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Rape and Abortion

Early this year, a 14 year-old Dublin schoolgirl went to England for an abortion. The girl claimed that she had been raped by the father of a schoolmate. She threatened to throw herself down the stairs when she found out she was pregnant and a psychologist subsequently told an Irish court that he feared she might commit suicide. Her parents, undoubtedly out of concern for their daughter and anxious to help her overcome her trauma, wanted her to have an abortion and apparently, she agreed with them. However, since they lived in Ireland, the abortion could not be performed there because of the Irish laws against abortion. They then sought permission to go to England for the abortion. An Irish court refused to grant them this permission. The action of the Irish court evoked outrage from many, eliciting editorials in such organs as the New York Times and The Washington Post, expressing compassion for the girl and her parents and anger at the cruel insensitivity of the Irish court toward the girl's plight.

Shortly thereafter, the Supreme Court of Ireland overruled the lower court and granted permission to the girl and her parents to go to England for the abortion. This decision of the Irish Supreme Court won the applause of many, again including the editorial boards of the New York Times and The Washington Post. Still, the situation provided these newspapers and other media the opportunity to lament the sad state of affairs in Ireland, a predominantly Roman Catholic country (as was duly noted), where abortion is forbidden even after conception caused by rape or incest.

This is a truly tragic event. Rape is a horrible, vicious crime. Rapists ought to be punished severely and their victims deserve, not only compensation from them, but also compassion and effective help–medical, psychological, economic, and spiritual–from the community.

Legitimate Actions After Rape

It is perfectly appropriate, I should note first, to do what can be done to prevent conception after rape. Such conception-preventing intervention is definitely not an instance of contraception. Contraception entails a double-barreled choice: (1) the free choice to engage in coition, the sort of kind of act one reasonably believes is open to the transmission of human life; and (2) to do something, prior to this freely chosen act of coition, during it, or subsequent to it, to impede the beginning of new life, to render the act of coition opposed to the transmission of new life. Conception-preventing intervention after rape does not involve these choices. It is rather the choice to prevent the rapist from further violating the woman whom he has raped by causing her to conceive a child, not as a gift supervening upon a freely chosen act of sexual, personal union, but as a consequence of a terrible assault upon her person.

But if conception does occur after rape, abortion is by no means the way to extend compassion and care to the woman violated by the rapist. It does not punish the rapist, nor does it "unrape" the woman. What abortion does is to snuff out the new human life, the new human person, who has come into being. This new human person, this unborn girl or this unborn boy, has done no wrong, caused no harm. To punish it for a crime it has not committed–and to punish it capitally–is grossly unjust and unfair. Nor does killing it by abortion–and we must remember that abortion is killing–heal the terrible wounds the violated woman has suffered. In fact, abortion may further traumatize the mother and cause her even greater suffering.

Ellen McCormack, a woman who conceived as a result of rape, helps us put things in perspective and gives us some food for thought. She wrote: "My attacker was tormented and sought peace. He didn't get it. In his attempt, however, he tore my life apart. Now I, in turn, am tormented and seek peace. Will I get it through abortion? In my desperate search, will I make the baby suffer, have his life torn apart as mine has been? Or will I sustain and nourish this baby's life" Will I keep his heart beating" Will I give him a future"" ("Is Abortion a Solution for Rape?." Christian Crusade, April 18, 1976, p.9). Ellen did not abort the baby but let it live, and now she is rewarded by that child's love for her.

Killing the Child is No Answer

That abortion is not the answer to the horrible tragedy caused when a woman attacked by a rapist conceives a child, becomes clearer by the following "thought" experiment. Assume that abortion has not been invented and that one has to wait until the child is born before action can be taken to eliminate this reminder of the rapist's act. Obviously, action to "eliminate" this reminder, i.e., killing the child conceived as a result of the rape after it has been born, is unjust and iniquitous. But is killing it prior to its birth any less so? Some think so, but such thinking is discriminatory and unjust. For prior to birth, the baby is still a human being, equal in dignity to other human beings, and it has done nothing to damage its dignity and to merit punishment.

Some, perhaps many, will object that these considerations fail to take into account the suffering of the woman who has been so cruelly and viciously attacked. Must she be punished by a "forced" pregnancy? She has suffered enough: must she endure even more by being daily reminded by her pregnancy of the assault she has endured?

