Because rape is such a delicate and horrific topic, people who are otherwise pro-life often concede to exceptions for rape victims. This is inconsistent with the pro-life position: the circumstances of your conception do not change what you are. Here is a look at the data surrounding rape and abortion, and a framework for responding to pro-aborts on this topic.
I made a free pro-life cheat sheet to help keep you focused when you’re talking to a pro-abort. Pop your email in the form below and get a copy in your inbox immediately.
Rape and Abortion: The Data
If you prefer to listen, check out the podcast on the data surrounding rape and abortion here,
The data surrounding rape is murky. Many factors cause this, among them underreporting and varying definitions of rape between jurisdictions. Still, we can start to assemble the data on rape as it relates to abortion. I will look at this from two different angles. First, I will consider the proportion of rapes resulting in abortions. I will then compare that to the proportion of abortions that result from rapes.
When Rape Results in Abortion
Around 4 to 7% of rape victims become pregnant. In 1996, researchers performed a longitudinal study of 4,008 women [Holmes et al; NB: I have access only to the abstract of this study at this time]. They found a rate of 32,101 pregnancies, or 5% impregnation, among victims of reproductive age (12-45) [ibid.]. This is consistent with other estimates, which vary between 3.1% and 7.98% [Pregnancy After Rape, p. 3].
It is not clear how often pregnant victims seek abortion. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) reports that approximately 10,000 to 15,000 women per year seek abortion as a result of rape [Pregnancy After Rape, p. 3]. Based on these numbers, between 31.15 and 46.73% of pregnant victims seek abortion [(10,000/32,101)*100; (15,000/32,101)*100].
This is similar to the results of the 1996 study. There, researchers found that 50% of the women sought abortion, while 32.2% kept the child, 11.8% miscarried, and 5.9% gave the child to an adoptive home [Holmes et al]. This abortion rate is only slightly higher than the 42% abortion rate for all unintended pregnancies in the United States [Guttmacher (1), fn. 2 (NB: Guttmacher is a pro-abortion group, unlikely to skew data in favor of the pro-life cause)].
When Abortion Results From Rape
Nevertheless, rape is rarely the reason women seek abortion. Women self-report rape as a reason they seek abortion only 1% of the time [Guttmacher (2), p. 113]. Additionally, women reported rape as the most important reason for their abortion less than 0.5% of the time [Guttmacher (3)].
The ACOG’s data indicates a range of abortions resulting from rape. The CDC reported an average of 655,583 abortions per year from 2012-2016. Using the high end of the ACOG’s estimated range, rape is the cause of ~2.3% of abortions per year [(15,000/655,583)*100; see also Perry et al (finding an overall rate of 1.9% of abortions resulting from rape but noting large geographical variations)].
But not all states report all abortions to the CDC. Guttmacher estimates an average of 933,900 abortions per year for the same five-year period [Guttmacher (4), p. 1, Table 1]. In that case, rape would be the cause of ~1.6% of abortions per year. The low range of the ACOG’s estimates with the Guttmacher and CDC numbers would make rape the cause of between ~1.1% and ~1.5% of abortions, respectively.
Based on the data, we see that a small proportion of abortions result from rape: between about 1 and 2.3%. The upper end of that range is spurious and based on faulty data. It represents the worst case scenario that the numbers could justify. But Guttmacher’s more complete information — both the self-reported cases and the estimates of abortion incidence — indicates that rape is the cause of only about 1-1.1% of abortions.
We also see that a large proportion of rapes that result in pregnancy also result in abortion: between 31.15 and 50%. However, that range is similar to the 42% of total unplanned pregnancies that result in abortions. Women who choose abortion because of rape do not do so, at most, only 8% more often than women who have an unplanned pregnancy for other reasons.
Rape and Abortion: The Defense
Although only a small percentage of yearly abortions result from rape, in almost every conversation about abortion the pro-abort will ask “but what about rape?” First, I want to explore exactly why rape exceptions are not consistent with the pro-life cause. Second, I want to explore some strategies for answering the “rape” question.
