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An Abortion Trigger Ban, Rape/Incest Exceptions, and Human Dignity
Deacon Michael Leman | 28 April 2022
The 2022 Wyoming Legislature enjoyed a significant pro-life success when it passed HB92 Abortion Prohibition-Supreme Court Decision, a trigger bill that will prohibit abortions in Wyoming should the U.S. Supreme Court strike down Roe vs. Wade. It was sponsored by Park County Representative Rachel Rodriguez-Williams.
As HB92 began to move through the House, it became clear that its opponents would begin focusing on the bill’s lack of exception for rape and incest. Several pro-life coalition members began discussing the possibility of asking Rebecca Kiessling to come to Wyoming so that legislators would have a human face in mind when they began discussing a possible amendment. As a young adult, Rebecca learned that she had been conceived in rape. Thanks to Michigan’s law, which prohibited abortion prior to the passage of Roe, abortion was not a readily available option. So, Rebecca’s birthmother eventually decided to carry her to term and gave her up for adoption.
Rebecca did come to Cheyenne, and I met her just prior to our testimony on HB92. I learned that there was so much about the rape and incest “exception” that I had never thought about.
I had heard children conceived in rape referred to as “products of violence,” as well as many other terms meant to legitimize the violence of abortion, and consequently dehumanize children conceived in rape. I also knew that legalized abortion helps perpetuate crimes committed against some victims of sexual abuse (like those being trafficked) because it legally disposes of the “evidence.”
But Rebecca’s testimony made me realize there still is so much I have never considered.
It is true that her father was guilty of rape. But she is also a daughter of a victim. Half of her DNA came from her mother. Rebecca said that she was able to track down her biological father years after learning the truth. She said she learned that he is not even in jail today, but she had nearly received the death penalty for what he had done years ago.
This wasn’t the only time the death penalty surfaced in my mind. I watched as Rebecca appealed to individual legislators—many of whom consider themselves pro-life but would soon vote for the rape-exception amendment. In several cases, I watched as nervous eyes darted about trying to avoid making eye contact with Rebecca. Then came the usual disclaimer, that they really appreciated hearing her story, but they had to get back to the Senate floor.
It was reminiscent of watching Randy Steidl talking to some legislators about repealing the death penalty several years ago. Randy was exonerated after 12 years on death row in Illinois. It was only after he had exhausted his last appeal that an off-duty officer began looking into his case and found evidence that overturned his conviction. Like Rebecca, Randy experienced several Wyoming legislators who couldn’t look him in the eye. And others who wouldn’t even come off the floor to stand in his presence.
I believe the struggle legislators were contending with in both cases was this: It is hard to look someone in the eye knowing you are about to send a message to the world (with your vote) indicating that same person does not have an equal right to life as everyone else in the room. I don’t mean prudential disagreement about which policies will best lead us to human flourishing. I mean laws that directly and intentionally take the lives of other human beings.
Admittedly, there is a difference between abortion and the death penalty. But these experiences reveal similarities as well. The vast majority of Americans who casually support either abortion or the death penalty (or both) have something in common: they will never have to watch an execution or an abortion, much less face someone who was lucky enough to survive either one.
I don’t recommend using religious arguments in secular settings. I have seen too many legislators reject good arguments simply because they contained religious language.
But given our context within the Society of St. Sebastian, I thought I would speak to a premise of our faith; the fact that Christ on the cross revealed our human dignity.
In preparation of that revelation, Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”
Recall, the Israelites complained against Moses and the Lord. When serpents killed many of them, Moses interceded, and God told him to forge a bronze serpent. When anyone was bitten, they were to look upon the serpent and they would be healed.
In Genesis, a serpent brought death into the garden by sewing the seed of doubt about God’s trustworthiness in Adam and Eve’s minds. He suggested that God’s prohibition against eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge wasn’t to protect them, rather, it was because God did not want them to be like him.
This caused a rupture between creation and Creator, resulting in death. This same doubt caused the Israelites to question God in the desert. When Moses lifted the bronze serpent, surely the Israelites remembered that doubting God’s faithfulness was deadly.
Likewise, when we see Jesus on the cross, we remember that our own lack of trust in God as Father prevents us from seeing other human persons as God’s daughters and sons. This is what is poisoning us. When we look into the eyes of our sisters and brothers who have survived our unjust laws, it has the power to heal us, if we’re open to it. We remember that while the world still thinks there are many good reasons for killing people, our Lord showed us on the cross, that every single person was worth dying for. Period.
HB92, by God’s grace, eventually did pass and was signed by Governor Gordon. Unfortunately, a rape/incest amendment was added in the process. The heartbreaking, grace-filled task of calling Rebecca and letting her know the amendment had been added fell to me. It was heartbreaking in that I had to explain the reasons some pro-life legislators gave before voting for the amendment. I had to listen to the impact my words were having on Rebecca as I said them. I say it was also a grace-filled task because I will never forget Rebecca’s emotional response. I will never forget what it sounds like when someone hears that they are considered an “acceptable” exception to the government’s responsibility for providing full, legal protection under the law.
Deacon Michael Leman
Diocese of Cheyenne