Kate Nicholl writes for us about the issue of rape and how it is reported
Today I read a harrowing article about an “unbelievable story of rape”. In 2008, a young American woman reported having been raped; her foster mother was suspicious that her behaviour wasn’t befitting of someone who had gone through such an ordeal and the discrepancies in her story were noticed by the police. She knew they didn’t believe her so she changed her story. She told them she had made it all up.
The article tells of two stories simultaneously, the desperate case of Marie who claimed to have been raped set alongside the story of two female detectives investigating a series of rape cases seemingly carried out by the same perpetrator. At the end they come together and you discover Marie had been telling the truth. It’s excellently written and highlights how important it is to avoid victim blaming until there is unequivocal evidence. But it also highlights just how hard it is to report a rape – and why so many women don’t. And it’s not just in the US. Approximately 85,000 women and 12,000 men are raped in England and Wales alone every year; that’s roughly 11 rapes (of adults alone) every hour. Yet only around 15% of those who experience sexual violence choose to report it to the police.
What has struck me is since reading the article I’ve been preoccupied with thoughts about abortion legislation in Northern Ireland. This year the Department of Justice sought views in a consultation on liberalising the law in the limited circumstances of fatal foetal abnormality (FFA)* as well as in the case of sexual crime. Sarah Ewart’s publicised bravery in sharing her story and fighting to ensure no other women experience having to travel while going through what she went through garnered widespread support for amending the law to include FFA. But, perhaps unsurprising given the Northern Irish context, there has been less inclination from those in the public eye to support abortion in the cases of sexual crime. And in my mind, this is largely down to two reasons – firstly, that the “unborn child” has no choice in the matter, and secondly – and what I’m most interested in – how do you prove the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest?
I work for a political party for which abortion is a matter of conscience. While I am firmly of the belief that the person best placed to make a decision about a woman’s body is the woman herself, I acknowledge that not everyone shares this view – and in fact I respect that, because ultimately I know that the argument stems from where you believe life starts. So my point is not about whether abortion should be legalised or not (not today anyway!), rather it’s about a consequence of this debate that I don’t think we’ve explored enough.
Cases of perverting the course of justice that involve allegedly false rape allegations are extremely serious; they have a devastating effect on the accused and those close to them and if they have been made with the design to cause harm to another person they should be dealt with firmly. But, and this is important, they are also very rare. Over a 17 month period in 2011 and 2012, there were only 35 of these instances – compared to 5,651 rape prosecutions.
So my point is this, in using the (simplified) argument that “it’s too difficult to prove you were actually raped and therefore should not be allowed access to an abortion”, I worry that we are in some way implying that if you can’t prove it, then what’s the point in reporting it. And regardless of where you stand on abortion, sending that message to people who are most likely already reluctant to report a rape should be a concern for all of us.
*Some people are uncomfortable with this term as it isn’t medical, but for all purposes relates to a foetus which cannot survive outside the womb.