Mother Courage
Miss Pennsylvania USA’s remarkable mother

Valerie Gatto (


Kevin D. Williamson

Valerie Gatto does not want to talk about abortion. That’s probably prudent, inasmuch as she very much desires to be the next Miss USA, and contestants in that pageant are expected to have ruthlessly anodyne interests along the lines of reading children’s literature to blind dolphins. But she is admirably direct, even bracing, about the aspect of her life that intersects that troublesome issue: She was conceived when her mother, a teenager at the time, was attacked on the streets of Pittsburgh and raped at knifepoint.

Asked by a radio interviewer about whether her mother had considered abortion, Miss Gatto was as scripted as a contestant in a presidential debate (which is, after all, much the same business as hers), saying that her mother had been presented with the possibility but had never seriously considered terminating the pregnancy. Instead, she was determined to put the child up for adoption — until changing her mind the night before her daughter was born. God, Miss Gatto’s great-grandmother told her mother, would not give her more than she could handle. In the event, it became a question of what Miss Gatto’s mother and grandparents could handle; she had the benefit of being raised in an extended-family household, one that by every indication is composed of extraordinary and kind people.

Miss Gatto, deflecting the question of abortion specifically, said that she did not desire to be the candidate of Roe v. Wade. “My story is bigger than that.” In a sense, that is true, but in another sense, it isn’t.

Miss Gatto is of course under no obligation to be a standard-bearer for either side of the abortion debate; it is only the worst kind of fanatic who cannot accommodate the fact that his own interests and enthusiasms, however sincerely held, need not be universal. And if Miss Gatto’s message is scrupulously inoffensive — that life can go on even after enduring an act of horrific personal brutality — it is nonetheless a worthwhile one. There are many kinds of courage in the world, of which a mother’s courage is a very specific and demanding variety. Rape is a special kind of cruelty in that it transforms the life-giving act into an act of torture. To suffer the crime and yet cherish the life is an act of transcendence, a perfection of generosity rarely if ever equaled by the merely human.

My own view is that those in the pro-life camp who wish to carve out legal exceptions for cases of rape are undermining their own position. If our desire is to protect the lives of the innocent unborn, then the circumstances of their conception, no matter how horrible, cannot be allowed to overrule their standing as members of the human family. But that is not to say that the circumstances do not matter. We should be fully cognizant of exactly what our position implies, and of the extraordinary burden such a standard would impose on women who have suffered a particularly heinous kind of assault.

But set aside, for the moment, the question of the legal status of abortion. The fact is that abortion is at the moment legal and widely available. Miss Gatto was born in 1989, well into the age of the universal abortion license. Her mother could have terminated her pregnancy easily, and the matter could have remained entirely private. She chose to do otherwise, and then took the additional step of taking on the burdens and difficulties of raising the child rather than giving her to adoptive parents. This is by no means to denigrate the decisions of women who do give up their children for adoption — I myself am grateful that such a decision was made in my own case, and that abortion remained illegal in Texas in 1972. I have no idea whether my biological mother, whom I have not met, would have been tempted by the availability of legal abortion; still, I object to the notion that my own life should be optional under the law. Miss Gatto’s mother must have known that she was not choosing an easy road, even with the support and assistance of her parents.

The remarkable fact is that a not insignificant number of women who become pregnant through rape do not choose to terminate their pregnancies, deciding instead to forgo adding to the sum of violence in the world, even though a portion of it has been cruelly visited upon their own persons. In a culture that treats abortion as barely if at all distinguishable from mere contraception, that is heroic. And it is heroic regardless of our specific political differences on the issue of the legal standing of abortion, important — fundamentally important — as that question is.

That heroic act involves unusual personal endurance. Beyond the usual trials of pregnancy, women who have conceived via rape often have unexpectedly traumatic reactions to the sometimes-invasive medical procedures involved in pregnancy; they frequently experience unsupportive or hostile reactions from friends, family, even churches; many of them are not aware of such resources as may be available to assist them. They worry, inevitably, about what they will someday tell their children. The most common advice given by women who have gone through with rape-conceived pregnancies is to seek counseling and support as early in the pregnancy as possible.

“My story is bigger than that,” Miss Gatto says. And so it is. What’s in question in the abortion debate is not the scope or moral color of Miss Gatto’s story, but whether she gets to have a story at all. She does, but millions don’t. A Miss USA contestant has no special responsibility to wrestle with that issue. But citizens do, whether publicly or privately. We are burdened with that problem; it is more likely that we will arrive at a medical solution, in the form of some universally effective contraception, than a moral consensus. (“The Enlightened One, if he had meditated on it, would not necessarily have rejected a technical solution.” — Michel Houellebecq) And when we are thinking about what sort of citizens we want to be, we might consider the case of Miss Gatto’s mother and others in her position, who have endured what few of us will ever suffer and given more than most of us ever will be called upon to give.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.


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