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Maggi Van DornJune 15, 2022
Abortion rights demonstrators rally outside the Supreme Court in Washington on March 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin File)

Editor’s note: The Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade on June 24 in a 6 to 3 decision, returning the issue of abortion restrictions to the states. America has published several essays on the decision, which was first leaked to the press in May. Read other views on abortion and the reversal of Roe v. Wade here.

Like many Americans, I traveled home for the holidays last December. And after two years of the Covid-19 pandemic and social isolation, I was more than ready to hug my grandma. Double-boosted and masked, I waited in the airport’s TSA security line.

“Take off your shoes and belts. Place all electronics, including laptops, in the bins.”

I’d deliberately worn a comfortable set of joggers and a zip-up jacket to move easily through the body scanner. To my surprise, the scan lit up across my chest. A female agent pulled me aside and asked if I’d like to be patted down where we stood or in private. A seasoned flier, I was no stranger to the cursory pat down, so I consented.

But this was nothing like what I expected. The agent moved up and down my torso and then pressed hard across my breasts.

When she finished, I shuffled to collect my shoes and luggage. There I felt the hot tears streaming down my cheeks. I tried to reason with myself: She was just doing her job. She asked for consent. This is for the safety of everyone. But it was too late.My body had processed the interaction quicker than my prefrontal cortex and had already concluded this was trauma.

Were we to apply the more realistic lens and vocabulary of #MeToo to our discourse on abortion, the number of women with unwanted pregnancies involving sexual coercion or trauma would be much higher.

A week later, over a telehealth Zoom session, I told my therapist what happened. She only had one question for me: What do you think this is bringing up for you?

That’s a question worth pondering, not only in the context of therapy but in this historical moment when we are reliving an important conversation about rights in this country—the right to life and the right to make choices for one’s own body.

My emotional response to this TSA screening revealed a deeper trauma. Several actually. All instances where I had been sexually violated by someone I knew—a date, a friend of a friend, someone who showed up to a house-warming party and did not listen when I said, “No.”

I knew instinctively that what happened was wrong, but I did not call these encounters by their name: assault or rape. Nor did I report them. There are several emotionally and psychologically complex reasons why victims of sexual violence choose not to speak or press charges. Most of them are tied up in shame.

In a world where sexual violence is not a rare exception but utterly pervasive, we cannot act like stripping women of this right will not prove devastating.

When I played back these incidents in my mind, or tried to imagine telling a police officer, I struggled to make sense of my own paralysis. I did not kick or scream. I froze. For years, I used this as proof against myself. Proof that it couldn’t be rape if I hadn’t actively clawed my way free.

#MeToo and the Meaning of Consent

But my body disagreed. It had another story to tell. The #MeToo movement helped put words to my experience and that of millions of women in the United States. It made clear that the definition of rape is more than an act of physical force; it’s penetration carried out without consent, through coercion, an abuse of authority or power, against a person incapable of giving valid consent.

The movement widened our conversation around consent. It’s not only the absence of “no” but the presence of an affirmative “yes,” communicated through words and body language. If a person is disengaged, nonresponsive or visibly upset there is clearly no consent. Physical resistance is not required on the part of the victim to demonstrate lack of consent. Furthermore, consent is not a one-time decision but must be confirmed throughout sexual activity and can be revoked at any time. Likewise, a marriage does not provide blanket consent. And even when a person consents to sex, that consent is negated if their partner deliberately ignores the boundaries agreed upon.

While #MeToo has expanded our vocabulary around sexual violence, therapy has also helped me understand paralysis (tonic immobility) as a physiological response to violence. According to The Scientific American, “Tonic immobility (TI) describes a state of involuntary paralysis in which individuals cannot move or, in many cases, even speak.” In nature, we often see animals reacting to a threat through flight or fight. But what happens when the prey is caught and flight or fight is no longer possible? A paralysis sets in and the brain is flooded with opioid analgesia to reduce the intensity of the pain or fear. Or as my therapist put it, there is a strange kind of mercy, where nature spares an animal suffering in the snares of death.

My own experience of paralysis during sexual assault now made much more sense. And having this scientific knowledge reversed the narrative that had long kept me silent; my inability to move or speak was not an indication of my blame, but of my victimhood.

The TSA pat down, while extremely invasive, was not sexual assault. But it did trigger painful memories of assault that had become lodged in my body. This is why I don’t believe we can have things like security searches and pretend as though they won’t potentially bring up past sexual trauma. It is also why I don’t think we can debate abortion without it bringing up post-traumatic stress responses in some women.

