After Todd Akin talked about “legitimate rape” and then lost his U.S. Senate campaign in Missouri last year, Marjorie Dannenfelser remarked that Akin “clearly could have used a little bit of debate prep before he made that statement.” Dannenfelser heads the Susan B. Anthony List, a pro-life political action committee.
She suggested how her group will deal with future candidates who want its support: “. . . I drill you on all the questions, all the tough things, and then you give it back to me. And then we see if that actually merits endorsement or not, because if you can’t handle a rape question after everything that we just went through . . . then you're not paying attention and you don’t care enough to figure it out.”1
Feminists for Life of America has been dealing with rape and abortion for many years. “We will never trade one form of violence for another,” says FFLA President Serrin Foster. She champions both the federal Violence Against Women Act and pro-life legislation. She calls abortion “a second act of violence against a woman who is raped,” and she quotes a medical student who said her abortion “was worse than the rape.” Foster declares: “Both victims—the woman and her child—deserve our unconditional support.”2
It seems impossible to avoid some injustice when rape leads to pregnancy. It is unjust that a woman must carry to term a child conceived through rape. It is, though, a greater injustice to kill the child. Yet ethics, law, and reason are not enough to deal with this case. There is a need for wholehearted support and exceptionally good counseling for the mother and eventually for the child. Placing the child for adoption soon after birth is sometimes the best solution. Yet many women in this situation—32 percent of them, according to one study—decide to raise the child by themselves. This may be as many as 8,000 women each year.3 Running through many case studies, though, is a heart-breaking strain of loneliness and lack of support from family or friends. Instead, these women should be recognized as the heroines they are, and their children should be welcomed as the innocents they are.
While there has been real progress in rape prevention in recent years, there is room for improvement there as well. I will make suggestions about that in the last section of this article. I write with the conviction that all children, born and unborn, have the right to life and to freedom from assault. And that all women have the same rights.
What Mr. Akin Should Have Said
Pro-lifers must appeal to the kindness, generosity, and courage of women who are pregnant by rape. Whatever the legal status of abortion, these strengths are needed to deal with hard cases in a positive way. Women who have done this provide outstanding examples that others can follow.
Mr. Akin would have done far better had he said something like this: “Let’s stop both forms of violence. There is no reason to be defeatist about either one. In fact, there has been a decline in abortion since the 1980s—and a dramatic decline in rape in recent years. Let’s learn from those successes and build upon them. Women have led strong anti-rape efforts over the past 40 years. They have prompted legal reforms in the handling of rape cases; educated police, judges, and doctors; and helped women learn self-defense skills. I salute them for that great work and pledge my support for their continued efforts to end rape.
“In the meantime, what should our response be when rape does occur and a child is conceived through it? Here, I believe we can learn from the experience of women who have carried such children to term and either brought them up themselves or released them for adoption. And we can learn from the children of rape, who speak out in increasing numbers, saying they are glad they weren’t made to pay for their fathers’ crimes. They believe that, like the rest of us, they have a right to be here. I urge all citizens—whatever their views on the legal status of abortion—to listen to these mothers and their children. Theirs is a hopeful story about overcoming evil with good. It's a story of courage and hope.”
Women of Courage
Finding that rape has caused pregnancy often magnifies the trauma to a woman, at least initially. Fairly often, though, women find that they start bonding with their unborn children and decide to raise them by themselves (or, if married, with their husbands) or release them for adoption. Some say that the children become a great healing for them, a source of hope and joy. Shauna Prewitt, who is now an attorney, was raped during her senior year in college. In an open letter to Todd Akin last year, Prewitt said she was devastated by the rape. When she realized that it had caused pregnancy, she felt: “Scared, shocked, even betrayed by my body.” Yet she also felt “a sort of kinship, a partnership” with her unborn child, “perhaps the kind that only develops between those who have suffered together—but, nevertheless, I felt a bond.” She added: “Neither getting pregnant from my rape nor finding unimaginable joy from raising my daughter during the past seven years makes me an ‘illegitimate’ rape victim.”4 Prewitt is now working to change state laws that allow a rapist to pursue visitation or custody rights. Weird though this sounds, it sometimes happens, and it happened to her. Sometimes a date rapist uses the threat of pursuing such rights to head off a criminal prosecution for rape.5
Sharon “Bailey” (a pseudonym), pregnant from rape by an acquaintance when she was only 15, said years later that “I didn't have deep mother instincts. Basically my feelings were, ‘It’s just you and me, kid.’ I considered us both to be victims. Kind of like the bond between hostages.” The young mother decided against adoption, but years later thought that would have been better for her daughter. “My first husband verbally abused her. I never have had, and still don't have, the maternal feelings for her that I have for my other kids. We’re good friends and I so love her, but it’s like we’re sisters. I wish she could have had a more normal life.”6
Some women decide on adoption because they fear the child will look like the father and be a reminder of the rape. One woman who was raising her child indicated this was sometimes a problem, although she described her daughter as “a fun-loving child, so sweet, with so many good qualities.”7 There are other accounts of women who found it a problem—and of women who did not. One, often asked if she didn’t think of the rape every time she looked at her child, described the question as “downright bizarre.” She said that, instead, she thought of “the joy of being a mother to someone so beloved to me who is just absolutely wonderful.”8 Some women fear that the child may inherit “evil genes” from the father. I have found no evidence of this. There are cases where the child has major problems, but ones likely due to other factors.9 The worst horror stories, for both mothers and children, occur when they are caught in households that feature violence, alcohol abuse, street drugs, and/or incest. Getting them out of such situations is essential if they are to survive and have a chance for happy lives.
