Analysis Human Rights

Rape, Forced Pregnancy, Personhood, and Crimes Against Humanity

Lynn Paltrow

The real question that needs to be addressed is not whether rape can cause pregnancy. The question is: will measures that ban women who have been impregnated by rape from having abortions be enacted, enabling rapists, with state support, even greater power to deprive women of their dignity and personhood?

It is likely that Colorado will, once again, have a so-called “personhood” measure on the ballot this November, seeking to have fertilized eggs, embryos, and fetuses treated as if they are entirely separate constitutional persons. This year’s version of the measure, Proposed Amendment 46, if approved by Colorado’s Secretary of State, adds some detail including a provision explicitly and unmistakably banning women who have become pregnant as a result of rape from having abortions. The Proposed Amendment states: “No innocent [fertilized egg, embryo or fetus] created through rape or incest shall be killed for the crime of his or her father.” Given the recent attention to Missouri Congressman Todd Akin’s claim that women can’t become pregnant as a result of “legitimate rape,” I thought this provision deserved some attention.

As the media has widely reported, Representative Akin while on Fox News, asserted that women possess a biological mechanism to ward off pregnancy if they become victims of “legitimate rape.”  Specifically he said, “If it is a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Dr. John Willke, the former president of the National Right to Life Committee was then cited in the media as the primary source supporting this point of view. Dr. Willke has claimed that such things as physical and emotional trauma make it highly unlikely for women to get pregnant from rape.

This claim, however, not only lacks any basis in science, but also is directly contradicted by Colorado’s Proposed Amendment 46. The Amendment assumes that women can get pregnant from rape and that the state must be given new power to prevent women from ending the pregnancies caused by this particularly cruel and devastating form of violence.

The fact that rape can result in pregnancy is not only confirmed by scientists and by the lived experience of women, it is so well known that rape and forced pregnancy are used as conscious and deliberate tools of war. For example, in 1993, the organization Equality Now presented these findings from a board member sent to Bosnia-Herzegovina to investigate allegations of mass rape, forced pregnancy, and genocide. According to the investigator,

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

When the Serbian forces came to Miljevina, they turned the local gymnasium into a rape camp. Families were separated, and women and children were kept in the gym, where all of the women and girls over ten years old were raped in the first few days. . . .There are rape camps all over the country. Thousands of women are being raped and killed. Thousands of women are pregnant as a result of rape. Over and over again, everywhere I went in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in Croatian refugee camps, women told me stories of abomination – of being kept in a room, raped repeatedly and told they would be held until they gave birth to Serbian children.

Some call such practices “genocidal rape” and define it as the systematic and repeated sexual violence for the purposes of destroying a targeted group by the humiliation and impregnation of the women in that group with the persecuting army’s progeny. Today, the international human rights community has not only recognized rape as a form of torture, it has recognized rape and forced impregnation as war crimes and as crimes against humanity. International law now explicitly outlaws these acts, and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court includes both rape and forced impregnation among the crimes over which it has jurisdiction.

Individual acts of rape are clearly not the same as “war” or “genocidal” rape, but they are also designed to humiliate and assert power over women and may just as easily cause pregnancy. If Amendment 46 passes, men who rape women in Colorado will be secure in the knowledge that their efforts to humiliate and degrade those women will be backed up and reinforced by state action forcing those women to go to term — whether they want to or not.

The real question that needs to be addressed is not whether rape can cause pregnancy. The question is: will measures that ban women who have been impregnated by rape from having abortions be enacted, enabling rapists, with state support, even greater power to deprive women of their dignity and personhood?

Commentary Sexual Health

Can Mississippi Curb Teen Pregnancy and Statutory Rape by Collecting Cord Blood?

Martha Kempner

Mississippi has the highest rate of teen birth in the country, but instead of implementing proven prevention strategies—like good sex education and access to contraception—the governor has decided he will curb this epidemic by collecting umbilical cord blood and using the DNA as evidence of statutory rape.

