Updated: Mar 27
Legitimate rape. I was shocked when I heard that congressman Aiken had used this term a few days ago in an interview about abortion for rape victims. If you don’t know the full story, here is a brief synopsis. Missouri congressman Aiken referred to "legitimate rape" when he tried to explain, incorrectly, a woman's biological response to being violently raped. Aiken was supporting a concept that women who have been violently attacked are not likely to get pregnant. Aiken is not alone in being misinformed about how a woman’s body responds to the violent act of rape. For decades, even centuries, there has been a misconception floating around that the traumatic stress response of the violent act of rape shuts the normal hormonal secretions down in a woman and therefore prevents pregnancy. This is not a republican viewpoint; this is not a political perspective, this is a widely accepted (in less overt ways) perspective about sexual arousal and violence. We see acceptance of this perspective in casual ways when women who have been trying to get pregnant often hear from friends and family that they just need to relax and they will be more fertile.
One of the many problems of this perspective is that there is no scientific research to support the theory. Certainly chronic ongoing stress to a woman’s body such as malnutrition or extreme physical strain decreases fertility rates. But there is absolutely no evidence to support the theory that the violent traumatic event of rape shuts down a woman’s ability to conceive. 5% of the women who are raped become pregnant. In the United States last year, over 30,000 babies were created from the violent act of rape.
Moving past the concept of rape victims being less fertile, what concerns me more about this event is the term “legitimate rape”. There is a bit of a history of why Aiken used this term, which was coined “forcible rape” in relation to legislation and funding for abortions for victims of violent rape. The term was never clearly defined and I can’t imagine what went through anyone’s mind when it was first introduced. Rape is rape as many have declared these past few days. This is true. Date rape, statutory rape, drug induced rape, stranger rape, political rape, marital rape, and incest. All rape is a heinous violent act perpetrated against an innocent victim. Rape is violent not only physically; but especially violent to the soul of the victim. Rape tears apart the victim’s ability to choose the most fundamental rights of their own body. The violence rips their soul into a helpless, confused, loss of self-value state that can bear a lifetime of consequences. All rape has this violent affect on the soul of a person; all rape, legitimate (whatever that term means) or not.
None of us can really know what Congressman Aiken was thinking when he spoke these fateful words. Mostly assuredly he will regret them the rest of his life. I’ve made verbiage gaffes before that I regret. Regardless, raped women get pregnant and all rape is a legitimate violent act perpetrated against an innocent victim.
But in all of this discussion I have not read anything about the truest of innocent victims in a rape, the created life in the womb of 5% of rape victims. Instead of a political debate, a legislative argument, or a discussion on the fundamental rights of a woman’s body (see paragraph 3 above); is it possible to look at the topic from a perspective of healing? What are the most productive ways that a victim can positively move forward from the violent act of rape?
I grew up in a Quaker home that taught violence is not the higher road toward healing the individual or nations. Fighting fire with fire is a violent reaction that often spirals hurting souls into an isolated hateful world. I just returned from my annual week as a camp counselor with children who have survived a burn injury. Many of their histories are heinous and violent. They have the visible scars to show it. They can’t get rid of those scars. Physically and emotionally they carry those reminders everyday. But the beauty I see in their souls born out of the violence of the burn is indescribable. They are my hero’s. Their courageous spirits are an inspiration to all who know them.
Some of the children end up living their lives as victims. The blaming and anger take over and they live a life unworthy of themselves. Most become survivors. They understand that accepting what has happened is essential to positively moving forward. They step out each day with their heads held high choosing to smile and make eye contact with the people who jeer and stare. Some become thrivors. Embracing their burn injury and pain by giving back to the world in a way that only they can. They know their unique story allows them to give life to the world in beautiful ways.
So as I consider the issue of pregnancy born from rape, I wonder:
Is it possible for redemption to happen by carrying the created life to term?
Is it possible to reframe rape pregnancy as a blessing instead of a curse?
Is it possible for a woman to find her healing in choosing to bring life and beauty from her death and violent story?
Is it possible that those 30,000 babies could be our rallying cry as a society that says, “we will not choose violence in reaction to violence”?
Is it possible that the cries of a newborn baby in the arms of a woman who could not bear her own (and may subtly be blamed for being infertile) would be triumph over violence?
Is it possible to move deeper into the conversation of rape and really care about the recovery and restoration of all involved?