Rape and sexual crimes are some of the most grave abuses of human rights and human dignity imaginable. These are horrific acts of violence against women and we stand with women and girls who have been abused. Where a sexual crime has been committed women require support from the moment abuse has been reported, throughout any subsequent pregnancy and beyond. We commend the work of the Rowan Sexual Assault Referral Centre and the care it provides to victims of sexual crime.
A degree of justice may be served in appropriate sentencing. However, when a pregnancy results from rape it is wrong to assume that specific access to abortion in these circumstances is what most women want or need. In fact a study by the Rape Crisis Network Ireland showed that 80% of women who had become pregnant after rape or incest and had an abortion, regretted it and over 90% of these said they would discourage other victims of sexual violence from having an abortion*. This is one study but it highlights the complexity of these cases and challenges any assumption that abortion is the default choice or ‘solution’. Abortion cannot undo the violation and abuse suffered and does not in itself lead to justice. It must be remembered that abortion is not care for women, nor a medical treatment for rape or sexual crime. Compassion does not equal abortion.
It is important to note that the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland itself recently rejected the idea of changing the law to allow abortion in cases of sexual crime following their consultation in 2014. There are many problems, not least around consent, age and relationship. How to define and categorise those crimes which would be affected by a change in the law. How to prove, or at least provide evidence about a sexual crime in the requisite timescale (see below). Where capacity to consent to sex is an issue, this raises the corresponding issue of capacity to consent to an abortion.
Sexual crimes and rape are very serious and so allegations of rape or sexual crime must be dealt with very sensitively both for the alleged victim and alleged perpetrator. These cases take time to prepare evidence, this is right and proper to ensure the best chance that due process and justice are served. Legally it is almost impossible to prove a rape has occurred by way of criminal conviction within the timescales required for an abortion. This is why very few countries have specific or effective legislation in this area.
Existing Law. Again, while being very clear that we do not advocate abortion in these circumstances nor support a change in the law, we believe the existing abortion law in Northern Ireland would already cover some of these instances (R v Bourne  1 KB 687).
We do not believe there is a need for the law to be changed. Instead we would favour more work on the wider cultural issues around rape and sexual crime. For example, education and development with young men around sexual crime, human dignity, human rights and violence against women. There is a need for long-term planning to address the increase in pornography addiction and the doubling of recorded sexual crime between 2001 and 2014. There needs to be continued support for, and awareness of, the Rowan SARC and similar ventures to provide immediate care for assaulted women. Adoption and fostering are life-affirming alternatives to abortion in these circumstances.
There can be healing and hope even in these very difficult situations. Support services must be woman-centred but even in circumstances of conception through sexual crime we shouldn’t assume that abortion will contribute to that healing. In seeking justice on behalf of a woman who has been so horrendously violated it is still difficult to justify abortion as a truly just outcome for either. The law must hold in tension a desire for justice for women, with the protection of innocent human life. Over time through relationship, suffering and grief can be overcome by a fresh sense of hope and new life when we stand together.
Reference: “Of 192 women interviewed who had become pregnant after rape or incest, nearly all (80%) who had an abortion regretted it. Over 90% of these said they would discourage other victims of sexual violence from having an abortion.” (D Reardon. 2000. Victims and Victors of speaking out about women, their pregnancies, abortions and children resulting from sexual assault)