A new law set to go into effect July 1 in Mississippi will require doctors and midwives to collect the umbilical cord blood of babies whose mothers are 16 or younger and whose fathers are either over 21 or unknown. The blood will then go into storage in case it is ever needed for a statutory rape case. The purported goal of the law is to prevent teen pregnancies by reducing those caused by older men raping younger girls. The logic of it, however—that cord blood can act as both evidence and a deterrent—seems sketchy at best, and many experts in the state think it has a good chance of backfiring.

In signing the law, Republican Gov. Phil Bryant said, “As governor, I am serious about confronting and reducing teen pregnancy in Mississippi. Unfortunately, part of this epidemic is driven by sexual offenders who prey on young girls. This measure provides law enforcement with another tool to help identify these men and bring them to justice.”

Mississippi certainly has a teen pregnancy problem. In fact, it ranks sixth out of all states and the District of Columbia for teen pregnancy rates and has the highest teen birth rate in the country. In 2010, the teen birth rate in Mississippi was 55 per 1,000 young women ages 15 to 19, compared to 34.2 per 1,000 young women nationally. The birth rate in Mississippi dropped 36 percent between its high in 1991 and 2010, but it still lags behind the national  45 percent drop in teen births during the same ten-year period.

It is not clear, however, that older men preying on girls 16 and younger make up a significant part of this epidemic, as the governor contends. In 2010, there were 6,188 births to women under 20 in Mississippi. Of those, just 111 were to girls under 15. Another 1,959 were to girls age 15, 16, and 17. Given that the 17-years-olds would be excluded from this law, we are likely talking about less than 1,000 births to young women under 16 in the state. Of course, we have no way of knowing what proportion of these involved men over 21, but the likelihood is that most of the fathers are also teenagers. Research has shown, for example, that the majority of girls (65 percent) have a first male partner who is within one or two years of her own age. So at most this law addresses a fraction of the cases of teen births in Mississippi each year.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Moreover, in order to work as a deterrent in these cases, the law assumes that a 21-year-old man who is having sex with a young teenage girl (despite the fact that it is illegal) and not using contraception (despite the fact that she might get pregnant) will change his behavior based on what might happen to him ten months down the line when she gives birth to his child and his DNA is collected. A bit of a stretch, no?

Many advocates in the state worry that the law might instead act as a deterrent in other, more troublesome ways. For instance, it may prevent pregnant young women from seeking prenatal care and even from delivering in a hospital setting in order to protect the father of her child. One person I talked to noted that abortion opponents in the state have also started to worry about the law, wondering if young women will be more likely to terminate pregnancies rather than give birth again in an effort to save their boyfriends from prosecution. (One reason that Mississippi has such a high teen birth rate is that very few girls who become pregnant choose abortion. The teen abortion rate in the state is 11 per 1,000 pregnancies to girls 15 to 19, compared with 19 nationwide.)

Even if none of these things come to pass, the real tragedy of this law is that the governor has made it his top teen pregnancy prevention priority, when there are so many other things that could be done in his state that would have a real chance of helping curb the epidemic. As Jamie Holcomb Bardwell, director of programs at the Women’s Fund of Mississippi, which opposes this law, told Rewire, “Why don’t we invest in good evidence-based comprehensive sex education, access to good preventive health care, and contraception, and why don’t we help parents have conversations with their kids about pregnancy and older partners?”

All good ideas, but they do not seem to interest the governor, a former sheriff’s deputy and the one-time co-chairman of the state’s “personhood” effort. Though Mississippi law now allows school systems to provide abstinence-plus education, Bryant has gone on record supporting a stricter abstinence-only approach. He is also the man who once famously said, “The problem is teenagers do not care enough about using [contraception]”—which suggests he is unlikely to support efforts to make birth control more available to teens. Programs to support teen parents are also improbable given what he said to a roomful of teens in December: “If you want to fail in life, if you want to end up being on Medicaid—[Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)] and Medicaid and food stamps the rest of your life—if you never want to have a career, then all you’ve got to do is drop high school and have a baby. And I can almost assure you that’s what’s going to happen to you.”