Some scared teenagers, as well as adult women, have shown such lonely courage in resisting pressures for abortion that gold medals should be struck for them. Others have received great support from family or friends when they needed it most. One woman, made pregnant by rape when she was “in a state of drunken helplessness at a party,” said that the “people at my church stood by me, supported and helped me; and now I have this lovely little girl, Robin, that God has allowed to be my daughter.” She added: “Through the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous, I can hang in there one day at a time and not drink alcohol.”10 Lee Ezell, raped at age 18, found no help from her mother, who “asked me to leave and take care of this thing and come back as if nothing had happened. . . . So I headed south from the San Francisco area with a car and 50 bucks in my pocket, trying to decide what my next step would be.” Abortion was then illegal, although available in nearby Mexico; but Ezell thought it might be “too permanent an answer for my temporary problem.” She also doubted that the child should “be punished for the crime of its father.” She found “a sweet old couple in Los Angeles” who invited her to stay with them. That made all the difference.11 Pregnancy care centers also do much to help rape survivors who are pregnant, as a woman named Angela discovered. Her daughter was raped at age 14. Pregnancy followed, and many people encouraged the girl to have an abortion. But someone put her mother in touch with Birthright of Rolla (Mo.), where Trisha Davault was immensely helpful. Angela says that, the first time she took her daughter to Birthright, “we both knew everything was going to be okay . . . Trish cried with us and loved us and offered our family the support we needed.” Her daughter’s son, Angela adds, has not harmed his mother in any way, nor “added to her trauma. Actually, it has been the complete opposite . . .”12
Cathy D. Kirkland found that her son, conceived in rape, helped her deal with her longtime depression. “He restored my faith in life and gave me a reason to get up in the morning,” she said. But because she was single, and her child biracial, she had to deal with prying questions. She commented: “I have a lot of fun with people who want to know what race Jonathan is: I say human . . . Or when they ask what does his dad do, I say he’s an apprentice astronaut or a cowboy. At least they don’t come back asking me silly questions again.”13
Children of Rape
Some adoptees, when searching for their birth mothers, are shocked to find that they were conceived in rape. They had never suspected that possibility, and they need time to come to terms with it. Increasing numbers, though, are speaking out about their experience. They come from varied walks of life—students, pastors, writers, full-time homemakers, a musician, an artist, lawyers, a television talk-show hostess, a university professor. They are grateful that their mothers and/or the law protected their lives. Perhaps no one should be surprised that many are dedicated pro-life activists. One of the best-known is attorney Rebecca Kiessling, an adoptee who learned at age 18 that her father was a rapist. She was happy to be reunited with her birth mother, yet dismayed to find that her mother had tried twice to abort her. Terrible conditions in a back-alley clinic defeated the first abortion effort, and a huge snowstorm prevented the second. While Kiessling developed a good relationship with her birth mother, she also kept her strong convictions about the right to life. She speaks widely on the issue and has started a group called Save the 1 to work against rape exceptions in pro-life legislation. She is featured in a Feminists for Life ad that asks, “Did I deserve the death penalty?”14
Faith Daniels was conceived when her birth mother, at age 17, was raped by a boyfriend. A factory worker and his wife, a hairstylist, adopted Daniels. “She’s very lucky she grew up with wonderful parents who gave her a lot of love,” Daniels’s husband told People magazine. What does Daniels think of her origins? “It really doesn't matter how you were conceived,” she said. “Only what you’ve become.” Daniels became a reporter, wife, and mother. She delighted in her children, although she found it hard to be a working mom. She rose high in media ranks, becoming a national television news anchor for CBS and NBC and later hosting a daily talk show on NBC.15
Tony Kiessling (no relation to Rebecca Kiessling) grew up with his single mother, an aunt, and a grandmother. When he was 18, his mother told him that he had been conceived through rape. (His father had been a regular customer at a diner when she was working there.) Her “strong moral compass,” her son said, led her to decide against abortion. Tony, who grew up to be a chemistry professor, was the only child she would ever have. His mother found it “very difficult” to talk about the rape, but made it clear that “she would not change a thing regarding giving birth to me and raising me. She could not imagine a world that did not include me and, in time, her three grandchildren.”16
