Rape-Related Pregnancy and Pregnancy Loss

The Ethics of Termination - A Personal View

I hesitate to write this section because I don't want to be an apologist for abortion and I don't want to add to the weight of judgment placed on women who're making these decisions!  But I do want to help you support the person you love, no matter what they decide.  So here are some of my own thoughts, offered gently and with sympathy, respect and understanding.  I hope something in them helps you or the person you love.


M.I.Walker, Wellcome Images

Some people believe that life starts at conception.  For them abortion always involves a life being taken.  For me, the beginning of life is a twilight zone - it's hard to say precisely when night ends and day begins.  My own sense of the little ones inside me as alive or not, and as individuals separate from me, has varied from pregnancy to pregnancy, not just with the stage of pregnancy.  Most other women I've spoken to have had the same experience.  Our feelings are, of course, influenced by many different factors.  But I wonder why we, the community as a whole, are so reluctant to trust the experiences of the person most closely connected to the life beginning and growing inside her?  Who else is better placed to know what's going on?  Tests and machines can only say so much compared to constantly shared blood, biochemistry and the presence of each other. 

I know from personal experience it's possible to become attached to a pregnancy that's later spontaneously lost.  But I wonder how often a mother's lack of connection reflects problems with the pregnancy.  Many first-trimester miscarriages involve chromosomal abnormalities that might have prevented a life from ever forming.  The vast majority of terminations in countries such as the US, UK and Australia occur in the first trimester (88.7% US, 89% UK, and 91.1% in the first 14 weeks in South Australia - national statistics aren't available).

It's not difficult to find arguments (online or elsewhere) about when life begins and the value of life with different degrees of independence, consciousness and sustainability.  Rape-related pregnancy is often an element in these arguments.  Some people believe that admitting an exception for women who're pregnant through rape negates the argument that the fetus inside her is alive.  Others believe that forcing a woman into continuing a pregnancy conceived so traumatically demonstrates a lack of compassion inconsistent with arguments about the value of human life.  There's a lot of discussion about what constitutes a risk to the mother's life.

Photo by Jprescott, Dreamstime

There can be very real risks to the life of the mother due to the trauma of having been raped.  This study found that young people who'd been sexually abused had a suicide rate 10.7-13 times the national Australian rates.  32% of the abused children in the study had attempted suicide, and 43% had thought about suicide since they were abused.  Here's another study about the increased risk of suicide for people who've experienced sexual assault.  If pregnancy exacerbates trauma and psychological problems due to rape then the life of a woman in this position may be genuinely at risk if the pregnancy continues. 

I won't go into questions about quality of life for a woman pregnant through rape, because I feel too often they're discussed without respect.  Sympathy and respect aren't quite the same thing!  I've never met a woman who takes this decision lightly.  The consideration I've so often seen given to the life and welfare of someone still believed to be potential rather than actual demonstrates amazing courage, love and strength.  The questions involved are not mere matters of convenience, and they do have genuine complexities.  I think we should be very wary of  judging someone in this position.  I also think we should hold off from telling them we know better than they do what's good for them.  No one's ever in exactly the same situation, with exactly the same resources.

I'd like to come at this topic from a different angle ....  If you've read other pages of this website, you'll be aware that different women in different situations react differently to becoming pregnant through rape.  Women also react differently at different stages of pregnancy and if they experience pregnancy or neonatal loss.  This section of the site is only about those who want to terminate their pregnancy.  I'm willing to say definitely, and from personal experience, that no one should ever be pressured or coerced into terminating their pregnancy.  I think there are very few people who'd argue otherwise.  

For some women, being pregnant through rape feels like being raped every moment of every day because part of the person who raped them is still inside them.  It can be ongoing torture.  Even if it's not constant, that feeling of violation is an awfulness hard to describe to someone who's never experienced it.  For someone to choose to be tortured for the sake of someone they don't know, who mightn't even be alive is an extraordinarily strong, brave and selfless choice.  In my opinion, we can't expect that choice of anyone, though they may still, admirably, make it.  This is not to devalue the life of the fetus (assuming it's alive).  If the fetus was instead a fully grown but helpless adult, I suspect we would still not expect someone else to make that sacrifice - and we'd hail them as a hero if they did.

