Medical Right protests rights' groups support for rape survivors
As part of its worldwide campaign to fight violence against women, Amnesty
International recognized for the first time that women have a right to
access abortion in limited cases -- rape, incest, violence and jeopardy to
a woman’s life or health. The organization’s delegates overwhelmingly
approved the new policy at a meeting in Mexico City in August.
This modest human rights step is bringing blasts
of protest from organizations associated with the Medical Right. In the
process, analysis of their positions reveals the extent to which they are
willing to force women to bear children against their will, even when the
pregnancy is the product of violence, forced sex, rape, war, genocide or incest.
Amnesty, which has 2 million members in 74 countries, stated that violence
against women and girls is a “global pandemic” in a press
release on July 14, 2007. “Upholding human rights, including women’s
sexual and reproductive rights, is essential to preventing and ending gender-based
violence.” For women’s human rights to be realized, Amnesty said.“Women
must have access to safe and legal abortion services in cases of unwanted
pregnancy as a result of rape, sexual assault or incest” and “where
continuation of pregnancy poses a risk to their life or grave risk to their
health.” Obstructing rape survivors’ access to abortion is a violation
of their human rights, as is imprisonment or criminal sanctions for seeking
or having an abortion, said Amnesty. The organization also opposes forced
abortion and sterilization.
The reaction from those
who oppose abortion in all cases is sharp and ongoing. In a radio commentary
on September 13 called “No Amnesty for the Unborn,” Family
Research Council President Tony Perkins jabbed Amnesty as betraying its
mission. “You don’t have to be a religious person to understand
that violence against women shouldn’t be answered by violence against
the unborn,” said Perkins.
Bishop William S. Skylstad, president of the United
States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in an August 23 statement
that the conference “strongly protests” the Amnesty policy and
called for a reversal. Catholics, he said, should work with organizations
that “do not oppose the fundamental right to life from conception to
natural death.” Two days earlier, Cardinal
Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, condemned Amnesty.
“(W)e must always save life even if it is the fruit of violence,”
Last November, when the policy change was being considered, Representative
Chris Smith (R-NJ), head of the House Pro-Life Caucus, held a press conference
and asked Amnesty to remain neutral on abortion.
Since the vote, Catholic colleges and churches have been pressured to drop
Amnesty activities. On October 8, the Texas
Catholic bishops issued a statement instructing all Catholic organizations
and parish and diocesan staff to stop participating in projects and events
sponsored by Amnesty. Since the bulk of Amnesty’s work is done by local
chapters and consists of letter-writing and educational campaigns to stop
human rights abuses worldwide, the bishops’ request seemed to be more
punitive than practical. However, since Amensty groups often meet in churches
and receive considerable support from Catholic churches, the bishops' instruction
could have dire effects on Amnesty's effectiveness.
The harsh attitudes of the Medical and Religious Right toward women who are
raped are often shrouded from public view. An exception was the 2006 South
Dakota campaign to make abortion a crime except to save a woman’s life.
Religious Right groups actively lobbied for legislation that would make abortion
illegal for rape and incest survivors (voters rejected the law in November
the fans of the legislation were the Christian Medical and Dental Associations
(CMDA), Focus on the Family, Abstinence Clearinghouse, Family Research Council,
Concerned Women for America and the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians
and Gynecologists. Advertisements for the ban tried to hide the fact that
abortion would be denied to rape and incest victims. A
state-appointed task force report, prepared by anti-abortion legislators,
minimized the consequences of the law for rape victims. Only one of the 72
pages addresses rape or incest. It states that few rapes result in pregnancy
and quotes approvingly Dr. J.C. Willke,
founder of National Right to Life Committee: “We must approach this
with great compassion. The woman has been subjected to an ugly trauma ….
Should we now ask her to be party to a second violent act—that of abortion?”
The placement of fetal “right to life” above the medical needs
of rape survivors is longstanding. Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk of the National
Catholic Bioethics Center stated the anti-abortion position clearly: “In
the final analysis, rape is unable to ever justify abortion,” he wrote
in a Catholic publication. In
its 50 “Ethics Statements,” the Christian Medical and Dental Associations
(CMDA) addresses rape in one line, under the topic of human sexuality.
“We condemn the perversion of sexuality in pornography, rape, incest,”
it states. A CMDA statement adopted in July 2007 on “abuse of human
life” gives examples of persecution, human trafficking, prostitution
and “coerced retrieval of gametes,” but avoids mentioning rape.
In explanation, CMDA states that most “conservative Christians”
accept the absolute prohibition on abortion of the Roman Catholic Church,
although the group has admitted that there is “some variety” of
The Catholic Church’s
current medical care guidelines (2001, Ethical and Religious Directives
for Catholic Health Care) call for “compassionate and understanding
care” for a victim of sexual assault. Directive 36 states: “A
female who has been raped should be able to defend herself against a potential
conception from the sexual assault.” However, compassionate care is
narrowly construed: “It is not permissible … to recommend treatments
that have as their purpose or direct effect the removal, destruction, or interference
with the implantation of a fertilized ovum.”
Previously, anti-abortion groups relied upon the argument of the fetus’s
right to life to deny abortion to raped women. “A child conceived in
abuse is still an innocent bystander who does not deserve to suffer for her
father’s sins,” wrote Pamela Wong of Concerned
Women for America.
A second argument, now forwarded with equal intensity, consciously adopts
“compassionate care” for women rape survivors and holds that they
are better-served by carrying a pregnancy from rape to term. David Reardon
of the Elliot Institute, whose book,
“Victims and Victors,” is an unscientific selection of anecdotal
stories, concludes that women impregnated by rape don’t want an abortion
and, if they do have an abortion, they will suffer for it.
Father Frank Pavone of the virulently anti-abortion Priests
for Life explained the strategy of using “compassionate” language.
“Before we even mention abortion, we should stress that we agree totally
that the woman who has been raped has undergone a terrible trauma ….
Stress this point strongly,” he advised. Then state, he said, that “not
only does the abortion not alleviate the trauma of the rape, but it brings
a trauma of its own …. (O)ur reason for denying the rape victim an abortion
is not based on insensitivity but rather on compassion.”
The repeated efforts to obscure the doctrinaire and exceptionally harsh
positions of the Medical Right toward women who are survivors of rape or incest
is not hard to understand: the public does not agree.
A CBS News poll
conducted in October 2007 found that only four percent of the 1,143 registered
voters agreed that abortion should never be available, while 76 percent believed
that abortion should be permitted in situations that include rape and incest.
An NBC News/Wall Street
Journal poll in April 2007 found that 88 percent of the 1,004 adults polled
thought that abortion should be available in cases when the pregnancy results
from rape, incest or when the life of the woman is at risk.
Clearly, the Medical Right has a big job ahead of it to convince the public
that most women want to carry children conceived in rape and incest.
October 5, 2007; updated October 25, 2007
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