As women’s rights activists call for the legalisation of abortion, particularly in cases of rape, Lara Sierra, herself a rape victim, speaks to a pro-life campaigner, born of rape, about her international campaign to remove the parental rights of rapists. It is out of gratitude that her life was somehow protected that she now wants to protect others.
Rebecca Kiessling arrives in a sparkly jumper, with her big blonde hair and an American drawl. Best of all is her outlandish, multi-coloured, phone-shaped handbag, which actually works as a phone. But underneath her feminine flamboyance is a soft-spoken woman, with the ability to move mountains with her words.
“I am a pro-life activist and a lawyer,” she explains. “I have been working on a law for 10 years, which [Barack] Obama signed in 2016. It is called the Rape Survivor Child Custody Act – to terminate the parental rights of rapists without requiring a rape conviction.”
Yes, that is correct. Rapists have parental rights to any offspring that are a consequence of their crime. Yet, without a rape conviction, how are they proven guilty?
“I deal with this all over the world,” Rebecca, a guest of Life Network, answers. “In other circumstances, you do not need to have a conviction to remove the rights of a parent. For child molestation, or child abuse, you need a heightened standard of evidence. In the US, we call it clear and convincing evidence.
“We looked at the law in Malta in 2016 with a team of lawyers and there is a judicial standard that allows for the termination of parental rights, so it would be the same for mothers with children born of rape. It’s the same way I’ve dealt with this in the US and other countries I’ve worked with,” Rebecca explains.
“This law was designed to be part of a package for gender violence… Some legislators question how often these cases actually occur? But that is such an ignorant view. They don’t understand how prevalent rape is. It is wildly under-reported.”
Statistics worldwide make for depressing reading. In the US, 994 perpetrators out of 1,000 reported cases of rape will walk free, mostly because victims will drop their charges for one reason or another. In the UK, only 15 per cent of cases of sexual abuse are reported to the police. In Malta, around 160 cases of rape were reported in the last decade, but that is not at all an indication of the amount that actually happen.
Unreported rape statistics exist across the whole of Europe: it is estimated that about 67 per cent go unreported, yet this average is woefully inaccurate for each country. It includes, for example, the UK, which had a 173 per cent rise in reported sexual violence between 2008 and 2015.
Not in a hurry to go back to the UK after reading that? Don’t be; high reporting statistics are not necessarily bad news and could be an indication that victims trust their politicians and police enough to know they will be safe and protected when reporting an act of violence against them.
Hopefully, what happened at the end of 2017 will make a dramatic difference to this too. The Harvey Weinstein revelations set off a cascade of revelatory stories of sexual abuse across the Western world, including the ensuing #metoo campaign and yet more stories involving high-profile figures against males, females and children no less.
Rebecca sighs. “The problem with #metoo is that women whose perpetrators are still at large were unable to speak out. They had to use a pseudonym, or not speak out at all.”
It’s a valid point, and more evidence that women are often too fearful to report a rape. I was one of the luckier ones. I was drugged and raped by someone who lived on the other side of the world; who had very few personal details about me. Yet I did not go to the police either. Why not? Because, as many other victims feel, I felt shame, guilt and disgust at myself.
There was clear evidence that I had been attacked; I awoke with blood on my clothes, bruises on my thighs and bite marks on my torso. Yet the mental state that perpetuated over the next few years was one of such self-loathing that I came to believe the attack was my fault. This is a symptom of trauma. And in cases of rape, where other symptoms often also include memory loss and low levels of self-esteem, no wonder so few victims go to the police.
Since making my story known, I have had many people coming to me, privately and secretly, confessing crimes committed against them too, and none of them had reported their attacks either. This is proof, then, that the problem exists in Malta, even if we don’t have the statistics on it. And, in a bitter twist of fate, this reluctance to report an attack is a massive thumbs-up for the attackers. It keeps them walking free and confidently continuing their wicked ways.
Rebecca too has her own experience of rape. “I was conceived in rape and put up for adoption,” she explains. “My birth mother was abducted at knife point by a serial rapist. She never knew who he was. I found out a year-and-a-half ago, due to new DNA technology, and we both hoped that he would either be in prison, or dead. But no, he has never been convicted.