Juda Myers had a happy life with her adoptive parents. She was middle-aged in 2005 when she met her birth mother, Ann Phillips, and learned her story. After a gang-rape by eight young men in 1956, Phillips found that she was pregnant. She resisted pressures for abortion, but her parents made her place her child for adoption. Upon hearing her story many years later, Myers “wept for her,” but Phillips “patted my shoulder and said, ‘Honey, stop your crying. I've forgiven those men, and look what God has done. He’s brought you back to me.’ She had prayed for 48 years for my return.” Myers now helps other mothers whose children were conceived in rape. She organized an Honor for Life Awards Gala, held in 2011, to honor such mothers. Comments from several honorees showed that the event brought great healing to them.17
Kristi Hofferber, adopted days after birth, says that she grew up in “a loving, Christian family.” In her teen years, though, she was troubled by her adoption, yet didn't want to hurt her parents by asking them questions about it. Finally, at age 30, she did ask them and was shocked to find that her birth father was also her grandfather. He had forced sex upon his daughter (Hofferber’s birth mother) for many years. This had resulted in six pregnancies—one ended by a miscarriage forced by the father, and four “through abortion to cover his actions.” Hofferber was the only one of the six children who was born alive. She found her birth mother, who “welcomed me into her life.” Now working for a degree in social work, Hofferber plans to earn one in adoption counseling, too. She says that “my passion is to serve others who may be facing difficulties with any aspect of adoption.”18 Her approach calls to mind Ralph Waldo Emerson’s remark about the person who, like a wounded oyster, “mends his shell with pearl.”19
Ryan Scott Bomberger, conceived in biracial rape, was adopted by a couple who eventually had thirteen children—three birth children and ten adopted children of various backgrounds and races. “I was adopted and loved like crazy,” Bomberger told the March for Life in January, 2013. He and his wife Bethany, who also have both birth and adopted children, started a pro-life group called the Radiance Foundation. They do educational work through public speaking and media campaigns. One of their projects placed billboards in African American communities, suggesting that abortion has made black children an “Endangered Species.”20
How to Stop Rape (More Women of Courage)
According to a study based on the federal National Crime Victimization Survey, sexual violence against girls and women dropped by 58 percent between 1995 and 2010. Yet there were still about 270,000 “completed, attempted or threatened” rapes or sexual assaults against females in 2010. (Sexual assault other than rape includes grabbing, fondling, and verbal threats.)21 The overall decline, though, has been truly dramatic. We should celebrate it—and keep those numbers going down. Serrin Foster, the Feminists for Life leader, attributes the decline to factors including the Violence Against Women Act, women’s use of cell phones to call for help, “Take Back the Night” demonstrations, and the fact that college campuses “are doing huge amounts of education” about date rape. She stresses, though, that more effort is needed to tackle the immense backlog of untested DNA evidence from rape cases. This, she suggests, is a good way to get repeat offenders off the streets.22
The serial rapist who is also a stranger is the person most of us picture when we think of rape. Yet the crime-victim survey, covering both rape and the broader category of sexual assault, found that assailants were strangers in only 22 percent of cases. In another 38 percent, they were acquaintances, either casual or well-known. In an appalling 34 percent, they were intimate partners, a category that includes spouses and boyfriends—either former or current. In a shameful six percent, they were relatives.23