Why Rape Is Not An Exception
The basic argument for a rape exception is as follows: a woman who has been raped has been violated. If we require her to carry the rapist’s baby to term, we are subjecting her to further violation. After all, the woman will suffer the effects of a pregnancy to which she did not consent, and be responsible for the child of her rapist.
Notice how this argument subtly assumes that there is a morally significant difference between a pre-born and a born child. We know that this is false: there are no morally significant differences between the different stages of human development. That means that if a reason would not justify killing a born child, it doesn’t justify killing a pre-born child either. We can clearly see that rape doesn’t justify abortion if we “trot out the toddler.”
Some thought experiments
1. Imagine a woman, A, who is trying to become pregnant with her husband. One night, A is drugged and raped. She later discovers that she is pregnant. However, A is not sure who impregnated her. She decides to keep the baby, because it might be her and her husband’s baby. When the baby is born, A discovers that her husband is not the father. Would this be a justification to euthanize the infant? Of course it would not.
2. Finally, the rapist is caught. He is arrested, charged with the crime, and confesses in full. The rapist does not dispute a single fact: he is absolutely guilty, and he admits it. He is even a perfect paternal DNA match for A’s daughter. In the time since he raped A, he met another woman, B, and had a child with her. Would the fact that B’s child is the son of a rapist be a justification to euthanize that child? Of course it would not.
3. Let us change the facts slightly. A’s daughter is born and even then there is no definitive answer to the paternity question. It is not until the child turns two that she begins to look like her father — not A’s husband, but the rapist. Now, when A looks at her daughter, A relives the trauma of the assault. B also is disgusted with the rapist, and sees him in her own child’s face. Would this be a justification to euthanize either toddler? Of course it would not.
What do these tell us?
These three scenarios illustrate why rape exceptions are logically inconsistent with the pro-life position. (1) We do not kill children conceived in rape. (2) We do not kill children because their father is a rapist — indeed, in the U.S., states are not permitted to apply the death penalty to rapists, even child rapists. (3) We do not kill children because they repulse their mothers. Most would rightly insist that if the mother could no longer care for the child she should give him up to adoption rather than kill him.
We recognize the great injustice of rape. We must also recognize that abortion compounds one injustice with another. Abortion asks a child to die for the sins of her father. This violates the child in the same way as the rapist violated the woman — in fact, in a more final way. The woman may heal, may conquer the trauma of rape, and thereby may conquer her rapist, taking power back from him. The child will never heal from the abortion. This is not a just solution to the evil of rape.
Neither does abortion fix the trauma of rape for the woman. Rape is horrible. It is an act of violence and power that dehumanizes its victims. It should not be tolerated in any form, and society should punish rapists severely. But the horror of rape is not undone by abortion. Indeed, studies have demonstrated that abortion increases the grief and trauma associated with the rape [Pregnancy after Rape, p. 3]. After rape, abortion often further wounds one victim, and it always kills another.
How to Answer the Question
Pro-aborts (and commentators) clearly understand that rape exceptions are logically inconsistent with the pro-life position. For instance, one pro-abort plainly states that
“lives conceived through rape are fundamentally no different than fetuses conceived otherwise,” and therefore a rape exception “destroys the ‘pro-life’ belief of many anti-abortionists” [Your Pro-Choice Cheat Sheet; see also Psychology Today (noting the contradiction between “life begins at conception” and 59% of pro-lifers supporting rape exceptions)].
Good Faith or Bad Faith?
Unfortunately, some pro-aborts will use rape because of its emotive power. They will try to force you onto the horns of a dilemma: either compromise your pro-life position by agreeing to an inconsistent exception, or take the unenviable position of “further victimizing” rape victims. These pro-aborts ask this question in bad faith.
Other pro-aborts will ask this question because they genuinely don’t understand your position. Therefore, they don’t understand why a rape exception would be logically inconsistent with your position. They are not trying to force you onto the horns of a dilemma.
