Rebecca Kiessling was born of a traumatic and violent crime. Her mother was raped 50 years ago.
In spite of that horror, Kiessling is alive today because her mother initially sought an abortion but later had a change of heart. She was devastated at age 18 to discover the circumstances of her birth. But with that knowledge came hope that she could show life is always valued and worthy of protection ̶ no matter how it was created.
“I knew then I was in a position where I would have to justify my existence,” said Kiessling, now a Detroit-based lawyer and a prominent pro-life activist.
“I would spend the rest of my life defending my right to have been born, my right to be alive.”
It was a chance to share her very personal story, and challenge the suggestion that abortion is justified in cases of rape.
“If you make that abortion exception for rape, you are saying I deserved the death penalty for the crimes of my biological father,” Kiessling said. “We do not punish innocent children for someone else’s crime.”
Since 1988, Canada has had no law prohibiting abortion at any stage of pregnancy.
Access to abortion varies by province. The Canadian Institute for Health Information reports that 94,030 abortions were recorded across Canada in 2017, including 12,706 in Alberta. In the last decade, the highest number reported in any year was 108,844, in 2011.
Less than one per cent of all abortions in Canada are linked to rape and incest, according to the Campaign Life Coalition. The numbers are similar in the U.S.
Nevertheless, Kiessling shares her story to focus on the right to life in all cases, “because stories pierce the heart in ways that arguments can’t.”
The sold-out crowd of 300 hung on Kiessling’s every word as she passionately told her story of how the search for her biological parents turned her to a life of activism.
“I thought finding my birth family would help me set roots in this world,” Kiessling recalled. “I wanted to know my value, my identity.”
Kiessling was adopted soon after she was born in 1969. Eighteen years later, she began the search for her biological parents. In the late 1980s she received the court documents that would end it.
While there was lots of personal detail about her mother, the identification of her father read like a police description. The documents also revealed that her mother was raped at knifepoint.
“I felt so ugly and unwanted,” Kiessling said. “To think I was conceived in the worst case scenario made me feel totally worthless.”
Although the search for birth parents ended, the issue of abortion remained a focus for Kiessling. She recalls a heated debate with her pro-choice adoptive father. Soon after, Kiessling quickly realized that protecting the right to life would become the focus of her life and career.
“All I could think is I have to fight for this,” she said. “I feel like my life was spared from a burning building and I now have the opportunity to try and save others.”
Kiessling contacted her biological mother, Joann, and they grew to have a lifelong relationship.
However, their initial meeting began with a shock. Kiessling learned that after Joann was raped, she sought a back-alley abortion because, in 1969, the procedure was illegal in the U.S.
Kiessling calls it it her “life-changing near-death experience. People will say I was lucky. But I wasn’t lucky, I was protected. Legality mattered, and I am so thankful my life was spared.”
As their relationship progressed, Joann wrote a letter saying none of the pain and trauma of her rape was worth giving up someone as precious and beautiful as Rebecca. It’s a letter that Kiessling can recite by heart.
“I felt so affirmed. I know my worth. I know my identity today.”
Today, Kiessling is the founder and president of Save the 1, which advocates for men and women who were conceived in sexual assault.
“My organization defends all of these so-called difficult cases in the abortion debate,” she said. “This is a problem that has to be addressed. I’ve even heard stories of pastors and priests who gave the greenlight to their parishioners to abort a child conceived in rape.”
Kiessling’s advocacy has made her a controversial figure. She has been shouted down on university campuses. She has received emails expressing how angry people are that she wasn’t aborted. She has also met with politicians who completely changed their stance on abortion because of her story.
Kiessling said it’s vital to emphasize that rape is no exception for abortion. When confronted, she is reminded of Christ’s parable of the lost sheep.
“There are pro-lifers who say save the 99 for the one, but Jesus was all about saving the one,” Kiessling said. “People have to see that we are not bargaining chips of the pro-life moment. We’re not your way to compromise on legislation or with politicians. We’re real people.”
It’s a message that resonated with Pam Davey. The Edmonton mother came to hear Kiessling’s speech with her sixth and youngest child, five-month-old Nora, in tow.
“If you put a face to this issue, it really hits home and is made so much more meaningful,” Davey said.
“I have a son in Grade 12 and this issue was coming up a lot. There’s been conversations he had defending the pro-life position where people will say ‘Well, what if the girl was raped?’ The information and rebuttals I heard here I’ll definitely bring back to him.”
Davey was also struck by the strong relationship between Kiessling and her biological mother. It’s a counter argument to critics who say a mother could never love a child conceived in rape.
“But this shows that she can. Any mother can experience something like that,” Davey said.
“It’s certainly not the same thing, but when you have an unexpected pregnancy it’s something you can worry about. You can be overwhelmed thinking ‘I’ll be so busy, how can I love this child?’ Then when that child is born, that love naturally comes with them. There’s no effort needed. All mothers are capable of love.”
Kianna Owen, a volunteer with The Back Porch, hopes the message people ultimately take away from Kiessling’s story is that all babies deserve a chance at life.
“For those of us in the pro-life movement, it may seem easy to make those exceptions,” she said. “But all of this work would be in vain if we made exceptions.”
While Kiessling’s position can spark some tough conversations, she sees her story as one of hope. Her life is proof that even the most difficult of circumstances can be turned into a force for good.
“And isn’t that what God is famous for?” Kiessling said. “The worst evil that man has in store, God can use for good and for His glory.”