Note: this interview is from a few years ago, before the official founding of the Minimise Project. Several of our members were involved with a pro-life student group in Trinity College Dublin, which hosted Shauna and another rape survivor and mother, Jennifer Christie, to talk about their experiences and advocacy.
On 2 October 2017, Shauna Prewitt, an American attorney and campaigner for the rights of rape survivors, visited Trinity College Dublin. She kindly agreed to speak to me about her experience as a campaigner, lawyer, rape survivor and advocate for victims of rape and their children.
Her advocacy stems from her own rape, as a 21-year-old senior at the University of Chicago, by someone she knew. She described the assault as ‘like a death’. Deeply traumatised, she was shocked to learn, a few months before graduation, that she was pregnant. After seeing her baby’s heartbeat on the sonogram, she was determined to continue the pregnancy, fortunately with the support of her family and friends.
However, shortly after her daughter was born, Prewitt’s attacker filed for custody. She eventually succeeded in getting his parental rights terminated, but was horrified to learn that most US states made no legal provision for automatically terminating rapists’ parental rights. Since the average rape case takes 2-3 years to come to trial (and many rapes are not reported to the police or do not proceed to trial at all), a rapist may seek custody or visitation as a way of intimidating a victim into dropping charges.
Determined to do something about this injustice, Prewitt went on to study law at Georgetown, researching the issue further and writing the first known academic paper on the topic in the Georgetown Law Journal. She describes how she and her daughter went on this journey together: juggling law school and caring for her, Prewitt once had to bring her daughter with her to class when schools were closed due to snow – which her classmates thought was ‘awesome’. She is very positive about the support available for parenting students in Georgetown.
During her pregnancy, Prewitt struggled with ‘feeling like a bad rape victim’ for choosing to raise her daughter. She has travelled around the US, addressing state legislatures on the issue and pushing for law reform; legislators often questioned why any rape survivor would continue a pregnancy. While insensitive comments about sexual assault by public figures are unfortunately common, Rep. Todd Akin’s (R-Missouri) notorious 2012 comment ‘If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down’ she felt this was ‘unusually bad for a federal representative’; and felt compelled to respond with an open letter:
Dear Rep. Akin,
I am one of the approximately 25,000 women who every year become pregnant as a result of rape, and I would like to help you better “empathize” with my story…
I do not know if, in your terms, it was “legitimate rape.” Yes, I cried hysterically. Yes, I fought until my body ached. And, yes, I changed afterward in ways I could not ever imagine.
Before my rape, I lived normally… I was young, vibrant, confident and excited about a future that had never felt more within my grasp. In a single, life-altering moment, all of that was stripped away… Every moment during and after my rape was an agony. Not even 22 years old and my life, as it seemed, was over. Did I respond legitimately enough for you?…
Today, I am an attorney and the busy single mother of an amazing second grader. My rape is responsible for both of these roles. You see, I enrolled at Georgetown Law School after learning, first-hand, that pregnancy from rape creates unimaginable obstacles for women who decide to raise the children they conceive through rape. In the vast majority of states, a rapist has the same custody and visitation rights to a child born through his crime as other fathers enjoy.
The letter went viral, bringing huge media attention to her advocacy work; she was even contacted by the office of then-First Lady Michelle Obama.
When she was raped in 2004, only 16 US states had laws addressing this issue; as of April 2017, over 45 do. Federal action has also been taken; in 2015 Congress enacted legislation encouraging states to address child custody for rape survivors. Prewitt worked with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Florida) to campaign for the legislation.
However, although the majority of states now have laws regarding termination of rapists’ parental rights, this is not always enough. Many states require a criminal conviction of rape or sexual assault – with a burden of proof of ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ – before parental rights can be terminated.
Prewitt is highly critical of the US legal system’s approach to the prosecution of sexual offences. She notes that obtaining a rape conviction is extremely difficult, since the stereotype of rape as always being by a stranger, in a public place, and violent or involving a weapon, does not reflect the statistical reality of most sexual assaults. Stereotypical views of rape victims are also extremely harmful, reflecting racial and social biases; she was only able to progress her case and fight for a prosecution ‘because I was the “good girl” who was believed, which is disgusting.’
She also describes that prosecutors don’t have to listen to victims’ wishes and may see any conviction as a victory, leading to a tendency to settle for a guilty plea on a lesser charge rather than pushing for a rape conviction. This attitude is worsened by the fact that top police officials and prosecutors are elected, incentivising them to only take cases they know they can win in order to maintain a high conviction rate.
All this means that if termination of parental rights in only possible with a criminal conviction for rape, many – probably the majority – of mothers and children in this situation will be helpless to prevent a rapist filing for custody or visitation. Despite the progress made since Prewitt began her campaigning work, recent news reports have further illustrated that greater legislative change is needed. 
Prewitt has forged a successful career as an attorney while raising her daughter, becoming an associate at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, a law firm in Chicago. In 2015, she received the Maurice Weigle Exceptional Young Lawyer Award from the Chicago Bar Association in recognition of her pro bono work – logging 2,600 hours of pro bono work in her first five years of practice. The next year, Crain’s Chicago Business newspaper named her one of their ‘40 under 40’.
Prewitt’s daughter is now 13 and knows the circumstances of her conception: ‘we don’t have secrets in our family. None of the stigma ever crossed my mind. She’s my daughter.’ Prewitt’s legal star continues to rise: in March 2018, she began work as an Assistant United States Attorney for the Southern District of California.
 Shauna R. Prewitt, ‘Giving Birth to a “Rapist’s Child”: A Discussion and Analysis of the Limited Legal Protections Afforded to Women Who Become Mothers Through Rape’ (2010) 98 Georgetown Law Journal 872.
 Following the letter, Prewitt shared her story on CNN and Mother Jones and was interviewed by Channel 4 in the UK (https://edition.cnn.com/2012/08/22/opinion/ prewitt-rapist-visitation-rights/index.html; https://www.motherjones.com/politics/ 2012/08/rapist-seeks-child-custody-shauna-prewitt ; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gub5XEiwycw
 National Conference of State Legislatures website: http://www.ncsl.org/research/humanservices/ parental-rights-and-sexual-assault.aspx#2
 Title IV (Rape Survivor Child Custody), Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act 2015.
 https://theestablishment.co/the-unique-hell-of-fighting-your-rapist-for-custody-8fbb1cff52b3; http://www.foxnews.com/us/2017/04/21/in-7-us-states-rape-victims-can-be-legally-forced-to-share-custody-their-children-with-their-rapist-fathers.html