Carol Forsloff — “When I have my baby, will it be my brother or sister or what?” The thirteen-year-old girl who asked that question did so at a time when abortion wasn’t an option. Those around her simply sat and stared without answers; for no one there at the time knew how to answer Becky.
Incest is a difficult topic, seldom written about in the mainstream press, except to report incidental, sensational cases where the criminal issues are reviewed. We also don’t talk much about incest, unless to make some foolish joke about it, as Vice President Dick Cheney once did, then apologized after being chastised by folks in West Virginia. Perhaps West Virginians didn’t want to be associated with this terrible abuse, and that was it. Or perhaps the topic simply isn’t funny.
While the media focuses on rape as a factor in abortion rights, and the positions of the politicians on the matter, incest remains one of those devastating problems that impact right to life. The GOP platform allows for no exceptions for rape or incest, giving rise to controversy on the nature of rape, but what of incest and the consequences to the victims’ lives in the present social and political climate?
US statistics on rape show more than one third of reported cases involving young people under age 18. 80% of victims are adults and youth under age 30. Incest is most commonly an act of coercion, statutory rape if involving anyone under age 18.
I knew that thirteen-year-old girl, I’ll call Becky, who had asked the questions about the child she was carrying. I learned of her while working as a graduate student intern many years ago. I never found out what happened to her, and one doesn’t know for certain the long-term consequences she suffered. But if she survived those emotional scars, it’s likely the matter would not be embraced happily. Becky was one of a number of girls in residential treatment for emotional problems, pregnant and being prepared by an agency to give birth and counseled to give the child up for adoption. On a New Year’s eve, the question asked in a private counseling session had its response in a devastating episode. She had taken a razor blade and slashed her legs, screaming she no longer wanted to live while her horrified peers reacted by calling for help. Unsuccessful in a suicide attempt, plans continued for Becky to give birth as planned.
I never knew what happened to Becky, as I had moved from the area where the incident had happened soon after. But in working with adolescent girls over a period of 16 years, I learned that incest is more common than many would like to believe. Since most rape cases involve youth under age 18, and most involve a person known by the victim, it is likely that incest is far more widespread than statistical reports. And it is one of those cases that is a reminder of the suffering of victims of incest.
Experts tell us that only 50% of the offspring of incestuous unions are healthy. 20% have brain damage, and many of the rest have physical disabilities; and then they die. It’s also been found that 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 7 boys have been sexually abused by age 18. 95% of those who abuse girls are men, and 80% of those who abuse boys are men. Many cases involve incest or sexual intercourse between blood relatives, something which is forbidden by most cultures throughout history but that nevertheless is common enough to warrant concern. One researcher declared that: “Incest between an adult and a related child or adolescent is now recognized as the most prevalent form of child sexual abuse and as one with great potential for damage to the child.” (Courtois, 1988 p.12) It’s estimated that 38 million people in the United States have been victims of incest.
Health experts tell us that not only is incest a common form of abuse, it is the kind of abuse, that unlike rape, ordinarily follows a lengthy pattern, where a child, most often between the ages of 8 and 12, is subjected to repeated assaults.
In 2003, a landmark Supreme Court decision, Lawrence vs Texas, upheld the importance of privacy in sexual activities. This case involved gay rights but its conclusions have been used to contest the laws of the various states prohibiting incest. Thus the incest issue is the topic of the courts as well as social conscience. The hidden nature of the problem, and the legal complexities involved, has also been in recent news during the child custody cases in Texas with respect to polygamous groups.
Abortion rights now give victims and their families a choice, a choice that may vanish in the current political climate, where a political party platform allows for no exclusions on the matter of right to life.
Often the crime of incest is covered up, as the perpetrator will often talk about how the victim was compliant and the sex consensual. The 1974 film “Chinatown” explored incest through its principal characters, Gittes and Evelyn, played by Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, who are lovers in the film. Evelyn has had a child from an incestuous relationship with her father. Her grief and confusion are reflected in her anguished cries that her child is both sister and daughter when she explains to Gittes what happened to her. The abusing father declares the sexual relationship with his daughter to have been consensual, a common excuse of the abuser, and tells Gittes: “Most people never have to face the fact that, at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of anything.”
Louisiana is one of those states that voted into law restrictive clauses that require parental consent for an abortion, or court order, and that restricts the use of state funds unless the pregnancy and birth would risk the life of the mother. This means that if the federal courts strike down Roe vs. Wade, many victims will have no recourse, if public funds are not available, at a time when social welfare programs are being reduced and childcare support systems gutted. And the next Becky, if new laws on abortion allow for no exceptions and the federal statute is overturned, will have no alternative but to give birth to a child with a high likelihood of dying or having serious disabilities and both child and mother will potentially suffer a life of poverty and pain as a result.