“Smile: Your Mother Chose Life,” a series of posters beamed throughout the Yard. But you, if you are a Harvard female, have a few reasons to be less flippant about your potential motherhood. In the United States, as a college-age female you are a member of the single most at-risk group for sexual violence. One in five female college students will be sexually assaulted by the time they graduate. Although accurate data on pregnancies due to rape is notoriously difficult to obtain, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network estimates that five percent of rape survivors become pregnant. Even when the pregnancy test comes back negative, often those uncertain moments, hours, or days remain a harrowing memory.
No one can tell a rape survivor how she must feel. To imply, as some pro-life politicians do, that rape is only one tiny tumor wrapped up in that great gift of fertility is crass and insensitive, to say the least. No one but a rape survivor can decide whether her ordeal was a blessing, pregnancy or no. Not when one out of three survivors will develop rape-related post-traumatic stress disorder. Not when rape can cause or is linked to sexually transmitted diseases, flashbacks, eating disorders, sleeping disorders, self-harm, depression, suicide, Stockholm syndrome, borderline personality disorder, and dissociative identity disorder.
It is a common refrain among the pro-life contingency that an abortion replicates the violence of rape on the fetus. But rape is not strictly a “violence.” It is not like getting hit in the face or stabbed with a knife. It is a violation. It is someone deciding that your body is not your own to do with as you see fit. It is someone bull-dozing over your right to consent or decline. It is manipulating a vulnerable person—sometimes a child, a subordinate, a family member—into unwanted sex. It is taking advantage of an incapacitated person. It is believing that a woman does not know what she truly wants. That a man knows better. That “no” actually means “yes.”
Do you know what else violates women? Telling a woman that she has no control over her body: That a single insentient cell, which has more in common with a bacterium than with a human, is the only part of her that matters. That killing this single cell is equivalent to what her rapist did to her—regardless of whether she has developed serious PTSD and cannot handle the stress of the pregnancy, or is on medication that would seriously harm or kill the fetus, or is too young to safely carry a child to term.
What violates women is reiterating to survivors that abortion is risky to women’s mental health and can lead to even worse post-trauma problems—a claim that has been thoroughly debunked many times. Those same forces rely on an outdated and unscientific study, in which only thirty-seven women were surveyed, to claim that up to 80 percent of rape victims choose not to abort and therefore no woman should ever be given that choice. They would rather send vulnerable women to anti-abortion Crisis Pregnancy Centers, which distribute information that a US Congressional Report found to be false or misleading 87 percent of the time.
Violation is when people poster Harvard dorms, as Harvard Right to Life did in 2004, with a picture of a woman stating, "I was raped and therefore 'justified' in my abortion, but it didn't change a thing. I suffered because I was led to believe that taking my child's life was okay. It was not.” Such insensitive propaganda campaigns force every woman who was every raped to relive her own experience of powerlessness and shame.
Violation is when anti-abortion activists protest and harass women in front of Planned Parenthood, one of the largest organizations for women’s health as well as the nation’s most reliable way to obtain STD and pregnancy tests. It is shouting “It’s a child, not a choice!” at women who might be entering the building because they need an HIV test after a rape.
Harvard Right to Life, the Daughters of Isabella, and the Knights of Columbus can find ways to reduce the number of abortions by pushing for sexual education, easy access to contraception, services for young or poor mothers, or for legislation that would prevent a rapist from gaining custody of the child. They need not re-victimize some of the most vulnerable and invisible members of society. Rape survivors have lived through enough.
Samantha Berstler ’14 is an English concentrator living in Kirkland House.