So we are left with this law, which will do nothing to prevent teen pregnancy and raises numerous ethical, legal, and financial issues. Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, told the Daily Beast, “If they’re collecting cord blood, it could be used just as easily against pregnant women. She’s at much at risk of prosecution as the person who impregnated her.” She explained that two women in Mississippi are being prosecuted for murder because their babies were stillborn and drugs were found in their systems at the time. Paltrow worries that the cord blood could be used against mothers if their babies suffer medical problems after birth.

Rewire Senior Legal Analyst Jessica Mason Pieklo said she questions the constitutionality of the law. “The law compels young mothers to give up their privacy rights upon giving birth unless she identifies paternity to the state’s satisfaction. It also totally disregards the fact that the search involves the genetic material of the child as well,” she said. “That child is not a crime victim but cannot opt-out in any effective fashion from the search. That means children of young mothers in Mississippi can never opt out of state-mandated DNA collection.”

Others are concerned that the state is more interested in scouting for possible cases of statutory rape than prosecuting the cases of rape that have actually been reported. Bardwell questioned whether rape kits were currently being processed in a timely manner and whether the new law will just add to an already overburdened crime lab.

There are also other practical issues to be considered. The law does not make it clear who is paying for the collection and storage, and who would be responsible for prosecuting fathers. NPR reported that prosecutors would first have to determine which county conception took place in before they could file any charges.

This law was sold as a way to protect vulnerable women from predators and to prevent teen pregnancy and birth, yet it does neither. Bardwell points out that if the state really wants to protect women it could strengthen its domestic violence laws, make health care more available, and prosecute existing rape cases. I would add that if the state really wants to prevent teen pregnancy it could provide real sex education, make contraception accessible to teens, and address the issues of poverty and hopelessness among teens who are really at the core of this epidemic.

Commentary Violence

With True Courage: Rape Survivors Testify Against Ex-Dictator of Guatemala

Karen Smith Rotabi

Today, in post-conflict Guatemala, there is a war against women. At least two women die daily as a result of femicide, and the crime often includes torture and rape.

Efrain Rios Montt, an ex-military dictator of Guatemala (1982-1983) stands trial for war crimes in the Central American nation that suffered the longest civil war in the history of the Americas (1960-1996). Unfortunately, the peace and reconciliation process has been slow, and oftentimes I wonder if there really is peace. Today, in post-conflict Guatemala, there is a war against women. At least two women die daily as a result of femicide—the killing of women simply because they are women. The crime itself often includes torture and rape.

Sadly the beautiful landscape of Guatemala, with its significant Mayan population, has an ugly history of rape. During Montt’s trial, an entire day was set aside to specifically focus on the testimony of rape survivors. Sadly, the women were not given privacy, and their testimony was totally public, no doubt re-victimizing the witnesses as they recounted their rape experience, often through tears.

The truth may set you free, but speaking the truth is difficult in many parts of the world. Guatemalans know all too well that it is risky to speak out against the war regime. However, with courage, these rape survivors made their case that Montt is indeed a war criminal ordering genocide during his rule. His hands are covered in the blood of the Mayan peoples of Guatemala.

For years there have been outcries that Montt should stand trial and quiet resistance from the ruling elite, including Congress, where Montt has been a prominent member. Now, Guatemalan Supreme Court judges will rule on the case. Those of us committed to the people of Guatemala watch and wait to see if impunity will again derail justice. Or will Montt finally be punished for his crimes as the world watches?

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

We wait for the answer, and while I could not accompany these women as they testified, I was there in spirit. I encourage everyone to join me in watching this trial and also joining the thousands of rape survivors in Guatemala in spirit. Many continue to live in extreme poverty and under conditions of oppression. Our solidarity is one way to show respect for human dignity and remind the current-day Guatemalan ruling elite that true peace means that brutalizing women must end now. And a civil society must emerge in which all peoples are protected in order to fully realize peace.