To find out whether I’m dealing with someone asking in good faith or bad, I ask one question: “Before I answer that, if I agree to an exception for rape victims, would you agree to help eliminate elective abortions?” The answer from pro-aborts is always no. Then, I ask, “why not?” Lastly, I like to ask, “do you think an exception for rape is consistent with my position as you understand it?” Their answers will give me insight into whether they understand my position and how I should respond.
The last question does a lot of heavy lifting. It helps you find out how the other person understands your position. If they say no, exceptions aren’t consistent, that may be a hint that they are asking in bad faith. If they say yes, you can further pin down where they misunderstand the pro-life position.
The easy way
I err on the side of caution and assume the person I’m dealing with is a rational human being asking in good faith. That’s why I usually take the easy way.
I first point out that rape is the cause of a very small percentage of abortions. “But your problem isn’t with my stance on abortion for rape victims,” I say. “Your problem is with my stance on the average abortion — the elective abortion.” I ask, “how can we agree on the rare cases until we understand each other on the regular cases?” Most people agree this makes sense.
If they insist on an answer to the rape question, or when it comes up again, I typically walk people through the thought experiments above. After each one, I ask when it would be appropriate to kill the toddler. Another powerful point to make is the rapist can’t be punished with death even with a trial; why can we punish the child with death even with a trial? The pro-abort will typically voice some difference between the born and pre-born child that would justify killing the pre-born child. Then, I walk back through the SLED framework with them, and figure out to which category their proposed difference belongs.
This is a recursive process, because you must help them change the frame through which they see the issue. For many pro-aborts, this is a massive change. It will take time. That’s why you need to work hard to avoid red herrings and focus on the real issue at hand: what is growing inside the woman’s womb, and what does abortion do to it?
The hard way — a defense of incivility
However, if it is clear that a pro-abort is asking in bad faith, and using rhetoric about rape to try and corner me, I do not play along; neither should you. Where someone makes a bad-faith argument, I am always willing to call them out on it and shame them for it. (NB: When I mention incivility, here, I do not mean any sort of violence, but only a willingness to sacrifice politeness in order to defend life. Violence has no place in pro-life conversations.)
I want to emphasize that I always try to keep conversations civil, especially when others are watching. We should always treat our enemies with respect and tell the truth about who they are and what they believe. When others see us argue, we should leave an impression of respect, fervor, and sincerity. I only take an aggressive tack like this when a pro-abort has made it clear that they are going to be intentionally deceptive in their argumentation.
Civility is an excellent starting point. However, civility in the wrong context normalizes certain arguments. Certain arguments should not be normalized. For instance, no argument for pedophilia is acceptable. Pedophilia is and should be shameful in a civil society. If we engage with the arguments made, we permit pedophiles to normalize their disgusting behavior and harm children.
When we are civil with people who make bad-faith arguments for abortion, we allow them to victimize children in a horrific way. We also allow onlookers to be led astray if we do not speak the truth about an argument: not only that it is wrong, but that it is being employed in a dishonest way. Treat civility as normative, but not inviolable. Children’s lives may depend on it.
The hard way — an example
I recently found myself the only pro-lifer in a room of four other people, arguing with a bro-abort. He told me that he did not want to be responsible to a child simply because he had sex (his language was more graphic). In the course of our later conversation, he brought up rape victims and claimed that I was callous and indifferent toward these women.
I asked him if he would eliminate elective abortions. He said no. I asked why not. He reiterated that he wanted responsibility-free sex. He also said he thought an exception would be inconsistent with my position. I think he believed that he had me on the horns of a dilemma: give an inconsistent answer, or be “callous” in front of a sympathetic audience of other pro-aborts.
The bad part was not that he knew my position and was trying for a ‘gotcha’ moment. That happens all the time, and is part of fair play in argumentation. Rather, he exploited the trauma of rape victims to do this. He was using this rare and particularly emotional kind of abortion to justify the kind of abortions he wanted — elective abortion for any reason. He wanted women to be responsibility-free sex objects and he was using rape victims to try and shut me down.
