“Carrying a child for nine months is no great scourge,” a March for Life attendee who identified himself only as Larry told Rewire. “I have a daughter. If she were raped, I would tell her to have the child.”
It was a blunt expression of a remarkably common viewpoint at this year’s March for Life in Washington, D.C., the country’s largest anti-choice protest march.
Many attendees of the march were young—too young to vote. They were groups of children and teenagers bused in as part of church or school groups and sporting matching beanies to avoid getting separated.
Children walked around with “Who Would Jesus Execute?” stickers. A few older marchers held signs reading “My biological father was a rapist.” A group of white high school students chanted, “Yo! Obama! Your mama was pro-life!”
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“Rape and incest are awful things, and there’s already so much hurt and pain in those situations, but adding more hurt, more pain [from an abortion] isn’t going to help anybody,” said David Held of Purdue Students for Life.
“I personally believe that it’s pretty selfish of them to go and kill that person” by having an abortion after a rape, said a young man from a Catholic high school near Lafayette, Louisiana, whose priest asked that the students not be named. “It’s probably going to hurt the whole time, but it’s a sacrifice that you have to make.”
For some, the idea of “sacrifice” went even further.
Madeline Wadlinger, a young woman attending the rally with her West Brandywine, Pennsylvania, parish, said she doesn’t think there should be any exceptions for abortion, including life endangerment of the pregnant person.
“I think you have to give the baby a chance to live. She [the pregnant woman] has had a chance too.”
Father Andre Melancon of the Houma-Thibodaux diocese in Louisiana spoke of women who have been elevated to sainthood for dying after giving birth after knowing they had risky pregnancies.
“There is heroism in sacrificing life for another,” he said.
As Congressional Republicans once again faced the specter of “legitimate rape” on the day of the march, they also faced a base marching on the Capitol that was unwilling to accept any legitimate need for abortion care.
The day was supposed to be a triumph for the new Republican majority in Congress and the anti-choice movement alike, with the passage in the House of a new national 20-week abortion ban that, while unlikely to become law, would surely rile up the base.
Twenty-week bans are a particular favorite of the anti-choice movement—they help set up direct court challenges to Roe v. Wade since they ban abortion before a fetus is viable outside the womb, and they tug at heartstrings with fictional tales of “fetal pain,” which no major medical organization agrees is possible at 20 weeks.
But since the House bill’s rape and incest exception only covered the few women who report the crime to the police, it sparked fears of a backlash from women and millennials. Leadership pulled the legislation and replaced it with a different bill that, even though it could have the effect of dismantling the entire private insurance market for abortion coverage, was reported in some mainstream media outlets as a “watered-down” or “less restrictive” consolation prize for the right wing.
Some anti-choice leaders felt like they had gotten the rug pulled out from under them.
Anti-choice activist Jill Stanek led a protest outside the offices of Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC) for leading the charge against the narrow rape exemption, even though Ellmers said she still would have voted for the bill.
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics in Religious Liberty Commission, told supporters that House Republicans “showed a complete lack of moral conviction and competence” in not passing the 20-week ban.
“The Holy Spirit won’t let me cuss, but I’m tempted at this point,” Moore said. “The House Republicans have done to the nation what Wendy Davis failed to do in Texas.”
Others shrugged and tried to make the best of it. “The devil is in the details” when it comes to politics, said Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, although he acknowledged that he was “disappointed” in the non-vote and the GOP women who helped make it happen.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) urged the anti-choice movement to help “find a way out of this definitional problem with rape” in order to get bills like the 20-week ban passed.
It’s a task much easier asked than answered for the anti-choice base.
The “legitimacy” of any and all rape wasn’t a question for attendees of a Tuesday evening panel called “Rape Conception Myth-Busters,” sponsored by a group called Choices4Life.
“If a woman tells you she was raped—write this down—believe her!” said Choices4Life founder Juda Myers, whose mother became pregnant after a gang-rape. “Very, very few women lie. Why would you lie about something as horrible as that?”
The panelists’ stories were affecting: one woman who had five children as her father’s sex slave, another who was forcibly sterilized after her rape-induced pregnancy at age 13, another whose parents didn’t believe she was raped because she wanted to have the baby.
The panel’s “believe victims” rallying cry and the harsh words for “rapist’s rights” custody laws sounded in many ways feminist.
But Choices4Life, which aims to “promote and restore honor and dignity to women and children of rape conception,” also advocates against abortion with “no exceptions.”
A 15-year-old girl in the audience was asked to stand, and given a standing ovation, for being a “hero mom” who gave birth at age 13 to her rapist’s child.
“Even young women, it’s better for them to have those children,” Myers said.
Myers recalled desperately working to change the mind of a “catatonic” pregnant 15-year-old rape victim who wanted to have an abortion.
“People are like, you’re gonna force a 15-year-old to have a child? Well, I’d force her not to jump off a bridge. I’m gonna force her not to shoot herself in the head. I’m gonna force her not to harm herself. And if I know that killing that baby is gonna harm her, you betcha.”
She also talked about giving $3,000 to a young woman who was raped by her cousin in exchange for not having an abortion.
“I’ll do anything to save a baby,” Myers said. Then she added, “I won’t kill somebody, let’s get that on the record, there are some loonies out there who will take that and run!”
This is what the GOP’s philosophical schism with the anti-choice movement looks like on the ground: The rigidity of abstract ideals meets the raw emotion of personal experience, resulting in the idea that the “pain” of getting an abortion means it’s better to go through the pain of carrying your rapist’s child to term. The pain of thinking about snuffing out an innocent life means it’s better to sacrifice your own, in an act of heroism that lacks the agency of choice.
At the March for Life, Olivia Tautkus of Virginia said the issue of very young girls getting pregnant from rape is “horrific.” But if their physical ability to carry a pregnancy was an issue, she said, “There’s the ability to do a c-section and induce. Children survive so much earlier now.”
Tautkus told Rewire that she was saddened to think of the “hopelessness” and “poverty” of spirit that makes women assume their situations won’t change and that their child will be a burden, not a blessing.
She told the story of a close friend who’d had a child from rape: “Her dedication was to love that child.”
Still, Tautkus said, her friend had to hire a nanny—not just because she worked, but because she always had to leave the room when the child got angry and his face looked like his father’s had during the rape.
The unnamed students and their priest from the Lafayette, Louisiana, Catholic high school had more to say about rape and other extreme circumstances.
Asked about 12- or 13-year-old girls who become pregnant from rape, the boy from the school I spoke to earlier said, “That’s hard. I don’t know. I know way back then people would get married at like 13 and have kids.”
“It’s tough,” the priest jumped in. “We’re talking about abstracts, but in reality you’re dealing with real people.”
Asked what the law should say about cases like that, he said the only exceptions Catholics believe in follow the principle of “double effect,” in which both mother and child would die anyway without an abortion to save the mother’s life.
“If I were a woman, and I knew I would die, I wouldn’t care,” said another boy. “I would want my kid to live.”
As for the girls in the group: “I definitely agree,” said one immediately.
“I mean, if I had a lot of kids …” said one, trailing off. “It’s complicated. I came from a family where my mom basically raised me because my stepdad was always offshore. Like, I’m not OK with abortion at all, but I guess if I was in that instance and I would die, I would think: Where are my kids gonna go?”