Correction, 8/23/12, 11:41 a.m. EDT: The original version of this story incorrectly identified Todd Akin as a Tea Party–backed candidate. The 17th paragraph of the story has been revised to correct that inaccuracy. We regret the error.
 
For Missouri native Shauna Prewitt, an advocate, author, and public speaker, the decision to post an open letter on women’s lifestyle website xojane.com excoriating Congressman Todd Akin for his controversial comments on rape and abortion was simply part of an ongoing campaign to stand up for victims of sexual assault.
 
Then her missive went viral.
 
Prewitt’s fierce argument against Akin’s dubious contention that women’s bodies can prevent conception during what he called “legitimate rape” soon made its way to CNN, Slate, and even the Daily Mail in the United Kingdom. And while prominent Am Law 100 partners and former Republican U.S. senators from Missouri have joined the growing chorus urging Akin to drop his bid to oust incumbent U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill, Prewitt’s words carry some extra weight.
 
During her senior year of college at the University of Chicago in 2004, the then-21-year-old Prewitt—who is now about to begin her third year as a litigation associate at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in Chicago—was raped.
 
Nine months later, Prewitt gave birth to a daughter fathered by the rapist. Prewitt says that if she knew then what she knows now about the laws in 31 states that grant men who father children via rape visitation rights that are equal to those that other fathers also enjoy, she might not have chosen to keep her child.
 
“My attacker sought custody of my daughter, but thankfully I got lucky and his visitation rights were terminated,” Prewitt says. “But I’m not sure I would have made the decision I did had I known I might be tethered to my rapist for the rest of my life.”
 
Prewitt enrolled at Georgetown Law School in 2006 and graduated three years later. In 2010, she authored a paper for the The Georgetown Law Journal about the limited legal protections afforded to women that become mothers as a result of being raped. The article cites several statistics about the outcome of the estimated 25,000 to 32,000 rape-related pregnancies that occur in the United States each year.
 
While the accuracy of such information is often difficult to determine, one study showed that 50 percent of women who became pregnant as a result of being raped chose to have abortions, while another 5.9 percent put their children up for adoption, which in most states negates any parental rights claimed by the accused rapist.
 
Yet another study cited by Prewitt concluded that 26 percent of women who became pregnant as a result of being raped chose to have abortions. Of the 73 percent of women who carried their pregnancies to term, 36 percent put their babies up for adoption, while 64 percent raised the children conceived through rape, according to data cited by Prewitt’s law review article.
 
Prewitt’s paper also addresses the issue of what Akin called “legitimate rape,” a term she says is highly offensive to her and the thousands of other women forced to essentially prove their victim status in the face of often ignorant courts and legislators.
 
“The term ‘legitimate rape’ is a major problem as it puts the woman, not the man, on trial and suggests that it’s somehow okay to judge and shame women [that claim to have been raped],” Prewitt says. “I’ve seen judges make silly rulings that say things like, ‘just because someone is a rapist doesn’t mean they can’t be a good father.’ “
 
Prewitt says that some women give up their right to a criminal trial for an accused rapist in exchange for the defendant dropping his right to have access to a child conceived as a result of the rape, an often necessary outcome when a mother is faced with how she can be the best parent to that child.
 
Prewitt, who was raised in Kansas City, Missouri, says Akin’s comments, delivered amid his run for a U.S. Senate seat representing her home state, were so ignorant that she felt compelled to respond in a public forum.
 
“Words have a tremendous power to frame the discussion about issues that affect the ability of legislators to make important decisions,” Prewitt says, adding that several of her close friends and colleagues at Skadden were aware of her crusade to assist and counsel victims of sexual assault—and the personal experience that informs it.
 
Prewitt adds that now many more of her Skadden coworkers—whom she describes as being extremely supportive since her letter went mainstream—and those following the Akin imbroglio are aware of her side-career: speaking to law school groups to raise consciousness on the issue of restricting parental rights for rapists who have fathered children by committing violent criminal acts.
 
As it stands, Prewitt says that 31 states have not yet adopted special laws that restrict the ability of rapists to assert their custodian and visitation rights to a child born through rape. The other 19 states—Delaware, Oregon, and Pennsylvania have added protections since the publication of Prewitt’s law review article in 2010—have laws that restrict the access of rapists to the children they fathered.
 
Akin has so far resisted calls from the GOP establishment to give up his quest for the Show Me State’s Senate seat. The national Republican Party has already pledged to not give financial support to Akin, who on Thursday lashed out at his critics for being part of a “liberal elite” trying to take down a “pro-life conservative.”
 
Prewitt prefers to focus on the law, rather than the politics, of the issue. 
 
“I think the one thing all groups—be it Republican or Democrat, pro-life or pro-choice—can agree on is restricting the rights of rapists,” she says.