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Saturday, September 29, 2012

Is Abortion Permissible in the Hard Cases? Part II

As I have previously shown, abortions because of fetal disability or deformity cannot be morally justified. But now we’ll look at another hard case, the cases of rape and incest.

Perhaps the most emotionally charged questions that come up when discussing abortion
revolve around rape and incest. Certainly the circumstances surrounding a woman obtaining an abortion after she is raped is, at the very least, understandable. Rape is a terrible crime, one which no woman should ever be subjected to. It’s one of the worst things a human being can ever do to another human being. According to this site, approximately 54% of rapes are never even reported, and of the remaining 46% only about 3% of rapists ever serve any jail time. Women need to be encouraged to come forward and prosecute the rapist to the fullest extent of the law. I also believe that rapists aren’t punished severely enough.
But while rape is a horrible crime, why should the child be punished for the crimes of her father? In a just society, we don’t punish the family of criminals. We punish the criminal him or herself.
As I’ve indicated previously, the unborn are living human organisms from fertilization, so the circumstances of their conception do not change their nature or value. To illustrate this, suppose there is a woman who is tragically raped. She decides to carry her child to term and deliver. The child reaches the age of two years old and suddenly starts to take on the features of the rapist. She now looks with hatred on her child every time she sees him. Is she justified in killing the child? Of course not. We can’t justify killing someone just because they remind us of a painful event.
The woman will always remember the rape. It’s never going to go away. If she aborts, that’s not going to help her forget about it. It just compounds one act of violence on top of another. And considering that research suggests abortions can cause psychological problems, too, she might even be worse off if she does abort. [1]
In fact, abortions may not even help these women at all. Dr. Warren Hern, one of the nation’s leading abortionists, wrote the following in his textbook Abortion Practice,
“Victims of sexual abuse and rape deserve special care. However, the abortion counselor should recognize that the emotional trauma experienced by the rape or incest victim cannot be treated adequately, if at all, in the abortion clinic setting. All rape and incest victims, as well as victims of physical abuse, should be referred for appropriate psychological counseling and support.” [2]
Feminists for Life president Serrin M. Foster recounts that while she was giving a lecture, a medical student who had been raped had told other students present that the abortion was worse than the rape. She also recounts another time a woman conceived in rape met her birth mother. The mother told the daughter that she was the only good thing to come out of the rape. [3]
Perhaps we, as a society, should not be so hasty to recommend abortion if a girl or woman finds herself the victim of rape.
It should be noted that instances of incest usually involve rape (except in societies in which incest is not considered taboo). So I have included it here because it can involve rape, so the arguments against rape can be used against incest, as well. But incestuous relations also result in a much higher risk of genetic disorders and other problems, due to increased homozygosity, which increases the chances of offspring being affected by recessive or deleterious traits. As such, the arguments against abortion in this case are the same as in my previous article regarding birth disabilities or defects.
So there is some evidence that suggests getting an abortion following a rape may not be the best thing for a woman who finds herself pregnant, all things considered. But I’d like to take this a step further. I would argue that the woman has a moral obligation to care for the child that she finds herself with, regardless of how the child was conceived. To borrow an example from pro-life philosopher Tony George, suppose you’re out at sea on your boat for a few days. A day into your journey you discover a stowaway. You would not be morally justified in casting that person off your boat into the water to drown or be devoured by sharks, even though that person will be consuming your resources. You must wait until you get back to land to cast him off, and possibly call the authorities.
Or consider another example used by my friends Steve Wagner and Josh Brahm. Consider Pixar’s fairly recent movie Up. The crotchety, cantankerous old man attaches dozens of balloons to his house to fly it away so that the government can’t take his property away by imminent domain. About thirty minutes later while airbound for South America, he hears a knock on his door. He opens it to find a rather annoying, but terrified, Boy Scout hanging on for dear life. The man obviously didn’t want to take him in. But would he have been justified in kicking him off his porch, or closing the door and letting him fall to his death? No. The man begrudgingly let the kid inside his house.
So what about those who take a pro-life position with an exception for abortions in the case of rape? I’ve never seen a good argument for the pro-life position that leaves an exception open for rape. Either unborn humans are intrinsically valuable or they’re not. The only difference between a child conceived in rape and one not conceived in rape is the circumstances of their conception. If a pro-life advocate is to be consistent, they can’t leave an exception for rape. As pro-life advocate Josh Brahm has noted, pro-choice bloggers often point out the inherent contradiction when well-meaning pro-life people declare that abortion is justifiable if the woman was raped. They declare that this seems to be evidence that the pro-life person doesn’t really believe what he claims to believe: that the unborn are intrinsically valuable human beings.
As Frank Beckwith points out, “to request that [the unborn’s] life be forfeited for the alleged benefit of another is to violate a basic intuition of ethical judgement: ‘we may never kill innocent person B to save person A.’ For example, ‘we cannot kill John by removing a vital organ in order to save Mary, who needs it. This is not a lack of compassion for Mary; it is the refusal to commit murder, even for a good cause.’” [4] We can’t justify killing an innocent human to relieve someone of a burden. And as Dr. Michael Bauman has observed: “A child does not lose its right to life simply because its father or its mother was a sexual criminal or a deviant.” [5]
In fact, as Christopher Kaczor mentions, sometimes (as in the case of a woman who becomes pregnant from rape), there is no morally permissible option. There is only the choice between the morally wrong option or the morally heroic option. Faced with the choice of torturing your mother to death or facing the firing squad, one is morally wrong (torturing your mother) and one is morally heroic (facing the firing squad instead). In the same sense, since abortion is morally wrong (as I have argued previously), then to abort a child in the case of rape is morally wrong (that is, impermissible) and carrying the child to term would be a morally heroic action, if not simply the morally permissible action. [6]
So what about a woman’s right to bodily autonomy? Don’t women have a right to bodily autonomy, even if abortion is usually morally impermissible? Perhaps whether or not the woman consented to sex is the relevant factor. Some pro-life people argue that if a woman consents to sex she waives her right to bodily autonomy so that she now has to raise the child she was partially responsible for conceiving.
Remember that no one has complete right to bodily autonomy. I may not strike someone without proper justification. I have control over my body, as long as it does not harm or kill another human. The same is true in pregnancy. A woman may exercise her right to bodily autonomy, as long as she does not harm or kill another human (i.e. the unborn child). Even if she does not consent to sex, this does not change the fact that she can’t do absolutely anything she wants with her body, especially harming or killing another human. If I’m in a crowded room that suddenly catches on fire, I may not shoot other people to increase my chances of making it out alive.
To reiterate, even if abortions in the case of rape were justified, they would only justify abortions in the case of rape. Not to mention, appealing to a tragic situation doesn’t suddenly make something that is immoral moral. It’s called an appeal to pity, which is a logical fallacy. But as we can see, there’s just no way to justify abortion if the unborn are valuable human beings.
Two kinds of people will bring up rape when you discuss abortion. One will be someone genuinely interested in what you think about rape. The situation must be handled with care. As pro-life people, we care about all humans, including women in bad situations and the human standing right in front of us. The question of rape must be handled with care. The other kind of person will be someone trying to trap you by bringing up a hard situation to justify abortion on demand. It’s worth pointing out that you have to be a horrible person to exploit a tragedy for your own political agenda. Not to mention, as Scott Klusendorf notes in The Case for Life, it’s just intellectually dishonest.
In my next article (to finish off the trilogy), I’ll look at abortions regarding the life and health of the mother.

