24/05/2013 09:52 BST | Updated 23/07/2013 06:12 BST

Dirty Little Secrets? Children Conceived in Rape

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When a 14 year old Irish girl was raped and became pregnant in 1992, nobody knew that the shockwaves would still be rippling 20 years later. This week, the 'Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill' is navigating the Irish Parliament. If successful, abortion, where there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother, may soon be legalised in Ireland.

This controversial legislation stems from the 1992 rape case, when the girl referred to as 'X', was barred from leaving Ireland to prevent her terminating her pregnancy. The case exploded back into the public consciousness this year with the death of Savita Halappanavar, who died in Galway after being denied a termination.

Whilst legislating for 'X' is obviously important, as always, polarised abortion debates have reduced a complex issue to the 'to terminate or not to terminate' question. Once again, issues surrounding conception from rape have been completely overlooked.

The most common context for conception in rape is 'forced pregnancy' where sexual violence is used as a weapon in ethnic conflicts and genocides - think Bosnia and the Congo. It is rare that pregnancy from rape ever receives a public platform in 'developed' societies, especially when rape itself is rarely discussed or prosecuted.

Feminist movements have helped change attitudes to rape but the stigma remains. Understandably, most people don't want, or need, to discuss rape. Everyone knows it is an abhorrent violation of human rights, which causes unimaginable trauma for survivors. We still treat it almost as a dirty little secret.

What we often forget is that, sometimes, the trauma of rape doesn't end with the victim. In 'Far From the Tree', a new book providing one of the few comprehensive profiles of children conceived in rape, Andrew Solomon suggested that these children get as rough a start to life as anyone, akin to those with debilitating disabilities. Solomon aptly stated that "rape survivors are victims, their children are forgotten victims."

Accurate figures on conception from rape in the UK are rare. US statistics suggest that that there are 25-32,000 rape related pregnancies annually with conception occurring in less than one percent of rape cases. However, any statistical data is questionable when rape and pregnancy from rape are routinely underreported.

What we do know is that some children are conceived in rape and this can cast a lifelong shadow over them. Being a victim of rape is hard to be proud but for children conceived in rape, identity can be an everlasting battle. These children are the living legacy of a most disgusting and vicious crime. They posses the genetics of a criminal and permanently symbolise the unfathomable trauma inflicted on their mother. They can be tormented by the knowledge that their conception was the absolute antithesis of what was desired. At best, it was a mistake, at worst, a brutal crime.

What must never be forgotten is that the child is an innocent victim too. They were not complicit and they are certainly not blameworthy. They had no part in the violation, yet unfairly, the stigma is still attached to them throughout their lives, meaning emotional issues are inevitable.

If survivors of rape face issues with intimacy, anxiety, depression, insomnia and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, then for children conceived in rape, these issues are magnified and leave everlasting wounds. Few others experience the same ordeal and being shrouded in secrecy can lead to extreme loneliness, bewilderment or even a total lack of sensation. Despite the root cause of their potential problems being recognised even before they are born, there are few opportunities for these children to openly espouse their history, let alone receive support.

For many people who suffer an affliction, support groups provide a network where similar people can unite. They afford sufferers a positive identity as part of a group bound by a common struggle. Rape counselling services are widespread, but for children conceived in rape, it is unlikely to find many others to relate to.

Only recently have a handful of organisations been formed to serve the needs of those conceived by rape. The most notable, STIGMA, is an American online group which caters not only to victims of rape and those conceived, but also provides direction to the perpetrators themselves.

Unfortunately, other organisations offering support often possess other agendas. Pregnancy from rape is inextricably linked with abortion; a controversial topic where opinions are vehement and entrenched. Children conceived in rape have opened a new front in abortion culture but their issues are routinely overshadowed by the strongest voices in the debate; often those who also have the strongest agendas. Even well-intentioned support offered by various groups can be coercive and pressurising, with talk of what is 'right'

It is a given that the child has absolutely no control over the situation, so whether a termination is wanted or pregnancy is continued, the survivor should be empowered to make the choice. Nobody can offer a 'right' answer. Every woman must have the right to choose what is best for her own circumstances. It doesn't matter if they base a decision on reasons of religious observance or because of pro-choice values; as long as it is not based on other people's values, it should be respected. Regardless of who tries to push their beliefs to the top of the agenda, the survivor and the child are the only ones who have to live with whatever happens.

Most importantly, we must recognise that a conclusion isn't reached with a survivor's decision, especially when the pregnancy is continued. Not only will the rape survivor need ongoing support, but we cannot allow children conceived in rape to become the forgotten victims of society's most shameful crime.