Hours after Roe v. Wade – the landmark decision which protected a woman’s right to have an abortion in the US – was overturned, a relative of mine came running down the stairs.
“So if a woman is raped in the street or by a relative, she has to keep it?” they yelled in disbelief.
They were right to be horrified. The decision by the Supreme Court, after almost 50 years, has already seen the procedure either banned or under serious threat in over half the US, putting millions of women in danger.
With that in mind, it’s understandable to think immediately of those who are the most vulnerable to Roe’s overturning, with tweets such as “WHAT ABOUT THE RAPE VICTIMS!?” or “What about the rights of children raped by their uncles?” echoed to large engagement.
Yet, however genuinely well-meaning reactions like this might be, perpetuating the idea that a woman needs to be violated in order to be granted bodily autonomy – as some states have in their abortion exceptions for rape and incest – is both dangerous and ill-informed.
Take, for instance, the fact that a few weeks ago, I had a pregnancy scare in a sexual health clinic. This had happened because I’d forgotten to get my implant changed, and I unintentionally had unprotected sex for five months. I knew I didn’t want kids right now and I was horrified that a pregnancy might have already happened.
A quick conversation with a friend grounded me. She reminded me that, while risky, unprotected sex doesn’t always mean pregnancy. And if there was one, I didn’t have to go through with it, because we live in a country where we can access termination pills quickly via telemedicine.
Ultimately, everything was fine. I’m not currently pregnant and, while I perhaps will be one day, I’m glad I had choices available to me in a moment of fear.
However, reading through people’s comments in the aftermath of this week’s decision, it’s clear that anyone asking for an abortion because they’ve simply been enjoying sex and an unwanted pregnancy has occurred, is at best undesirable and at worst unacceptable. “What about the rape victims?” seems to be the argument du jour – even for well-intentioned people like my relative.
We have a culture of purity ingrained so deeply in our society that, whether we like it or not, we often gravitate to the purest examples of “perfect victims” when fighting for injustice. In the Weinstein trial and the more recent Depp v. Heard trial, the public judged victims based on their notion of “perfection”, with Heard’s character and past, in particular, critiqued alongside the trial’s evidence.
The same idea shows up in arguments about whether rape victims – or in this case, those seeking abortion – are “worthy” of support. It creates a value system for women requesting government help. And now, it’s being repeated in abortion discourse with tweets like: “I’m pro-choice! But I’m also pro-responsibility! Not my problem you can’t keep your legs closed.”
Yet overlooking people who get pregnant from casual sex and don’t want to continue with the pregnancy because it’s not as sympathetic, or “valuable” a story, is not the way forward.
Sexual freedom is central to reproductive freedom and the two are undoubtedly linked. The barriers to achieving both are often the same, including obstacles to access health services, information and education. And within both sexual freedom and reproductive freedom, those from minority backgrounds such as disabled people, people of colour and LGBTQ+ people suffer disproportionately. Embracing and protecting the women who need abortions but don’t fit into an outdated narrative of purity and innocence is paramount.
It’s also a waste of time to attempt tugging at the heartstrings of the Supreme Court – or any other governing body – by bringing up rape and sexual assault. Whether it’s in the UK or across the pond, governments have repeatedly proven that they don’t recognise rape as an urgent problem worthy of significant action. That can be seen in the lack of fair sentencing for rapists, the lack of education around sexual freedom, and how many rape cases are completely dismissed.
Rape exceptions for otherwise illegal abortions are so vague that further medical examinations are needed to prove rape has happened. Most of the time, a rape victim will have to prove she’s been raped, physically, and report the crime to even get on the waiting list. Both of these steps open women up to vast, unnecessary trauma – as if an unwanted pregnancy from a man who didn’t have permission to touch you isn’t traumatic enough.
When fighting for abortion rights, focusing on pregnancies conceived traumatically won’t urge anti-abortionists to change their mind. It will only alienate those around you who have had or considered abortions in situations outside of rape or incest, and now understand your support doesn’t apply to them.
After all, many of us know and love someone who has had an abortion – and that includes people that just want to fuck for their own pleasure, and didn’t fancy becoming a parent.