Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion on CNN.
The Republican Party has a rape problem.
The conservative moment scored a major victory on Friday when the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, overturning Roe v. Wade – ending the era of federal protection for legal abortion in the United States and instituting one of the most significant rollbacks of civil rights in US history. But a number of Republican candidates and elected officials don’t seem content with simply stripping women of our right to control our own reproductive organs. They’re also taking aim at rape victims.
While rape and incest exceptions were once standard in anti-abortion laws, along with exceptions for a pregnant woman’s health or life, they are increasingly a thing of the past (health exceptions, too, are becoming much narrower and less common). This comes despite recent polling showing that the vast majority of Americans – 85%, according to Monmouth – support exceptions for rape, incest and to protect the life of the pregnant woman. As conservative states scramble to further criminalize abortion in the wake of Roe being overturned, many Republicans seem absolutely giddy with possibility, realizing that their control of a great many state legislatures gives them wide latitude to impose whatever restrictions they like.
And that means forcing rape and incest victims to carry pregnancies to term.
The rhetoric from Republicans from multiple states is astonishing in its outright cruelty.
In Virginia, GOP congressional candidate Yesli Vega, who also cited her time as a police officer, gave credence to an absurd untruth – that a woman who is raped may have a lower chance of getting pregnant. Axios published audio recordings of her comments on Monday.
According to those published recordings, Vega said, “The left will say, ‘What about in cases of rape or incest?’” and then claimed that, in her years in law enforcement, she only saw one rape case in which a woman became pregnant. (She did not seem to consider that she wouldn’t necessarily know about a pregnancy a rape victim terminated. Particularly given Vega’s open hostility to abortion rights – what victim would confide in her?).
A woman at the event then asked a question premised on a bizarre and false theory: “I’ve actually heard that it’s harder for a woman to get pregnant if she’s been raped. Have you heard that?” To which Vega responded that she didn’t know, but “it wouldn’t surprise me. Because it’s not something that’s happening organically. You’re forcing it. The individual, the male, is doing it as quickly – it’s not like, you know – and so I can see why there is truth to that. It’s unfortunate.”
It should surprise her, because the idea is so plainly misogynistic and unscientific that anyone who gives it any airtime at all is by definition unfit to serve in any elected office – or as a law enforcement officer.
But Vega isn’t the only Republican whose views on rape are positively medieval.
Last fall, Ohio US Senate candidate JD Vance called pregnancies from rape merely “inconvenient” and emphasized that in matters relating to pregnancy resulting from rape, “The question to me is really about the baby.” (Apparently the woman matters very little, if at all.) Earlier this year, Ohio Republican Rep. Jean Schmidt said that her state’s law criminalizing abortion gave child rape victims the “opportunity” to “help that life be a productive human being.”
That is, if a child victim makes it that far. Pregnancy and childbirth complications are the leading killer of girls aged 15-19 worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. And adolescent motherhood means that girls are more likely to be in abusive relationships; that they wind up poorer; that they and their children are less likely to reach their educational potential; and that their children are less healthy and are more likely to die in infancy.
We know this: Women who are forced to carry pregnancies to term are more likely to die than women who can get the safe, legal abortions they seek. Laws criminalizing abortion are a death sentence for women – especially in a country with the highest maternal mortality rates in the industrialized world, and where maternal mortality is highest in the states with the strictest anti-abortion laws.
Republicans know this, too. They seem to have decided it doesn’t matter.
On Saturday, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem said that when it comes to her state’s abortion criminalization law that does not allow exceptions for rape survivors or children impregnated by a family member, “I just have never believed that having a tragedy or tragic situation happened to someone is a reason to have another tragedy occur.” And just this week, in a stunningly callous interview with CNN’s Pamela Brown, Rep. Warren Davidson of Ohio applauded his state’s strict anti-abortion law, which outlaws abortion roughly six weeks after the first day of a woman’s last menstrual period with few exceptions and without any exemption for rape or incest.
“What happens when a twelve-year-old girl falls pregnant after being raped?” Brown asked him. “Are you ok with her being forced to carry that fetus to term?”
“You don’t know you were raped for two months?” Warren asked, as if women and girls seeking abortions after rape are either liars, idiots or irresponsible. “I think it’s a great law,” he said. “And it is a compromise.” The “compromise,” apparently, is that most rape and incest victims are forced to carry pregnancies to term. That, Warren reiterated, didn’t bother him. “It’s hard to conceive of somebody who doesn’t know they were raped for two months,” he said.
It’s not hard for me to conceive of, because I’ve met a girl in the exact position Pamela Brown described. She was 12, raped by a family friend and forced to carry the pregnancy to term because she lives in Honduras, where abortion is illegal in nearly all cases (in the story I wrote about her, I gave her the pseudonym “Sofia”). When I met her, she was heavily pregnant and clutching a stuffed bunny – her primary confidante about a situation she didn’t quite understand. The thing about children is that they trust adults; and young children, like Sofia, don’t always know what sex is, or what rape is, or what pregnancy entails. When Sofia found out she was going to have a baby, she asked if she could have a doll instead.
Rape is a trauma. Even adult women who, unlike little girls, probably understand what sex and pregnancy even are may not realize they’re pregnant right away because they’re still reeling from their bodies being so intimately violated – they may be dissociating or in denial or simply too overwhelmed to notice the signs of pregnancy. Many trauma survivors go to great lengths to avoid fearful memories that can trigger post-traumatic stress and send them spiraling – and this certainly means that a great many rape survivors, in order to keep surviving, shut down any thoughts at all that have to do with their sexual health or reproductive organs.
The harm of rape is a physical invasion, but it’s also a crime of power and control – it tells a victim that her body is not hers, that it’s subject to the will of another (usually a man). Laws that criminalize abortion do the same – and while all laws criminalizing abortion are unconscionable, those without exceptions for rape and incest are utterly inhumane. Women and girls who are raped and refused abortions face the magnified trauma of having their most intimate and often most pleasurable body parts violated, followed by being told that they have no right to determine the outcome of that violation – that, for a second time, they have no right to say “no,” and that their bodies can be controlled against their will.
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Forcing a girl or woman to give birth after she was forced into sex are fundamentally inseparable cruelties. And their increasing prevalence in laws that regulate or ban abortion reflect a Republican Party that has grown ever more radical and comfortable with blatant misogyny in the past decade. Back in 2012, when Missouri senate candidate Todd Akin made comments similar to Yesli Vega’s, it not only sunk his campaign, but was a moment so shocking and definitional that it headlined his obituary in news outlets when he passed away last year.
But that was then. Now, the Republican Party has lined up behind a man who has bragged about sexual assault and said that “there has to be some form of punishment” women who have abortions. They have coalesced around the idea that a woman is not a full citizen, and that she has fewer rights over her own internal organs than an embryo or a dead person.
The GOP has become the party of hostile misogyny. And Republicans’ mistreatment of rape victims is just the beginning.