Monday, October 29, 2012

Look a Rape Victim In the Eye

Richard Mourdock
Last week, Republican senatorial candidate Richard Mourdock called down richly deserved ire when he said that a pregnancy conceived in rape is “God’s will.” His campaign tried to partially walk that back by saying the rape itself was not God’s will, just the pregnancy. But I have a hard time seeing, since one follows from the other, how they can honestly make such an awkward division.

I wish these were one-off statements. But Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan has referred to rape as a “method of conception,” like violence exists on a continuum with in vitro and “woman on top.” Watching ordinary voting Republicans reconcile such ugly speech is unintentionally humorous. A friend I ordinarily trust said: “If President Obama is right about small businesses, Senator Murdock [sic] is right about abortion.” As if rape were an area where thoughtful people could strike a compromise.

Both these candidates, and the critics who answer them, fall down on the same point. They speak of “women,” “rape victims,” “abortion patients,” and so on, as though women are merely another category. This reminds me of history, when the American government used terms like “gooks” and “injuns” in its propaganda to keep civilians loyal to wars of choice. Forcing people into categories steals some of their humanity.

Women who have been raped are individuals, who deserve to have voters, elected leaders, and the whole American population look them in the eye and call them by name. When we lump all women who seek abortions together and treat them like a mass, it’s easy to dismiss them as casual baby killers who simply want a pricy, invasive form of birth control. It gets far harder when we see them as individuals.

Paul Ryan
A woman I know was raped. I’ll call her “Linda,” since I have no Facebook friends of that name and nosy Nellies can’t track her back that way. A man Linda met mere hours earlier held her down on the bed of her own apartment and forced his body onto her. Afterward, he tried to make conversation, as though it were a one night stand. Like nine-tenths of rape victims, Linda was too ashamed to report her attack to the police.

Two months later, Linda faced a pregnancy scare. Because Linda and her boyfriend are Christians, they had not had sex. The father could only be the man who raped her. She had to face the implications of her rape, now that all prosecutable evidence was gone, and now that it appeared her lingering effects might be physical, as well as psychological. As a Christian, she had to weigh all her options in terms of her relationship with God.

Thankfully, after a trip to her doctor, it turned out no pregnancy existed. Her symptoms were probably related to the ongoing psychological trauma of her rape. But during the time while that scare existed, its consequences for Linda, and for everybody who cared about her, was very real. She, and her loved ones, had to make a decision that would have consequences for all of them, for the rest of their lives.

The last thing they needed was some politician, who would never meet Linda, making decisions for her.

Chances are, you know a woman who was raped. If she hasn’t told you already, she may never do so, because that isn’t something survivors like to bring up; some find that they cannot say the word for years after the event. But an estimated one in four American women has been raped, usually by somebody she previously trusted. And most of those women do not report the rape to the law, for fear of being judged or ignored.

Politicians, theologians, moral absolutists—in short, anybody who wants to dictate choices available to rape survivors—I defy you to sit down with a woman who has been raped. I defy you to look her in the eye and tell her that her pregnancy is somehow morally separate from her rape. I defy you to tell her that you have more right than her to make decisions about her body.

Especially since somebody else already tried to take control of her body away from her.

Stop treating these women, who have already been harmed by men, as though they lack the autonomy to comprehend their own choices. Stop treating them as a class, deserving either our high-handed control or our abstract pity. They need us to treat them like individuals, with all the respect individuals deserve.

On a related topic:
Todd Akin and the Enchanted Uterus 

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