Life or Rape: Richard Mourdock’s Pronoun Scandal

Richard Mourdock rape statements.

Richard Mourdock recently said that God wants girls to be raped.

Only he didn’t say that. And the problem stems from improperly defined pronouns. It was kind of Mourdock, really, to show us how a badly botched pronoun can cause such an uproar.

I try to avoid political commentary on here, as you know, but this story seems to warrant a few words. The specific statement from Mourdock that drew so much fire was:

I came to realize that life is a gift from God, and I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape that it is something God intended to happen.

Mourdock continued without flinching, apparently satisfied to state that God intended rape. However, once confronted with the common interpretation of his statement, he back-pedaled furiously, saying his words were twisted and taken out of context. Which is true. Others retorted that they were using his precise words. Also true. The culprit for all this chaos seems to be an even narrower part of Mourdock’s statement:

“[…] it […]”

Amateur writers often leave their pronouns (that, this, it, he, she, they) undefined, even when that pronoun can apply to more than one target.  Mourdock demonstrates the exact same misstep. When he stated that “it” is something God intended to happen, there were two possible interpretations:

life […] is something God intended to happen.”

or

rape […] is something God intended to happen.”

Mourdock meant life, as his full statement makes fairly clear. What his opponents (and many others in the audience) heard and focused on was the shocking (and highly sell-able) alternative that makes a wild claim about rape.

Here’s the full quote from Richard Mourdock, with the applicable portion transcribed below.

I, too, certainly stand for life. I know there are some who disagree, and I respect their point of view. But I believe that life begins at conception. The only exception I have for, to get an abortion, is in the case of the life of the mother. I, just, I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is a gift from God, and I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape that it is something God intended to happen.

To translate, Mourdock was saying that abortion should only be okay if the life of the mother is in danger, because even in cases of rape, the child/fetus has a soul, and that we as humans are responsible for tending to the souls God sends to earth.

My own political opinion is not the most important thing here; I come to you as a grammarian and a writer, not as an activist—and certainly not as a Republican, an evangelical, or a Mourdock campaigner. I will say, broadly, that I disagree with Mourdock’s actual statements on abortion. He and I reside in different camps. But that’s not the issue I’m here to talk about.

For one, I want to emphasize: De-contextualizing Mourdock’s statements prevents the appropriate discourse. It prevents us from seeing opposing viewpoints clearly, undermines the opportunity to find common ground, and incites anger rather than creating opportunities to develop a healthy community based on mutual respect and open dialogue.

And just as important, I want to remind everyone to be careful with their pronouns. Pronoun ambiguity is serious business. When life and rape are on the line, it is just not okay.