Substance abuse is often involved in sexual assault. In the survey, “about 40 percent of victims believed the offender had been drinking or using drugs.” The victim also has been drinking heavily in many date-rape cases. Sociologist Michael Kimmel says that “the most treacherous time for a college woman is when she is at a party, drinking, with people she thinks she knows.”24 Anything that reduces alcohol and drug abuse is likely to reduce rape and other crimes as well. In his book Guyland, Kimmel also urges major change in the culture of young males and their often-terrible attitudes toward women. He does not offer a simple recipe for change, but does stress the value of continued parental involvement in sons’ lives during early adulthood. He notes the positive influence that one “charismatic adult”—perhaps a teacher, coach, or older sibling—can have by listening to a young man and encouraging him on the right path. He explains how individual guys can “break the culture of silence” that often protects bad behavior toward women. He also presents the story of a high school student who, at a keg party, prevented the rape of a drunken girl and found someone to drive her home.25
But what can women themselves do in their own defense? They often receive good advice about locking homes and cars, avoiding risky areas, and so forth. Sometimes, though, the list of things a woman should not do, and places she should not go, is so long that she might just as well be a prison inmate. Moreover, many women cannot afford to live in places that are totally safe. Yet nearly any woman can benefit from self-defense instruction. Many private agencies, and some public ones, offer courses ranging from several hours to weeks or months. They encourage strategic thinking about the best way to handle various attacks. They demonstrate basic techniques (such as breaking a stranglehold by bending back the attacker’s little finger, or dealing with an attack from behind by elbowing the attacker in the stomach and stomping on his foot). They also give enrollees a chance to try out the techniques against well-padded instructors. All of this leads to real confidence and the ability to deal with an attack vigorously, instead of freezing in fear and confusion.
This is not to say that every woman can be successful in fending off an attacker. Sometimes the attack is so sudden, and done with such overwhelming force, that there is no chance of success. Experts generally advise against resistance when the assailant is armed with a gun or knife. The crime-victim survey found that attackers were armed “in 11 percent of all sexual violence”26—a much lower percentage than I would have guessed. When there is no weapon, there is often a good way to strike back and then escape. Denise Caignon and Gail Groves collected stories of women who did this in a book called Her Wits About Her. While it mainly describes attempted rape by strangers, its defense techniques can be used to prevent acquaintance rape as well.
Louisa W. Peat O’Neil was painting her garage when she noticed “a sneakered foot just behind me.” She screamed “like a banshee . . . Arms gripped me. I flailed and kicked, striking out with the paintbrush still in hand. I never quit screaming. He flung me down against the wall and took off in a flash. . . . Later the police said a rapist will run from a screamer, and I have a voice like a siren.”27 A woman identified only as Rashida knew she faced gang rape when two young men jumped from a car, grabbed her, and pulled her into the car where three other men waited. They drove her to a dark cemetery; four of them got out of the car while one remained and “put his arm around my neck to keep me in place. The others were outside of the car taking their pants down. When one of them climbed into the backseat and moved toward me, I snapped.” She continued: “I bit the arm that held me, hit the guy behind me in the gut with my right elbow, and kicked the guy coming toward me, all at the same time. The one holding me let go, and the one facing me got out of the car, hurt. I got out of the car quickly and ran. The other men were so surprised, they didn’t move fast enough to stop me.”28
Sometimes an angry and determined verbal response, perhaps backed up by a fist, is enough to scare off a would-be rapist. After much training in martial arts, Tamar Hosansky was ready when she was alone in an elevator with a man who suddenly lunged toward her. “I hit him in the chest to back him off so he wouldn't grab me. . . . But he backed right off and said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, don’t hit me.’ I took a fighter stance and yelled, ‘Get off the elevator!’” He did.29 Other women, in similar situations, use language they certainly didn't learn in Sunday School; but their assailants understand it.
Some women who have survived rape or other violence now teach other women how to defend themselves. But one of the teachers remarked: “My dream is to someday live in a world where there are no victims, to speak a language in which violence does not exist.”30
1. Joel Gehrke, “Pro-life Group Vows Changes after Akin Debacle,” washingtonexaminer.com (Washington, D.C.), 7 Nov. 2012.
2. Serrin M. Foster, Letter to FFLA supporters, provided to the author on 7 March 2013; and Serrin M. Foster, “Hard Cases—Tough Questions,” The American Feminist, Issue on “Pro Woman Answers to Pro Choice Questions” (2005), 6-7, 6.
