Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in Washington and the author of the book “The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
After an Arizona woman in a vegetative state gave birth in her nursing home, news headlines were circumspect: police, they said, were investigating a “possible” sexual assault.
It should go without saying that a woman in that condition could not consent to sex. There is no way to call this case possible sexual assault; it was definite rape. We should use the word. And it was accompanied by care so brutally negligent that the woman’s pregnancy ran its course before anyone noticed.
Heads should roll for this, immediately. The chief executive of Hacienda Healthcare, where the woman lives, has resigned over the furor, as he should. The home was already poorly rated and had past problems: an employee sexualizing residents, as well as inadequate privacy for patients while bathing or nude.
This story is horrifying, but not surprising. People with disabilities are sexually abused at almost three times the rate of the general population, according to disability rights organizations (other groups say rates of sexual assault and rape are twice as high for those with disabilities; either way, people who live with disabilities are targeted for sexual abuse more often than those without).
We know that sexual assault and rape are less about sex than they are predation, which is one reason assailants target the vulnerable – children, women under the influence of drugs or alcohol, people with disabilities.
But sexual assault and rape are also about entitlement to women’s bodies: Seeing us as vessels for the gratification that comes with sexualized violence. In the disturbing case of the woman in Arizona, she of course had no way to make her wishes known – nor did her family – as to whether or not she should also be a vessel for carrying this baby to birth. Indeed, according to some reports, personnel at her facility did not even know she was pregnant.
But I think it is safe to assume that in those cases where a pregnancy after rape is actually apparent, to many women, a decision to end it would be a foregone conclusion.
It’s important for us to remember, however, that that choice does not exist for many in the United States.
In 12 states, “pro-life” groups and the politicians who represent them have pushed through laws that require doctors to keep pregnant women on life support, regardless of the woman’s wishes; in 19 other states, a pregnant woman cannot dictate her own end-of-life care. Pregnancy, in other words, puts women in a different category, in which her body ceases to be her own.
A must-read series in the New York Times detailing the many ways in which US law and policy encroaches on women’s bodies, quotes Paul Weyrich, the late founder of the conservative and influential Heritage Foundation, speaking in 1984 in support of these laws because he believed “that if you have to choose between new life and existing life, you should choose new life. The person who has had an opportunity to live at least has been given that gift by God and should make way for new life on earth.”
This has real consequences: Abortion opponents have fought to keep brain-dead women on life support, against their wishes, so that their bodies could be used as simple containers to bring a pregnancy to term.
You may think I’m overstating the case here – maybe you’re appalled by sexual assault, but sympathetic to the anti-abortion (and, often, also anti-contraception) movement, believing it only has the best interests of the fetus at heart. But a woman’s reproductive system is either her own or it isn’t. If you believe it’s wrong to forcibly penetrate a woman against her will, then it’s also wrong to force her to grow, carry, and deliver a pregnancy against her will.
It’s women with disabilities who often suffer the most on this score, having their desires and rights over their own bodies overridden in the service of another’s misogyny – whether that’s a person who seeks to assault them or someone who refuses to let them decide their own end-of-life care, should they be pregnant.
We should be shocked and disgusted by this case. But we should harness that rightful outrage and oppose all violations of women’s bodies – including those extreme misogynist cruelties done in the name of “life.”