Commentary Abortion

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

Tracy Weitz

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.

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. 

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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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