When Women Conceive in Rape: A Mixed-Methods Investigation of Legal Obstacles, Public Misperceptions, and Policy Implications

Guarnera, Lucy, Psychology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Reppucci, Nicholas, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia

Objectives. Women who conceive in rape—an estimated 2.4% of all U.S. women, or 2.9 million U.S. women total—experience the double vulnerability of violent victimization and unintended pregnancy. This already extremely vulnerable group then faces the additional obstacles of (a) a legal landscape resulting in numerous risks and challenges unique to their situation and (b) frequent endorsement of negative perceptions and inaccurate beliefs about rape-related pregnancy by legal personnel and others around them. The goal of this mixed-methods study (using a sequential exploratory design) was to investigate the legal choices, experiences, and outcomes of women who conceive in rape by way of qualitative interviews with survivors, and then use this data to craft a quantitative survey investigating associated attitudes, beliefs, and policy preferences among the general U.S. population.

Qualitative interviews. I conducted two-hour individual interviews with 35 women who conceived in rape, recruited primarily from online sources relevant to sexual assault or rape conception. The sampling goal was phenomenal variation of legal experiences. Interviews were transcribed and analyzed by way of thematic analysis with multiple coding passes, resulting in over two dozen final themes illustrating how participants interacted with the legal system and other adjacent institutions. Results suggest that women who conceive in rape frequently face legal double binds, where they must choose between two undesirable courses of action with the potential for negative collateral consequences, exacerbated by poor legal knowledge and biased or unhelpful responses from legal personnel and others.

Quantitative survey. A general U.S. sample (N = 592) matched to the U.S. census on several demographic variables recruited via a survey company completed a 15-minute online survey containing the following types of items: (a) two experimental vignettes with random assignment assessing how a woman’s claim of rape-related pregnancy impacts respondents’ perceptions of her, as compared to a woman claiming rape alone (6-11 items per vignette); (b) polling of respondents’ attitudes and beliefs about rape-related pregnancy (25 items); and (c) polling of respondents’ endorsement of public policies relevant to rape-related pregnancy (16 items). Regarding the experimental vignettes, respondents were hypothesized to endorse more negative appraisals (more skeptical, less sympathetic, angrier) toward a woman a claiming rape-related pregnancy as compared to a woman claiming rape alone. Results suggested that respondents viewed an adolescent claiming rape-related pregnancy more skeptically than an adolescent claiming rape alone, but that pregnancy did not change perceptions of a woman involved in a custody dispute. A sizeable minority of respondents endorsed negative perceptions or inaccurate beliefs about rape-related pregnancy (e.g., biological fallacies, pregnant-raped-woman prototype). Respondents were generally in favor of public policies friendly to women who conceive in rape, as long as these policies contain procedures to manage the risk of false rape claims.

Conclusions. Numerous reforms to law and institutional policy have the potential to improve legal experiences and outcomes for women pregnant from rape. The success of these changes depends in part on taking into account (if not actively repudiating) misperceptions regarding these women.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
mixed-methods, qualitative methods, rape-related pregnancy, rape conception, sexual assault, law enforcement, child custody
Sponsoring Agency:
American Psychology-Law SocietyAmerican Academy of Forensic Psychology
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