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Those Who Can Choose

Guest Column
Radha Iyengar

I was appalled by the insensitivity and dishonesty of Catherine Santini’s column “The Reality of Choice After Rape” [April 13]. Santini’s obvious insinuation that abortion is immoral and harmful to the woman denies the very choice she superficially advocates. At MIT we must foster an environment that respects rape survivors, not one that insults their moral character. According to the National Victim Center, one in four college women have either been raped or suffered attempted rape. With such alarmingly high rates, we must always consider if what we are saying is supportive of survivors, or if we are unintentionally attacking people who deserve our support and respect.

Santini’s subtle attacks on the survivors of rape are therefore both insulting and intolerable. She suggests that giving birth to a child conceived through rape is “proof that [the survivor] is better than the rapist.” This leaves the lingering perception that not giving birth fails to prove the victim’s superior moral worth. I would argue that the survival of the violent act of rape is itself “a display of courage, strength and honor,” and not choosing to give birth does not diminish that strength of character. Furthermore, calling abortion “medical rape” veers dangerously close to a victim-blaming in which rape survivors are accused of choosing to be raped again. The “painful intrusion into women’s sexual organs by a masked stranger” that characterizes abortion, according to Santini, also describes, say, going to the gynecologist. Equating abortion or doctors’ visits with rape trivializes the brutality of the crime and the strength necessary to survive it. Labeling a considered decision as a form of rape suggests that rape involves a choice on the victim’s behalf, an insulting and patently false supposition. The victims never “choose” to be raped. Santini has cleverly found a way to both attack the moral character of survivors and deny them another choice over their own body by suggesting survivors who choose to abort are -- what? Choosing to be raped?

Moreover, the “facts” presented to justify Santini’s moralizing are barely credible. Santini extensively references the book Victims and Victors, edited by David Reardon, Amy Sobie, and Julie Makimaa, which describes a study (not peer-reviewed) with a sample size of 230 rape victims selected from a single district. The researchers apparently don’t need statistically valid results, an unbiased selection, or indications of causation (simple correlation does not cut it) to generate conclusions about the general population. As another example of bad statistics, you may have noticed the posters on campus which indicate that something like 84 percent of children born to rape survivors do not wish they were aborted. A better phrasing would be that 16 percent of children born to rape survivors wish they had been aborted, since I would be surprised if even one percent of people in the general population wish they hadn’t been born. Whether my intuitions are correct, these statistics are useless without a base comparison of the “I wish I’d never been born!” rate of the general population. Of course, a good reason these statistics are biased is that they are from a biased source. One of the book’s editors, Reardon, is an anti-abortion zealot -- surely he does not advocate the “true choice” suggested by Santini. Of another author, a child born to a rape survivor, Santini says, “there is no one more qualified to speak about conception through rape than ... a child born from rape.” Most would say the survivor of a rape would be the best person to decide her own pregnancy status.

Santini made a valuable point: “We [should] not perpetuate the perception that if a woman becomes pregnant because of sexual assault, it is automatically in her best interest to have an abortion.” Unfortunately, Santini seems to miss the flip side of this -- it is not automatically in her best interest to not have an abortion. Just as “abortion [has] not turned back the clock and [taken] away all of the pain,” birth is not the be-all, end-all solution for rape survivors. What is truly in a survivor’s best interest is the freedom to decide what is her best interest. And so, perhaps what Santini meant by “two wrongs don’t make a right” is that after a woman has been denied the right to decide whether to have sex, denying her the right to decide whether to pursue a pregnancy is committing yet another wrong. If Santini wants “true choice” she should abandon her attacks on the moral worth of rape survivors who choose abortion. As Santini notes, “we can’t begin to imagine what a woman who is raped is going through.” The most qualified person to discuss this issue is not the child of a rape survivor, nor an anti-choice zealot. So, why not let the person who can imagine what it is like to survive rape -- the woman who is forced to learn what it is like -- have the freedom to decide what is best for herself?

Radha Iyengar ’02 is the president of Stop Our Silence.