Rape and the Abortion Debate

As I’ve been listening to the debates raging over the leaked Supreme Court opinion to overturn Roe v. Wade, I have been struck by a few things. First, it used to be that any proposed ban on abortion would include rape and incest exceptions. That is no longer the case. Ten states have enacted abortion bans without rape or incest exceptions. These bans were initially blocked by courts, except for Texas’ S.B. 8 abortion ban, which is in effect and makes no exception for victims of rape or incest. Should Roe be overturned, and the abortion issue be returned to states to decide, there are several trigger laws that will effectively ban all abortions after six weeks, or two weeks after a missed period, which often goes undetected, regardless of whether conception happened through force or coercion.

In the aftermath of trauma, making a woman’s body the site of a legal battle is traumatic itself.

Of course, I am well-aware of the Catholic position, shared by many pro-life supporters and those rejoicing in the possible reversal of Roe: There is an inherent dignity to all human life, which begins at conception. I share in that belief. And if there were a simple and fully just way to make a law protecting the unborn, or any sentient creature, from violence or death, I would call myself pro-life. But this is not the moral or legal landscape we’ve inherited and the decisions we’re confronted with, especially in cases marked by traumas like rape and incest, are more complicated than translating moral claims into legal prohibitions.

Of course, not all abortions are chosen because the woman has been the victim of rape. But even if we consider unwanted pregnancies conceived through consensual sex, our country has not shown any serious commitment to creating a culture of life. We want women to have their babies, but we’re the only wealthy, industrialized nation that fails to provide paid parental leave. The United States is at the bottom of every list of annual public spending on child care because, politically, we’ve decided child care is a private family matter—yet we are ready to have the decision to have a child determined by the state. I think that I am in agreement with most consistently pro-life advocates when I say that we must get serious about addressing the underlying economic and social conditions that are limiting the scope of women’s ability to choose life.

And while I share the foundational belief of the pro-life movement—that all human life is sacred, regardless of how it is conceived—I believe it’s equally important to recognize that in the aftermath of trauma, making a woman’s body the site of a legal battle is traumatic itself. Taking the dignity of women’s lives seriously and understanding how they actually experience these traumas has to be part of any discussion of legislating abortion.

If we’ve learned anything from the #MeToo movement it is that sexual violence occurs on a continuum and that it is vastly underreported.

But really, how often does rape happen? Are abortion rights activists attempting to make a rule out of an exception?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost three million women in the United States have experienced rape-related pregnancies during their lifetime. If we break this down further, we see that 5 percent of rapes result in pregnancy, and among adult women, an estimated 32,101 pregnancies result from rape each year (National Library of Medicine). Five percent is not a large number, but I am certain it is significant to each of those women.

Many anti-abortion rights advocates dismiss this 5 percent as so small as to be irrelevant to the debate.

To which I must ask: How are you defining rape?

If we’ve learned anything from the #MeToo movement it is that sexual violence occurs on a continuum, that it is vastly underreported and that it occurs with greater frequency than most of us are prepared to admit.

You don’t need to have had an abortion or to be living in poverty unable to support another pregnancy to know the crippling fear that the state will govern what you can and cannot do to your body.

The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network says one in four women report having experienced rape or attempted rape during their lifetime. What we know from survivors is that the majority (two out of three rape victims) do not report. And if that statistic seems too unbelievable, I would urge you to pay attention to the women in your lives—your colleagues, your classmates, your daughters, sisters, mothers and friends. This was the impetus behind Tarana Burke’s #MeToo campaign, which started on Myspace in 2006 and was later adopted in 2017 by the actress Alyssa Milano. The movement asked all women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted to write “Me too” as a status on social media, in order to “give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”

Yet we still don’t seem to understand the magnitude of the problem. Were we to apply the more realistic lens and vocabulary of #MeToo to our discourse on abortion, the number of women with unwanted pregnancies involving sexual coercion or trauma would be much higher.

But this isn’t only about rape victims being forced to carry pregnancies to term. Or redefining rape.

I am fortunate that none of my past experiences of sexual trauma resulted in pregnancy and that I have not been confronted with the decision to keep or terminate that pregnancy. But I do know what it feels like when someone else has gained control over my body. And when I hear that my rights to bodily autonomy are being threatened across the country, I feel that familiar wave of terror and panic course through my body. I am reliving that paralysis, sometimes on a daily basis, which is why it feels so essential to speak. Unfavorable though it may be to voice a pro-choice opinion at a Catholic magazine that has consistently opposed the decision in Roe v. Wade, I have to push past the sludge of shame and the sinking inertia to tell you exactly what this is bringing up for me.

You don’t need to have had an abortion or to be living in poverty unable to support another pregnancy to know the crippling fear that the state will govern what you can and cannot do to your body. You just need to have been born a woman. In a world where women have to fight for control of our bodies but bear the consequences of men’s actions upon them, in a world where sexual violence is not a rare exception but utterly pervasive, we cannot act like stripping women of this right will not prove devastating.

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