Anti-Shaming Rhetoric Used to Attack Rape Survivors’ Rights

About Alex DiBranco

“Rape survivors should not be shamed”: this sounds like a feminist statement. From SlutWalk and StopSlut to less controversially named anti-violence initiatives, denunciations of slut-shaming and victim-blaming are a staple of today’s mainstream feminist discourse.

But certain organizations that describe themselves as “pro-life” have also appropriated this rhetoric, as exemplified by a recent article, “Pregnant Rape Victims Shouldn’t Be Shamed for Having an Abortion.” These activists, however, pair the statement that rape survivors should not be shamed for “choosing” life with attacks on the right of survivors to choose at all: the endgame is to take away abortion rights even in the case of rape and incest.

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Moreover, these same activists continue to keep shame on their agenda. The group Choices4Life, founded by a woman who identifies herself as born from a pregnancy resulting from gang-rape, uses a giant image of a gun pressed to a pregnant belly on to illustrate the woman’s decision is “premeditated murder.”

During the 2012 election season, some right-wing candidates sparked widespread shock and outrage when they claimed women had biological defenses against conceiving as a result of “legitimate” rape and called pregnancy resulting from rape a “gift from God.” This attention faded when the offensive speakers largely lost their bids for office. But conservative politicians like Todd Akin did not invent these ideas: such rhetoric has circulated in anti-abortion rights circles for decades. It typically stays out of the mainstream, however, because even opponents of abortion often blanch at forcing rape survivors to give birth against their will. As a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops spokesperson put it, it’s a “tough sell.”

Though unpopular, attacks on rape exemptions are integral to the Right’s “abortion as murder” frame, as described in Political Research Associates’ Defending Reproductive Justice Activist Resource Kit, updated and re-released in 2013. “Prochoice advocates sometimes point to rape exemptions as evidence that opposition to abortion is based on a desire to control women’s sexual freedom, rather than concern for the fetus,” the document advises. “Support for exemptions suggests most people do not believe that abortion is murder.” So it shouldn’t be a surprise that Savethe1, launched in the wake of the 2012 elections, was established by Personhood USA, an organization dedicated to recognizing fetal personhood from the moment of conception. Savethe1’s Rebecca Kiessling and Personhood USA have compared abortion after rape to sentencing the fetus to the “death penalty.”

Like the founder of Choices4Life, Kiessling says she was conceived in rape. After she appeared in a Citizens United documentary opposing rape exemptions, Kiessling met with Texas Governor Rick Perry during his most recent presidential campaign. After the meeting, Perry now insists that the life of the mother should be the only exemption for abortion.

But even amongst anti-choice politicians and activists, there’s disagreement. The attack on rape exemptions is not universally embraced (especially publicly), but is potentially an up-and-coming element of the movement. Ryan Bomberger, the face of the Radiance Foundation (notorious for its anti-abortion billboards targeting African-American communities), plays a dual role for the anti-choice movement as a rare Black leader and a child born following a rape, combining these elements of his background into a platform strongly pushing interracial adoption.

Advocates like Myers, Kiessling, and Bomberger aim to shift focus away from rape survivors and their needs, and toward the child born after rape—who can pull on an audience’s heartstrings. They claim to be the object of shaming and attacks on their existence, denouncing the discussion of “hard cases,” rather than focusing on the rape survivor. Savethe1 employs mothers who gave birth after rape and women who regret having a post-rape abortion, deploying them to speak against the right to an abortion. The reliance upon storytelling through film, with its visual ability to trigger emotion, has also yielded success for these anti-choice groups working to reframe the issue.

Opposition to rape and the defense of abortion rights share a fundamental theoretical basis: both attempt to secure women’s right and ability to exercise bodily autonomy, to make decisions for their own bodies, and to control what happens to their bodies. The successful appropriation of anti-shaming rhetoric by anti-choice activists, therefore, depends upon their ability to wield the tools of emotional manipulation and distraction. Otherwise, it quickly becomes apparent that their ostensible concern for rape survivors is, at its core, a concerted campaign to deny survivors agency and control of their bodies—this time legally.

Alex DiBranco is a Sociology PhD Candidate at Yale University, writing her dissertation on the U.S. New Right movement infrastructure from 1971-1997. She is a member of The Public Eye editorial board and formerly PRA's Communications Director, and is currently visiting at the UC Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies.