In Alabama, where a new law denies abortion to women even in cases of incest or rape, a rapist may still pursue custody rights of a child conceived during his assault.
I’ll give you a moment to digest that sentence. It gets worse.
In a recent case, a young woman in Alabama sought help when she said her step-uncle, who raped her when she was 15, was being released from prison after a drug conviction and wanted to share custody with the child who resulted from the alleged rape. Theoretically, he could even gain full custody.
Minnesota is the only other state without a statute terminating parental rights for a person found to have conceived the child by rape or incest. More than half of the 50 states terminate parental rights when there is “clear and convincing evidence” that the child was conceived during rape. And nearly half terminate parental rights only when a rapist is convicted.
But this is problematic, too. An estimated three out of four rapes go unreported, and the rate is especially high when the rapist is known to the victim or is a family member. An estimated 90 percent of rape victims know the assailant. Last month, Alabama lawmakers considered a bill that addressed ending parental rights in cases of rape that result in conception, but the Legislature removed that language, limiting the law to cases in which people sexually assault their children.
As if sexual assault isn’t life-scarring enough, imagine having to engage with one’s rapist through a shared-parenting arrangement. On the other hand, there’s also the possibility, as some activists suggest, that women might claim rape during custody fights. Marital rape can be a particularly difficult case to make, but precedents do exist. Nothing is as simple as one might hope.
Obviously, we are committed to a presumption of innocence for the accused, but it is inevitable that — especially given the number of unreported rapes — many rapists escape prosecution. Without a police report and a rape kit there may be no way for the mother to prove the assault. In such cases, coparenting can become a real possibility. And this prospect might incline some pregnant women to seek an end to the pregnancy.
But in Alabama, their options would be limited. Even though the new law is being challenged in court, it’s already difficult for many people to get an abortion in the state. In 2014, according to the Guttmacher Institute, 93% of counties in Alabama had no clinic that provided abortion.
If Alabama is trying to become the worst state in America for women, its strategy is strong.
In fairness to the unborn, as well as to the strictly pro-life, a child conceived through rape is surely innocent and deserves the same protections as one conceived in holy matrimony. I get that. But rape and incest have long been accepted as extraordinary circumstances under which abortion could largely be tolerated. What kind of people would effectively force a 15-year-old rape victim to have a child by her step-uncle and then face the prospect of shared custody with him?
It isn’t a stretch to say that, with its new draconian abortion law and its failure to block parenting rights to rapists, Alabama essentially has installed a medieval system in which women are treated as chattel, notwithstanding the duly elected Gov. Kay Ivey, who signed the bill. Though public stonings haven’t (yet) been suggested for disobedient women, we may not be as far removed from such practices as we might pretend to be.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for The Washington Post. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.