You can see how playing nice in a situation like this is a losing proposition. The pro-abort has framed you as either callous or inconsistent, neither of which are good things. Getting outside of that framework is very difficult. The easy way can work, because it shifts the focus of the conversation back to what is growing in the woman’s body. But I have found it far more effective to push back on the pro-abort in a more aggressive way.
The hard way — name it and shame it
When a pro-abort intentionally exploits the trauma of rape victims, you should expose their strategy and pour scorn on it. In dealing with this bro-choicer, I pointed out that he had twice stated his reasons for supporting abortion: responsibility-free sex. I pointed out that his reasons for supporting abortion had nothing to do with rape victims. He was exploiting rape victims for his own sexual agenda. This was not about supporting women, for him — it was about getting laid. “That’s intellectually dishonest,” I said. “If I exploited rape victims to get laid, what would you call me?”
No one clapped (because this is real life and not tumblr), but the energy in the room clearly shifted. Other people called him on his inconsistency as well, and he did not speak up for the rest of the night. No one converted to the pro-life cause, but they did see that I was genuinely concerned for women and rape victims. Had I been civil, I would have faced a long, uphill battle to convince the same people of the same thing.
Another common example of bad-faith actors are people who use the slur “rape babies.” These people ostensibly want to protect rape victims, but they use a slur that stigmatizes a both babies conceived in rape and the women who keep them. Of course, this typically comes after they deny that a fetus is a baby, and demand you use a different term so as not to manipulate emotions. Then, they call the same fetus a “rape baby” to dehumanize and to manipulate emotions. Name it and shame it.
Judo is a martial art that focuses on using your opponents’ strengths against them. This is a form of verbal judo. The optics are your opponent’s strength. But, because his footing is dishonest and incoherent, your opponent’s greatest strength can also be his greatest weakness. A man who digs a pit will fall into it — and if he dug the pit for you, don’t hesitate to push him into it.
I know this has been a long post, but I think that knowing this data and having these defense strategies is absolutely vital to persuading people to join the pro-life cause. Please feel free to share your favorite responses to the question of rape and abortion in the comments.
Enter your email below to get my free pro-life cheat sheet and notifications of new content!
Here’s a brief outline of everything we covered in this post.
- Rape only accounts for ~1% of abortions.
- Although many women who have been raped do choose abortion, they do so at a rate comparable to other unplanned pregnancies.
Exceptions are inconsistent
- Rape exceptions are logically inconsistent with the pro-life position, for at least three reasons:
- (1) It is wrong to kill children who are conceived in rape. How you were conceived does not change what you are.
- (2) It is wrong to kill children because their father is a rapist. The rapist is a monster, true, but the child is not. Further, if we don’t give rapists the death penalty, why should we give it to their children?
- (3) It is wrong to kill children because they repulse their mothers. Our human rights do not depend on how our mother feels about us.
- Rape exceptions do not serve women who have been raped, because abortion does not cure rape trauma, and may often exacerbate it.
How to respond
- When pro-aborts bring up the question of rape, we need to find out whether they are doing so in good faith by asking three questions:
- (1) If I agree to an exception in the case of rape, would you agree to join me and eliminate elective abortions?
- (2) If not, why not?
- (3) Do you think that an exception in the case of rape is consistent with my position on abortion?
- If a person is acting in good faith, we point out that abortion rarely results from rape.
- Since our disagreement is about elective abortions, we should discuss those first and return to rape when we have a better understanding.
- Then we walk through the thought experiments.
- If the person is not acting in good faith, we name it and shame it.
- Point out how the person is exploiting rape victims.
- Ask what they would call you if you did the same.
- Examples: using abortions from rape (rare) to justify elective abortions (very common) because elective abortions benefit your opponent; using a slur like “rape babies,” especially after insisting that “its a fetus and not a baby.”