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Choice, Not Coercion

Guest Column
Ilana Goldhaber-Gordon

Imagine your best friend is raped. A month later she finds out she’s pregnant, and it precipitates another emotional collapse within her. During this time she happens to pick up an issue of The Tech, and a full-size opinion piece dares to preach to her about the moral superiority of continuing this pregnancy. Are you outraged?

Catherine Santini’s opinion column “The Reality of Choice After Rape” [Apr. 13] does just that. She uses The Tech as a soap-box in an attempt to pressure rape victims not to seek abortion. She disguises her preachings as kindly advice, “bolstering” her statements with statistics from obscure, biased sources. She should be ashamed of herself. Survivors of sexual violence do not need added pressure or guilt to torment them.

Let me first address the dishonesty of Santini’s statement, then move to its moral implications. In her column, Santini says, “73 percent of rape victims who conceived chose to give birth to their babies.” She says this number is from the Elliot Institute for Social Science Research, which describes itself as a collection of “Pro-Life researchers who believe to prove abortion is dangerous.” As scientists and engineers, we are aware of the pitfalls of conducting research when we really, really want a particular outcome.

Next, Santini references a “1981” study by Dr. Sandra Mahkorn. This study was published, not in a reputable medical journal, but in an out-of-print book entitled New Perspectives on Human Abortion by Thomas Hilgers, also the author of a book on “Natural Family Planning,” the rhythm method of birth control which is infamous for its ineffectiveness. The book itself was copyrighted in 1981, making it hard to believe the actual study was conducted in 1981, as Santini claims. Even if the study were to be conducted in 1981, one might ask whether abortion was safe and legal at the time that 75-85 percent of the study’s subjects opted against it.

Finally, Santini extensively quotes a book entitled Victims and Victors. She informs us that one of the authors of this book is the daughter of a rapist, which seemingly makes the author an unbiased expert on the subject in Santini’s eyes. As Santini says, “there is no one more qualified to speak about conception through rape than ... a child born from rape.” Oh, really?

I understand that it can be scary to imagine the absence of your own life. If my mother had chosen to abort me, I would not be. On the other hand, who you are is the accident of one particular sperm fertilizing one particular egg. Had your father come home five minutes later that evening, had your mother eaten different food that afternoon, the environment (pH, temperature) in your mother’s body would have been slightly different, a different sperm would have fertilized that egg, and you would not exist today.

Many women who have had abortions at a young age attest that it permitted them to grow up into competent adults. As a result, they later chose to create larger families than they would have been able to support otherwise. Their aborted fetuses do not exist today, but several people exist in their place.

Many rape victims report feeling ashamed or guilty about their rape. I never understood this reaction, until I personally experienced it myself in a much milder form. I was waiting at a bus stop, when a stranger approached me, reached out his hand and touched my breasts. My instantaneous reaction was shame; I looked around to see who had witnessed my humiliation. Then I wondered to myself: why was I ashamed? Outrageously, our society often reinforces these feelings of shame. Police, doctors, lawyers and friends may mistrust the victim’s stories or blame her for not defending herself, for dressing seductively, and so on. Santini has now found a new way to compound feelings of guilt and shame -- condemning survivors who opt out of pregnancy.

Rape is a loss of control over our bodies. Rape victims may suffer months, years, or a lifetime of emotional trauma. Many report recurring nightmares, suicidal feelings, and developing addictions. Santini claims that the experience of giving birth “can be a very healing and empowering experience.” I hope that that is true for some women. I believe that the experience of producing life can, for some women, ease the pain and loss. Yet we know that this is not true for all women. For many, the unwanted pregnancy represents added trauma. It is a further loss of control over their bodies -- a loss of control that will last through nine months of physical hardship.

We at MIT should support all women’s choices for their own bodies. We should condemn pressure of any kind in this arena, whether for or against abortion. MIT must provide an atmosphere that supports women and their decisions, through non-judgmental listening and provision of unbiased, honest information. Most of all, we must condemn efforts to take advantage of a survivor’s vulnerability, or to again deny her control over her bodies.

Ilana Goldhaber-Gordon G is an officer in MIT Pro-Choice.