In repudiating abortion as the solution to a pregnancy caused by rape, no one is seeking to punish the violated woman. She is not being punished for anything. Rather, she is only being asked to respect the life of another person, one who is indeed her own child, even if conceived against her will. She is being asked not to violate the child as she was violated. She is being asked to do to another as she would have others do to her and not do to another what she would not have others do to her. She undoubtedly will experience suffering by carrying the child to term; but it is the rapist, not the child she is bearing, who inflicts this suffering on her. The rapist indeed ought to be punished; but the child she is bearing is not the rapist.

Suffering is Not Punishment

Moreover, suffering as such, is not punishment. At times, all of us must bear up under suffering in order to meet our moral responsibilities and to refuse to do evil. No human person can avoid suffering. Each of us must bear a cross and, by suffering, overcome evil with good. But each of us must rather suffer evil than do evil. The unfortunate Irish girl, like every woman who has been violated by the cruel act of rape, merits our sympathy and compassion. But when a new life is conceived as a result of rape, we must not abandon this life either. It, too, is something precious and worthy of respect. If it is allowed to live, it will, one can be confident, give in the years to come, great love to its mother, particularly when it realizes that its mother could have–and had been strongly tempted to–snuff its life out while it was in her womb.

One of the most moving books in recent American literature was the late Alex Haley's Roots. Of the many noble characters in this magnificent tale, one of the most noble and charming was "Chicken" George. "Chicken" George was conceived when his slave mother was viciously raped by her despicable white master. George was the "product" of rape–half white, half black, his father a brutal slavemaster and rapist, his mother a woman doubly demeaned by slavery and by rape. Yet "Chicken" George dearly loved his mother and cared for her throughout his life and she dearly loved him and cared for him. Surely, this shows that abortion as a cure for the crime of rape and for the trauma experienced by its victims is not the answer. By suffering the agony of carrying the child to term, a woman can experience the joy of holding in her arms a baby who will grown to love her and give himself for her throughout his life.

Rape Survivors Need Community Support

Women in this tragic circumstance need the help and support of others if they are to have the strength to suffer evil and, by so doing, overcome it. Christian men and women, the progeny generated by the life-giving, love-giving union of Christ and his Church, must provide this help and support insofar as they are able. And they have done so and are continuing to do so. There are communities, groups of dedicated Christians, chiefly women, who are ready to extend help to women tempted to abort their children, particularly after conception caused by rape. This truth must be made known.

All human beings, men and women, including those who have been raped, need help. And our greatest helper is God himself and his Son Jesus Christ. Thus, we need all keep in mind St. Paul's words: "I am certain that neither death nor life, neither angels nor principalities, neither the present nor the future, nor powers, neither height nor depth nor an other creature, will be able to separate us from the love of God that comes to us in Christ Jesus, our Lord" (Rom. 8:38).


William E. May, Ph.D.
Michael J. McGivney, Professor of Moral Theology
John Paul II Institute
for Studies on Marriage and Family
Pope John Center Consultant

Corroborating a typology of rape proposed 10 years earlier, a recent demographic study of 1,000 incidents of rape concluded that the two predominant types of assault were blitz and confidence rape. Blitz rape is characterized by a sudden surprise attack by an unknown assailant using force or the threat of violence to gain control over the victim. In confidence rape, the assailant is known to some degree, however slight, and gains control over his victim by winning her trust.

The characteristic details that differentiate one type of rape from the other suggest that the psychological impact on the victim will differ according to the type of rape. Specific clinical approaches for the mental health care of each victim group need to be provided.

The immediate concerns of blitz rape victims center around their sense of safety, their fear that the rapist may return, and their dismay at having failed to ward off their attacker. They may respond like typical trauma victims with nightmares, flashbacks, sleep and appetite disturbances, heightened startle responses, anxiety, and depression. Treatment–usually sought soon after the rape–may include psychotherapy, medication, and behavior desensitization.

The confidence rape victims' chief concerns are guilt and self-blame. The rape may be revealed only years later. There is often significant delay between the rape and the victims' request for help. The victims need to be assured that they are deserving of help and need the meaning and definition of rape clarified. Providing services may require active and sustained involvement on the part of clinicians. Confidence rape victims will have strong doubts about their ability to discern who is truly trustworthy. They tend to isolate themselves socially.

Taken from: Sally I. Bowie, ACSW, Daniel C. Silverman, M.D., S. Michael Kallick, Ph.D., and Susan D. Edbrill, Ed.M., "Blitz Rape and Confidence Rape: Implications for Clinical Intervention "American Journal of Psychotherapy, Volume XLIV, Number 2, April 1990.