“I was frequently sexually assaulted, aged 10, by an adult, and I was also raped by a boyfriend when I was 19. He broke my jaw,” she pauses. “I’ve never spoken about this in Malta.”
Rebecca’s life story is heart-breaking, yes, but inspirational too. “I met my birth mother when I was 19, after deciding to find out who she was. I received non-identifying information, which had all sorts of information about her. But all it said about my father is that he was Caucasian and of large build. I felt devalued. I felt like I now had to justify my own existence.
I called my case worker and asked her if my birth mother had been raped and she said: ‘I didn’t want to tell you.’
“I felt like my life had become a feather, just floating, and I wanted to feel safe and grounded that she would never have aborted me. But no, when we met, she told me she had sought out two illegal abortions. I felt like I was not supposed to be there; I just happened to be saved. It’s out of gratitude for my life being protected that I want to protect others. I wasn’t lucky, but I was protected. Legality matters.”
Rebecca always wanted to be a lawyer. “Absolutely! My adopted dad took me to see a film called The Verdict, and straight away, I wanted to be that hero and defend victims. People used to say: ‘Oh you want to be a lawyer… Does that mean you’re a feminist?’ I thought, yes, I believe in women; I want to defend women’s rights. But then I started to hear that feminists are pro-abortion, and I thought, what does being a feminist have to do with killing babies? It didn’t make sense. One of the great things about women is how loving and nurturing they are. This is what makes us special.”
It is undeniable that abortion is not loving, nor nurturing, but it is important to state the other side of the argument too. The Women’s Rights Foundation, for example, calls abortion a human right, which should be given at least to save a woman’s life, to preserve her physical and mental health, in cases of rape and incest and in the eventuality of fatal foetus impairment.
It has also called for the decriminalisation of abortion so that Maltese women who access abortion in other countries, or through telemedicine, do not face criminal proceedings and risk three years imprisonment especially when accessing local health services for possible post-abortion complications.
It is an interesting point; and a valid one when considering the amount of women taking a quick ‘holiday’ to the UK or Sicily in times of desperation. That figure is unknown, but according to Dr Miriam Sciberras, pro-life activist for Life Network, there were about 90 reported cases of illegal abortions in Malta in 2016.
She, along with the rest of Life Network, are launching a helpline, and meeting groups for women who are in pregnancy crisis. “We believe that anything that threatens human life is an abuse,” she says. Yet their line will also support women who are struggling post-abortion.
Life Line is a 24-hour, fully confidential, pregnancy support network for females in crisis, regarding pregnancy, negative pregnancy results and post-abortion healing, including for family and friends.
The support is available via an online chat and telephone service. It aims to provide a warm, non-judgemental and friendly interface to help empower women to make life-affirming choices.
“A big problem is that people are against abortion except in cases of rape,” Rebecca says. “What’s more, a lot of rape victims are seen as bad feminists and bad rape victims when they decide to keep their child. The children are called ‘Satan’s spawn’ and ‘demon child’… Yet many women come to me asking for forgiveness. ‘Would my baby forgive me for aborting it?’ I tell them that in heaven, there are no more tears.”
People tend to use biblical references when seeking moral direction, and yet, Rebecca says, it was her atheist adopted grandmother who is responsible for her pro-life beliefs.
“Being pro-life does not require a biblical base. I am a child of God and I am also a child of a rape victim. I know my worth and it is not that I am a lawyer, and I don’t have to show you my finances.
“I have a wonderful husband and I have five children. When my daughter was six, she wrote a book, which she showed me. Inside, she had written: ‘Conceived in rape is not bad. Because that’s my mum’.”
You can’t argue with that. And really, it is quite simple. Rape is bad; life is good. But unfortunately, life is also complicated, challenging, and at times, extraordinarily difficult. Women often get the raw end of the deal. But, really, that just makes them stronger, and more understanding of others.
This article first appeared in Pink magazine. Get your copy of Malta's favourite women's magazine with The Sunday Times of Malta.