During Wednesday’s hearing on Arizona Representative Trent Franks’s proposed 20-week abortion ban, Franks claimed “the incidence of rape resulting in pregnancy are very low.” Using the same pseudo-scientific reasoning as Todd Akin (who infamously said pregnancy by “legitimate” rape was unlikely because “the female body has ways to try and shut that whole thing down”), Franks joined the ranks of conservative rape-deniers who privilege “fetal personhood” over a pregnant person’s autonomy.
Similarly in 2012, Indiana Republican Senate candidate Richard Murdock said, “When life begins with that horrible situation of rape, that is something God intended to happen.” Murdock was supported by Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas who said it is a “gift from God.” Although Franks backtracked and clarified his meaning later on Wednesday (“I’m talking about the incidences where pregnancy from rape results in an abortion after the sixth month or beyond are very rare”), his attitude is indicative of a knee-jerk hostility on the Right toward sexual assault survivors and people seeking abortions.
Contrary to Franks’s assumption, pregnancy from rape represents a significant minority of unwanted pregnancies in the U.S. A 1996 study of rape-related pregnancies estimated that 32,000 pregnancies each year were due to sexual assault – with a majority of assaults committed by someone known (often related) to the survivor. Of the survivors who became pregnant, thirty-two percent did not know they were pregnant until the second trimester. Fifty percent of pregnant sexual assault survivors sought abortions.
In the current ultraconservative political climate, “fetal personhood” arguments have gained political traction (fetal personhood laws have advanced in North Dakota and Arkansas) and function as a way to reduce the pregnant person to a host status and imbue fetuses with human rights. Put simply, a fetus’s interests always trump those of the pregnant person.
Defending Reproductive Justice, a recent publication of Political Research Associates, explains that rape exemptions put antichoice activists on the defensive because “prochoice advocates sometimes point to rape exemptions as evidence that opposition to abortion is based on a desire to control women’s sexual freedom, rather than concern for the fetus.” In other words, rape exemptions expose inconsistencies in the Right’s opposition to abortion. Further:
The lack of concern for rape survivors’ rights is part of the Right’s broader failure to take the country’s rape problem seriously. Would murder or any other violent crime be similarly painted as “something God intended”? The right-wing perspective that supports controlling a woman’s body when it comes to reproductive health decisions feeds the fundamental lack of respect for the right to bodily autonomy that enables rape culture.
The mainstream discourse on abortion has shifted significantly rightward now that lawmakers are debating whether to allow rape exemptions. The conversation about rape exemptions, while critical, reframes the debate on reproductive justice in conservative terms. Progressive activists must expand the debate outside the confines of a worthy/unworthy abortion dichotomy to demand that abortion be accessible (legally, financially, and geographically) to sexual assault survivors and everyone else who seeks abortion care. Only when people have full control of their reproductive capabilities can a semblance of gender justice be achieved.