Every woman’s reason is unique: Why rape exceptions and abortion stereotypes are harmful

One super important conversation that’s come out of uproar over Rep. Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment is how rape exceptions are total bullshit anyway. Irin Carmon explains:

But when progressives cede the moral center to the rape exception, they are implicitly buying into the idea that some reasons to have abortions are more justified than others — and that we should be interrogating these reasons at all. As Tracy Weitz, who conducts empirical research on women who have abortions (remember science?), wrote recently, ”In many ways people opposed to abortion in all cases have a more consistent, and I would say, honest position. For them, either a blastocyst, embryo or fetus has a right to life, no matter how it was conceived, or a woman doesn’t have the right to terminate a pregnancy, no matter the circumstances.” She calls out commentators, including the very pro-choice Rachel Maddow, for saying that politicians are extreme when they even oppose exceptions for rape and incest. ”Unfortunately,” Weitz writes, “it is extreme to oppose the right of any woman to make decisions about the direction of her life, no matter the circumstances under which she finds herself pregnant.” In other words, either you believe a woman has the right to decide not to be pregnant anymore, or you think you should get a say in her decision.

It’s not that I don’t understand why people, including pro-choice organizations, like to talk about rape or life endangerment exceptions. They illustrate how incredibly cruel opponents to abortion are, how divorced they are from the difficult and knotty circumstances of real life. And they help people who can’t understand what kind of woman has an abortion — despite that real 1-in-3 statistic — realize that all kinds of women have abortions, including ones they find sympathetic. Women who have abortions have been so demonized that storytelling helps make that essential empathic leap that so many people are missing. But as Akin shows, once you start haggling over reasons, you’re giving up half the fight — which is that this is about bodily autonomy and respect for women’s ability to determine their own lives.

The standard “rape, incest, and life endangerment” exception language is part of this broader tendency to categorize abortion into types. The heart-breaking fetal anomaly. The teenager who didn’t know any better. The poor mother who can’t afford another kid. The condom that broke. We create these stereotypes because we want to put a face to abortion, and there aren’t enough real women telling their stories–for all sorts of understandable reasons. (And, of course, we deploy the ones that are most likely to be sympathetic to the most people–and the other side does the opposite.)

But, more and more, I think these abstract, simplified stereotypes do more harm than good. Because it’s only natural for people to stack them up–to place them in their own personal hierarchy from acceptable to not-so-acceptable reasons. Not just anti-choice people. Everyone does this. We’re all judgmental assholes. And nothing is easier to judge than a nameless stereotype. Which defeats the purpose. The potential power. That “empathic leap” that Irin talks about. People don’t feel empathy for stereotypes. Or rather, they may feel a sort of abstract sympathy. But we only feel true empathy for people we really know.

And, anyway, I’m not sure the object of abortion stories should be to garner empathy for this or that particular woman. (Because for every reason there will always be some people that will empathize and others that won’t and it’s nobody’s business anyway.) The point, to me, has always just been the humbling reminder: You don’t know anything about other people’s lives. The point is to show that we can’t categorize abortions into these different types, because every single woman’s reason for getting an abortion is absolutely unique. Like millions of little snowflakes. Some that you’ll identify with; some that you may find totally uncompelling. Women you love get abortions and women you hate get abortions. (Put that on a T-shirt!) But the point, as Irin notes, is that you don’t get to pick and choose. Simply because you can’t! Because there are just too many reasons to judge. So many profoundly specific reasons. Reasons that just might break your heart if you actually heard each one.

I’ve long believed that telling abortion stories could really transform the political discourse–which is why I’ve been public about my own abortion. But without a critical mass, there’s the danger of the single story. And there’s the danger that they’ll be slotted into these stereotypical boxes and, in the process, they’ll be stripped of the layers, emotional depth, and, above all, specificity, which gives them their power. I don’t really have a solution here. I guess I’ll just keep talking about my abortion at dinner parties and hope that life teaches the Lila Roses of the world a little more and one day they’ll finally throw up their hands and say, “Yeah, I guess shit’s complicated.”

Atlanta, GA

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. Maya has previously worked at NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the National Institute for Reproductive Health and was a fellow at Mother Jones magazine. She graduated with a B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. A Minnesota native, she currently lives, writes, edits, and bakes bread in Atlanta, Georgia.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/aubzill/ Aubrey

    Great post.

  • http://feministing.com/members/tylik/ tylik

    Right on.

    Of course, it isn’t just abortion. Look at how often liberals are willing to cede the moral ground on sex more generally. I mean, obviously no one thinks that teenagers should have sex, but since they’re going to anyway…

    This is the language of the middle, and the language of compromise. And that’s a good thing, in its own place. (Politics without compromise is a grisly thing indeed.) But that doesn’t mean that everyone should shut up or become apologetic about these subjects.

  • http://feministing.com/members/genie3288/ Genie Leslie

    Great post. I sometimes have a hard time talking about abortion rights with people, because I would have an abortion if I found myself pregnant today, and I don’t fit into the usual categories. I have not been raped. I am not a teenager. I have a steady job and income (not really enough to support a child, but more than many people). I have family who would help me. I have a steady, long-term boyfriend who would help me. I just don’t want to have children. Not now. Not ever. But this is not seen as one of the more acceptable reasons for abortion. I think it’s great to point out that every reason is a personal reason for that woman, and you either believe in her right to make that choice, or you don’t.

