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Rape, Forced Pregnancy, Personhood, and Crimes Against Humanity

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It is likely that Colorado will, once again, have a so-called "personhood" measure on the ballot this November that seeks to have fertilized eggs, embryos, and fetuses treated as if they were entirely separate constitutional persons. If approved by Colorado's Secretary of State, this year's version of the measure, Proposed Initiative 46, adds some detail, including a provision explicitly and unmistakably banning women who have become pregnant as a result of rape from having abortions. The amendment states: "No innocent [fertilized egg, embryo or fetus] created through rape or incest shall be killed for the crime of his or her father." Given the recent attention to Missouri Congressman Todd Akin's claim that women can't become pregnant as a result of "legitimate rape," I thought this provision deserved some attention.

As the media has widely reported, Rep. Akin, while on Fox News, asserted that women possess a biological mechanism to ward off pregnancy if they become victims of "legitimate rape." Specifically he said, "If it is a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down." Dr. John Willke, the former president of the National Right to Life Committee, was then cited in the media as the primary source supporting this point of view. Dr. Willke has claimed that such things as physical and emotional trauma make it highly unlikely for women to get pregnant from rape.

This claim, however, not only lacks any basis in science but is directly contradicted by Colorado's Proposed Initiative 46. The amendment assumes that women can get pregnant from rape and that the state must be given new power to prevent women from ending the pregnancies caused by this particularly cruel and devastating form of violence.

The fact that rape can result in pregnancy is not only confirmed by scientists and by the lived experience of women, but it is well-known that rape and forced pregnancy are used as conscious and deliberate tools of war. For example, in 1993, the organization Equality Now presented these findings from a board member sent to Bosnia-Herzegovina to investigate allegations of mass rape, forced pregnancy, and genocide. According to the investigator:

When the Serbian forces came to Miljevina, they turned the local gymnasium into a rape camp. Families were separated, and women and children were kept in the gym, where all of the women and girls over ten years old were raped in the first few days.... There are rape camps all over the country. Thousands of women are being raped and killed. Thousands of women are pregnant as a result of rape. Over and over again, everywhere I went in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in Croatian refugee camps, women told me stories of abomination -- of being kept in a room, raped repeatedly and told they would be held until they gave birth to Serbian children.

Some call such practices "genocidal rape" and define it as the systematic and repeated sexual violence for the purposes of destroying a targeted group by the humiliation and impregnation of the women in that group with the persecuting army's progeny. Today, the international human rights community has not only recognized rape as a form of torture, but it has recognized rape and forced impregnation as war crimes and as crimes against humanity. International law now explicitly outlaws these acts, and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court includes both rape and forced impregnation among the crimes over which it has jurisdiction.

Individual acts of rape are clearly not the same as "war" or "genocidal" rape, but they are also designed to humiliate and assert power over women and may just as easily cause pregnancy. If Proposed Initiative 46 passes, men who rape women in Colorado will be secure in the knowledge that their efforts to humiliate and degrade those women will be backed up and reinforced by state action forcing those women to go to term -- whether they want to or not.

The real question that needs to be addressed is not whether rape can cause pregnancy. The question is: Will measures that ban women who have been impregnated by rape from having abortions be enacted, enabling rapists, with state support, even greater power to deprive women of their dignity and personhood?

This piece originally appeared on RH Reality Check.

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