entrapment beyond description” and felt “the child was cursed from birth”; the child ultimately had severe psychological challenges and was removed from the family by social services concerned about his mental well-being. One of the women I interviewed said, “While most mothers just go with their natural instincts, my instincts are horrifying. It’s a constant, conscious effort that my instincts not take over.”

The rape exception in abortion law is so much the rule that many women who wish to keep children conceived in rape describe an intense social pressure to abort them, and the pressure to abort can be as sinister as the restriction of access to abortion. There can be no question that, for some women, an abortion would be far more traumatic than having a rape-conceived child. I read the harrowing autobiography of a girl who was put under involuntary anesthesia to have an abortion of the pregnancy that had occurred when her father raped her, so that her parents could keep their reputation intact. It’s a horrifying story because the abortion clearly constitutes yet another assault: it is about a lack of choice. But ready access to a safe abortion facility allows a woman who keeps a child conceived in rape to feel that she is making a conscious decision, while having the baby because she has no choice perpetuates the trauma and is bad for the child. Rape is, above all other things, non-volitional for the victim, and the first thing to provide a victim is control. Raped women require unfettered choice in this arena: to abort or to carry to term, and, if they do carry to term, to keep the children so conceived or to give them up for adoption. These women, like the parents of disabled children, are choosing the child over the challenging identity attached to that child. The key word in that sentence is “choosing.”

One sees the problem abroad, where the Helms Amendment is taken to mean that no agency receiving U.S. funding can mention abortion even to women who have been systematically raped as part of a genocidal campaign. The journalist Helena Smith wrote the story of a woman named Mirveta, who gave birth to a child conceived in rape in Kosovo. Mirveta was twenty years old, and illiterate; her husband had abandoned her because of the pregnancy. “He was a healthy little boy and Mirveta had produced him,” Smith writes. “But birth, the fifth in her short lifetime, had not brought joy, only dread. As he was pulled from her loins, as the nurses at Kosovo’s British-administered university hospital handed her the baby, as the young Albanian mother took the child, she prepared to do the deed. She cradled him to her chest, she looked into her boy’s eyes, she stroked his face, and she snapped his neck. They say it was a fairly clean business. Mirveta had used her bare hands. It is said that, in tears, she handed her baby back to the nurses, holding his snapped, limp neck. In Pristina, in her psychiatric detention cell, she has been weeping ever since.” The aid worker taking care of Mirveta said, “Who knows? She may have looked into the baby’s face and seen the eyes of the Serb who raped her. She is a victim, too. Psychologically raped a second time.”

In working on my book, I went to Rwanda in 2004 to interview women who had borne children of rape conceived during the genocide. At the end of my interviews, I asked interviewees whether they had any questions for me, in hopes that the reversal would help them to feel less disenfranchised in the microcosmic world of our interview. The questions tended to be the same: How long are you spending in the country? How many people are you interviewing? When will your research be published? Who will read these stories? Why are you interested in me? At the end of my final interview, I asked the woman I was interviewing whether she had any questions. She paused shyly for a moment. “Well,” she said, a little hesitantly. “You work in this field of psychology.” I nodded. She took a deep breath. “Can you tell me how to love my daughter more?” she asked. “I want to love her so much, and I try my best, but when I look at her I see what happened to me and it interferes.” A tear rolled down her cheek, but her tone turned almost fierce, challenging. “Can you tell me how to love my daughter more?” she repeated.

Perhaps Todd Akin has an answer for her.