  • http://feministing.com/members/itchbay/ Karen

    Yes. This. I don’t know why we’re still having this conversation.

    While I have all the sympathy in the world for rape victims who need abortion care in addition to their other care, forcing anyone to carry an unwanted pregnancy should be given the same amount of sympathy.

    I only support abortion with certain limitations. As in, when someone is pregnant and doesn’t want to be.

  • http://feministing.com/members/tetesagehen/ Tae Phoenix

    Great post!

    In some ways, this parallels the civil unions vs. marriage debate. Yes, we want marriage for same-sex couples, but civil unions are a good step in the right direction (comments from WA state senator Ed Murray starting at about 37:00), and they actually prime the pump for full marriage equality.

    I think that the rape and incest exceptions are a good way of getting those who are opposed to abortion because their mother and the pastor said it was wrong to look at the issue with some nuance and compassion for women who are pregnant and don’t want to be. And once they start seeing that the issue isn’t black and white (and indeed, it isn’t) then they may more easily accept abortion for anyone who is pregnant and doesn’t want to be.

  • http://feministing.com/members/veronicacharl10/ Veronica

    Personally, I think that forcing someone to have a baby against their will is a form of rape in and of itself. Simply because rape is often not actually about sex or sexual attraction, but about control of another human being. Taking that person’s life freedom and soul and strangling it. The victim of rape doesn’t get a say in it. Well, they do and that is “NO” but it’s not like a rapist ever gave a crap about what their victim wanted or didn’t want. The victim is not in control of their body, the rapist is.

    Forcing a woman to give birth when she doesn’t want to is no different. It’s about controlling female reproductive decisions. Controlling that woman’s life-changing decisions and controlling her future. It doesn’t matter if she was pregnant from rape, incest, or a broken condom or whatever reason. It’s telling her that she is no longer in control of her body or what happens to it. It’s put in someone else’s hands. Someone who has no idea what the circumstances of her life are or how she even got pregnant. It’s not the physical act of rape, it’s the indirect rape of her life. The “I don’t even know you but I’m going to force you to do this anyway” part of it.

  • http://feministing.com/members/erikaleelee/ Erika P.

    I actually find the reliance on ANY reason to be beside the point. In no other situation is a human legally required to use her own body to support anyone else. I don’t care what the reason is or how unsympathetic the character; to prohibit a woman from aborting infringes on her human rights, period.

  • http://feministing.com/members/sillysal181818/ Sally R Hannon

    Well said, thank you for this article.

  • http://feministing.com/members/fltc/ F.Toth

    I’m no good in abortion “debates” because I can’t see how any educated thinking person can believe that a fetus is human life. This is because I have some knowledge of science.

    And I know even the Catholic church was not vocal in abortion opposition until the 1900s, allowing it up until what they called “quickening” (which, btw, is about when most modern abortions are performed). So SICK of idiots pretending there’s a tradition being upheld when they stick their noses into women’s business. This is because I have some knowledge of history.

    The cell blob that became my daughter was biologically a parasite. I lived this.

    And becoming a mother made me even more prochoice, not less–pregnancy took a huge toll on me, physically, and motherhood does so mentally. NO ONE should be forced to do this against her will.

    And compassion? I am the sole support of two people because my daughter’s father, my husband, died when she was five. She has health issues that need daily care. I have no other family because it was small to begin with and both my mother and father are dead. I am in my mid-40s. The ONLY way I could get pregnant is to be raped, and since I nearly died giving birth to my daughter, even if I had the emotional resources to care for another child, I would probably die–leaving my child with no one– if forced to carry a child again.

    But abortion is always bad, right Mr. Akin???

  • http://feministing.com/members/redavis/ R E Davis

    The whole thing is insane. Why does anyone think it’s acceptable for our government to dictate which of us are allowed control over our bodies and reproduction and which of us are not?

    These people aren’t about protecting “life.” They’re about controlling the sexuality of women, and they’re proving that by conceding termination rights to ONLY those women they feel have been”legitimately” victimized.

    When you say it’s OK for the woman who was raped to have an abortion but no one else, then you’re qualifying according to manner of conception. “Oh, you didn’t consent to have any of the sex? Go then; terminate with our blessing!” “You? Wanton harlot who consented and enjoyed all the sex? You shall be punished with a baby! Suffer, whore!”

    This is about shaming and punishing. Period.

    I will NOT give on this, and I can’t believe that anyone who is pro-choice would. I will NOT question another women about her private and very personal life. I will NOT make another woman JUSTIFY her decision to terminate a pregnancy. I will NOT label some women as deserving of choice and others not.

  • http://feministing.com/members/twirlygirl/ Bethan

    Great read. I admire you for being so open about your own abortion, when so many people judge people and are against it all together. If it was such an awful thing, surely it would be illegal, right?
    I think until you are in that position yourself, you cannot judge anyone. Who knows how you would react? Saying something and doing something can be two totally different things.