3. M. M. Holmes and others, Abstract of “Rape-related Pregnancy: Estimates and Descriptive Characteristics from a National Sample of Women,” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8765248. The full article appeared in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology 175, no. 2 (August 1996), 320-25. The authors estimated that there are 32,101 rape-caused pregnancies each year and that 50 percent end in abortion, 32 percent in decisions to keep the child, nearly 12 percent in miscarriage, and nearly 6 percent in adoption. A later study estimated 25,000 rape-caused pregnancies per year. If that total is correct—and the earlier percentages are correct—that means that at least 8,000 women “in this country keep rape-conceived children every year.” Andrew Solomon, Far From the Tree (New York: Scribner/Simon & Schuster, 2012), 484-85 and 800.
4. Shauna Prewitt, “An Open Letter to Rep. Akin from a Woman Who Got Pregnant from Rape,” xojane.com, 20 Aug. 2012.
5. Diana Reese, “Shauna Prewitt on Protecting the Children of Rape,” washingtonpost.com, 27 Aug. 2012; and HopeAfterRapeConception.org.
6. David C. Reardon and others, Victims and Victors (Springfield, Ill.: Acorn Books, 2000), 84-89, 86 & 89.
7. “Helen” (a pseudonym), quoted in Peter Carlson and Jane Sims Podesta, “Raising a Child of Rape,” People, 25 March 1985, 30-34, 34.
8. Analyn Megison, article in The American Feminist, issue on “Hard Cases/Exceptional Choices,” 2012, 8.
9. Solomon (n. 3), 496-99 and 512-l6.
10. Josie Beattie, “Blessing Upon Blessing,” letter to the editor of P.S., May-June, 1982, 14.
11. Transcript of Geraldo Rivera program on “Victims and Children of Rape” (New York: Investigative News Group), 31 July 1989, 2-3.
13. Fran Arrington, “Mother Rejoices in Son from Rape,” News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), 8 Sept. 1991, 1-A & 8-A, 8-A.
14. Kevin Rector, “Woman Born of Rape Shares Message,” diamondbackonline.com (College Park, Md.), 2 March 2007; Rebecca Kiessling, article in The American Feminist (n. 8), 14; ibid., ads on unnumbered page between 16 & 17); and Savethe1.com.
15. Susan Schindehette, Sue Carswell and Maria Eftimiades, “A Victory of Faith,” People, 8 March 1993, 47-48; Faith Daniels and Kenneth R. Clark, “There is Nothing Like Having a Baby,” Chicago Tribune, 24 April 1988, articles.chicagotribune.com/1988-04-24/features/8803110321_1_child-parents-kids.
16. “Tony Kiessling’s Story,” rebeccakiessling.com/Othersconceivedinrape.html; and Cheryl R. Clarke, “Tur[n]ing ‘Victim’ into ‘Victor,’” sungazette.com (Williamsport, Pa.), 27 Nov. 2010.
17. Juda Myers, article in The American Feminist (n. 8), 13, and Ann Phillips video, Choices4Life.org/BirthmotherStories.htm#Ann.
18. Kristi Hofferber, article in The American Feminist (n. 8), 18.
19. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Compensation,” The Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York: Black’s Readers Service Co., n.d.), 123.
20. TheRadianceFoundation.org; Ryan Scott Bomberger, Remarks at the March for Life, Washington, D.C., 25 Jan. 2013, c-spanvideo.org/program/310610-1; and Shaila DeWan, “Anti-Abortion Ads Split Atlanta,” nytimes.com, 5 Feb. 2010.
21. U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Female Victims of Sexual Violence, 1994-2010 (March 2013), by Michael Planty and others, 1 & 2. Surveyors interviewed only persons who were at least 12 years old, so they may have missed many assaults against little girls.
22. Author’s telephone interview with Serrin M. Foster, 8 March 2013.
23. U.S. Department of Justice (n. 20), 4. While state laws vary, many assaults by close relatives are legally defined as incest.
24. Ibid., 5; and Michael Kimmel, Guyland (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), 223.
25. Ibid., 265-89, 282.
26. U.S. Department of Justice (n. 21), 5.
27. Denise Caignon and Gail Groves, Her Wits About Her (New York: Harper & Row, 1987), 140-42.
28. Ibid., 182-84, 183.
29. Ibid., 212-13. See, also, Martha J. Langelan, Back Off! (New York: Fireside/Simon & Schuster, 1993), for helpful ideas on dealing with sexual harassment, which is sometimes a form of “rape testing.” A strong verbal response to lewd comments from strangers may prevent escalation to rape.
30. Jerilyn Munyon in ibid., 97-99, 99.
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Mary Meehan, a freelance writer living in Maryland, is a senior editor of the Human Life Review. She can reached at her website: www.meehanreports.com.