A Pro-Life Feminist Critique of the “Rape and Incest Exception”

Posted on May 23, 2017 By

Editor’s note: On May 29, 2024, the author found that the link to Shauna Prewitt’s article as a PDF no longer worked, and so this post is slight revised to link to the issue of the law journal that has the article; getting the article itself now involves a charge. 

 by Rachel MacNair

Pregnancies resulting from the horror of a rape or incest are often proposed as cases where there should be an exception to allow or fund abortion even when it’s not allowed or funded for other pregnancies.  I’ll propose several reasons why this is a bad idea.

We Oppose Abortion as Violence, Not as a Result of Sex

Ruth Graham, a pro-choice Slate writer, recently discussed the “rape exception”:

“An exception to a rule often illuminates the rule’s essence. Take the rape exception to abortion restrictions. If abortion is what opponents say it is—the killing of a human being—then it’s not clear why the circumstances of conception should affect its legality. But if abortion restrictions are also about punishing women for sexual behavior, then a rape exception makes perfect sense: If it’s not her ‘fault’ she got pregnant, it’s only fair that she should be exempt from punishment.”

The way I’ve always put this point is: we don’t oppose abortion because we have a hang-up about what kind of sex the woman had. And of course we absolutely don’t regard having a baby as “punishment.”

Aimee Murphy

Aimee Murphy, co-founder of Rehumanize International, offers her personal experience: “I shared  . . . my story of how I became pro-life; how I was raped at 16 and months later thought I was pregnant – by my rapist, no less. How my rapist had threatened to kill me if I didn’t have an abortion. How I had realized that I couldn’t be like my rapist and use violence against those who were inconvenient or smaller than I and how I rejected abortion as an option.”

The question that needs to be asked of those who favor a rape exception, or who think that the pro-life position they normally oppose becomes especially extreme if there isn’t even a rape exception, is:

Rebecca Kiessling

Are you willing to look a woman straight in the eye and tell her, “I know you were conceived in a rape, and therefore, your life has less value than other people’s lives”? If so, one woman to do that to is Rebecca Kiessling, an attorney and international speaker. She’s good at straightening people out on this point quickly.



Legislation is a separate question. We might well put up with a “rape and incest” exception if needed for passage of a pro-life law. It’s better to get something imperfect passed than to get nothing at all. But that’s legislative strategy, where compromises are expected. It’s not principle.

On principle, we want to make abortion unthinkable, no matter what the legal status is.

Adding to the Trauma

Asserting that it’s somehow obvious that there should be an exception for rape is saying that pregnancy through rape is so horrendous that it’s worth killing an innocent child in order to avoid it. That’s outrageous pressure for an abortion. What the mother needs is support and care and a listening ear. She certainly doesn’t need any more stigma.

In some cases, people will even assume she’s lying about having been raped – surely she would have aborted if her story was true. Women already have enough trouble being believed.

Raped women have already been through one traumatic experience. The trauma of having a doctor reach up inside and tear her baby to shreds is not one she should be expected to face. Those who push a rape “exception” think they’re turning back the clock. But once a baby is there, her mother should not be pushed into another trauma.

What sounds especially strange to the pro-life feminist ear is when people assert that she shouldn’t have to bear the rapist’s child. How blatantly patriarchal! It’s her baby.  Isn’t she entitled to be regarded as the mother of her own child?

In reality, Shauna Prewitt in in her Georgetown Law Journal article found that at least half, and in many studies the majority, of women with a pregnancy resulting from rape choose not to abort the baby. Many of these babies are placed for adoption, but a large portion of women do choose to raise them.

Laws have considered abortion and adoption, but are often woefully lagging for those mothers who do raise their own children, especially on the crucial matter of visitation and custody rules. Shauna Prewitt became an attorney after she was startled to find the man who raped her trying to get joint custody rights to her daughter. She wrote an excellent Georgetown Law Journal article on the limited legal protections for women who become mothers through rape.

Shauna Prewitt

Women do get to give birth to and raise their own children, so the fact that many US states, and probably many other countries, haven’t thought through how to protect them may be one of the consequences of just assuming that of course they wish to abort.

As for incest, where people are generally thinking of minor girls sexually abused by a father or brother, most people who propose this as an exception haven’t thought through this most basic question: who do you think might be the one to bring the young woman in for the abortion? Abortion clinics can help cover up the crime.

Adding to the Rape

Much of the argument over the rape exception presumes that the idea of women getting impregnated through rape is a fact to start with, not to be questioned. I’d be a lot more comfortable if those arguing would at least preface their remarks by pointing out that rape is an outrage, and shouldn’t be tolerated, whether pregnancy happens or not. Rape prevention measures aimed at men are the very first way to address the problem.

But there also seems to be an assumption that only a given amount of rape exists, independent of what we say about abortion.

Consider: what is the message that a “rape exception” might give to potential rapists?

To give an illustration, here’s the story of a student nurse (Dr. F did do abortions at a different facility):


“It was my job to assist the doctors. I scrubbed with Dr. F. While scrubbing at the sink, Dr. F. kidded me about my size. He said that birth control pills would put some weight on me. He asked me if I was on them. I didn’t need to be. He then said he would give me a prescription. . .

“[Later that day] Just as I was leaving the lounge, Dr. F. was, as it appeared, on his way to the doctors’ lounge. He said, “come here,” and started walking down the hall. I said, “I’m not going in there.” He then said, “that’s not where we’re going.” I then asked, “where are we going?’ Then he said, “you never ask a doctor where he’s going.” Then he grabbed my arm and pulled me down the stairs. . . . Still holding on to me, he took me down the hall on the left as you leave the stairs. He pulled me into a dark room on the left. . . .

“Thinking I could reason with him, I begged him to let me go. . . . I kept pulling away and he kept tightening his grip on my arms. Then he said, “we’ve got to work out something.” I said, “no!” He seemed to really be mad and I pulled away to head for the door and he jerked my arm. . . . He raped me. He then backed away from me and as I stood there crying, he said, “I knew there wouldn’t be another time or place.”

(Affidavit, The State of South Carolina vs. J. F., Case No. 30159.)


For men of that mindset (and we have no idea how many there are), abortion is available as a service to them. They’re entitled to sex with any woman they want. After all, all the woman has to do if pregnant is “exercise a constitutional right,” which doesn’t seem so bad. So her consent to the sex is beside the point.

Pedophiles and incest perpetrators often take the same attitude. Sex traffickers regularly take women in for abortions to make them re-usable (for documentations, see Chapter 3 of Peace Psychology Perspectives on Abortion). With these long-term forms of abuse, the abortion clinic helps the perpetrators and can be regarded as an accomplice to the crime.


For more of our posts on on rape, see:

How Abortion is Useful for Rape Culture

The Message of “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”: Abortion Gets Sexual Predators Off the Hook

Two Women Pregnant from Rape, Two Outcomes

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