The ramifications of Todd Akin’s comments about legitimate rape and abortion keep revealing themselves as the days go on, and we are now in the midst of a national fixation on rape, which may be the best thing that has happened to women in a long time. How else could a woman like Shauna Prewitt get CNN to publish her story? Prewitt not only got pregnant as a result of rape, but she decided to keep the baby and then was forced to go to court with her attacker over custody and visitation issues. It’s high time stories like this enter the national consciousness. This level of intense, specific and very public dialogue about rape, while surprising, is long overdue.
When researching her case, Prewitt learned that 31 states allow men who father through rape “to assert the same custody and visitation rights to their children that other fathers enjoy.” She writes, “When no law prohibits a rapist from exercising these rights, a woman may feel forced to bargain away her legal rights to a criminal trial in exchange for the rapist dropping the bid to have access to her child. When faced with the choice between a lifetime tethered to her rapist or meaningful legal redress, the answer may be easy, but it is not painless. For the sake of her child, the woman will sacrifice her need to see her once immensely powerful perpetrator humbled by the court.”
In other words, the rapist exerts control over his victim once again, using the baby produced from the attack as a bargaining chip. His offer, “I’ll leave you alone and let go of the custody thing as long as you don’t try to prosecute me for what I did,” is grotesque, but no doubt very effective. Prewitt says of this dynamic, “it is not surprising that a man who cruelly degrades a woman would also seek to torture her in an even more agonizing way, by seeking access to her child.”
Prewitt is far from the only woman who has kept a baby that was fathered by a rapist. According to RH Reality Check, 32,000 American women become pregnant as a result of rape every year. That’s a whole lot of women whose bodies didn’t “shut that whole thing down.” In 2010, statistics from the United Nations and RAINN show that between 207,000 and 270,000 women are raped in the U.S. each year. That means that 10 to 15 percent of rapes result in pregnancy, which seems high enough not to pass as an “extremely rare” occurrence, as was suggested in this 1999 piece for Christian Life Resources by Dr. John C. Wilke. (Careful: the link contains horrifying language like, “it has been known that women, pregnant from consensual intercourse, have later claimed rape. Is it possible to know the actual facts?”). Of the 32,000 women who get pregnant each year as a result of rape, RH Reality check says half will carry their pregnancies to term. Accordingly, each year there are potentially 15,000 “extraoridnary” people born who have rapist dads.
Just how many of the women who give birth to children conceived in rape have to deal with fathers who wish to exercise custody rights is not easy to determine via Internet research alone, but Prewitt’s is not the only case on record and readily available online. A 2000 case in Delaware, Shepherd v. Clemens, thankfully “concluded that when a child is conceived and born as the result of an unlawful sexual intercourse as defined in the code, the biological father shall not be permitted visitation,” per this article about the parental rights of rapists. The article goes on to list several cases wherein state courts have determined that rapists do not deserve parental rights, and concludes with the statement, “Those states that have not addressed the issue should do so, for to do so would be to guard the best interests of the child. A man who has raped a woman simply cannot be said to have established requisite parental rights necessary to accord him custody/visitation rights.”
Prewitt has made it her calling to convince those very states that have not ruled on this issue to do so, and to do so in favor of protecting innocent children from a rapist father. She writes, “Today, it seems we may face a new and unbelievable challenge: convincing legislators that women can conceive when they are raped. Make no mistake, my efforts and the efforts of others to persuade legislators to pass laws restricting the parental rights of men who father through rape will be directly impacted by Akin’s recent comments. Whether these efforts will be helped or hurt, however, depends upon us as a society.”
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