There's also a special kind of bravery in recognizing your own limits and choosing to do what you need to do to survive and heal.  There were times when I was being assaulted when the best choice I could make was to give in.  That didn't make it easy!  To accept pain, trauma, grief and uncertainty, weigh the options, and make your best choice for survival takes a lot of courage and deserves respect.  There's no less bravery in deciding you need to terminate a pregnancy, than in deciding to continue it.

I see this as a situation of duress.  I don't mean that everyone who chooses to terminate a pregnancy's experiencing duress, but I do mean anyone could be, especially given many women don't tell anyone they're raped, or can tell only years afterwards. 

The person who's pregnant didn't choose to hold a a life in her hands.  The person who forced her to take it up may have at the same time deprived her of the resources to support it.  If she falters and a life is lost, she is not responsible.  The person who raped her and put her into an impossible position is responsible.  The position may be impossible for her when it still seems possible to us, on the outside.  This isn't something we can measure - who can say how much strength is needed to survive and keep surviving torture?  Or even something less than that?

Photo from Cepolina

If you're a Catholic (which is my own background and so gets more attention here), the concept of duress might help further your own thinking.  It might also help if your objections have a different religious basis.  Here are some pages about:
Religion and Abortion

Jewish Perspectives on Abortion
Jewish Beliefs About Abortion
Abortion in Jewish Law
Islam and Abortion from BBC Religion and Ethics pages

Hinduism and Abortion from BBC Religion and Ethics pages
Buddhism and Abortion from BBC Religion and Ethics pages

Duress isn't always obvious from the outside, and isn't even always recognized by the person acting under it.  I think that some of what the Catholic Church says about suicide is also relevant to abortion.  As I understand it, the Church's position is that suicide and abortion are both sins.  But there's an understanding that suicide is often the result of disordered thinking, rather than being freely chosen.  This page discusses the Catholic Church's position on suicide.

Trauma has some major affects on the brain, including prompting automatic defenses, instead of voluntary choices. I know I felt like that when I miscarried at 15.  I felt I'd expelled something extremely threatening to my life and the lives of people I loved.  I'd been told, plausibly, that I'd be killed if anyone found out, or the person who found out would be, and I didn't know how to hide a pregnancy and birth.  My feelings changed from that first response, but I definitely felt the sense of threat that many other women feel when they choose to terminate a rape-related pregnancy. 

The Catholic Church recognizes that abortion often happens under some form of duress.  This doesn't mean it's not regarded as a sin, but it reduces (and, depending on the situation, may eliminate) the responsibility and blame attributed to the woman involved.  This is an interesting look at the history of Catholic thought on abortion.  If the person you care about does have an abortion, Project Rachel (a project of the Catholic church) may be able to help you deal with that.

If you feel, as many people do, that saving the life of your partner, family member or friend's developing child is part of your loving care for them, what can you do? 

Helping to reduce any duress she's experiencing is a good aim (i.e. reducing the things putting pressure on her).  You may not be able to do much to reduce her sense of ongoing violation, but anything you can do will help her, whatever choice she makes.  You might refer to the section on violation on the Pregnancy Developing page here.  A sense of the fetus as a separate individual, carrying no evil with it, whatever it's origins, is something that seems to develop over time for many women, perhaps after ultrasounds or other bonding experiences. You can encourage a view of the pregnancy and little one developing as amazing, beautiful and transformational - something good your loved one's making out of something bad.  This doesn't mean it's a good thing that the pregnancy happened, or that she was raped (!), but only that her part in what's happened is all good.  Be as clear as you can be that her feelings of violation are understandable and matter, that people react in many different ways to this traumatic situation, and that all those reactions deserve gentleness, care and respect.

If you surround her with love and a sense of safety then it will be easier for her to imagine getting through the pregnancy and bringing a child into the world.  There are many practical ways you can offer to help: taking her to appointments, helping her choose toys, clothes or equipment, helping her find safe and suitable accommodation, giving her a gift to pamper herself etc., depending on her circumstances.  Be honest about your own opinions (if and only if she asks you about them) but make sure she knows you love her and will love and support her whatever she decides.  This is such a difficult, fearful situation to be in, please don't add the fear for her of losing you or your love.

It's vitally important that this is her own decision - so much trauma has resulted from people being pressured either way.  One of the very best gifts you can give someone in this situation is calm, safe space and time to freely consider all her options.

This is not easy stuff!  If you need help in thinking about it or doing any of it please don't hesitate to talk to a counsellor or therapist yourself, or seek support online at boards like Pandora's Aquarium and Herodes' Cave.