The preceding article appeared on the Secular Pro-Life blog.
[1] Ashton, “The PsychoSocial Outcome of Induced Abortion,” British Journal of Ob&Gyn, 87-1115-1122 (1980). It should be noted that pro-choice advocates and pro-abortion organizations fight the research that indicates there are psychological problems which plague some women after their abortions. While I’m not sure it deserves its own name (Post-Abortion Syndrome (PAS)), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a very real psychological condition which can follow any tragic event -- even abortion. I think in the interest of honesty and women’s health, these organizations and advocates should start accepting that abortions do, in fact, have negative consequences. However, abortion is not immoral because of possible complications -- it is immoral because it unjustly takes the life of an innocent human being. All surgeries have risk of complications. Pro-abortion organizations and pro-choice advocates gain nothing by refusing to admit risks and complications, and in fact hurt women by keeping this information from them.
[2] Dr. Warren Hern, Abortion Practice, p. 84.
[3] The entire article is worth reading.
[4] Beckwih, Francis J., Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: New York, 2007), p. 106.
[5] Bauman, Dr. Michael, "Verbal Plunder: Combatting the Feminist Encroachment on the Language of Religion and Morality," paper presented at the 42d annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, New Orleans, Louisiana, Nov. 15-17, 1990, 16.
[6] Paraphrased from Kaczor, Christopher, The Ethics of Abortion, (Routledge, 2011), pp. 184-185.


  1. I think that this is really well written and thought out, however-- On this other post you had about "Revisiting the Body Rights Argument" or something like that, you gave a link to here when you starting talking about how a mother has a responsibility to let her child use her body. But you didn't explain here how even if it isn't the woman's fault she conceived she still had an obligation to let her child use her body.
    Could you explain?
    (Also, though this isn't especially relevant to this post, I was wondering if you would like to join a debating group on a website called I would be really, really, super grateful if you would join and debate-- your arguments are always so well thought out and you spot logical fallacies easily. Here's a link just in case you might possibly consider joining:

    1. Hi, Sophiana, and thank you for your kind words. I will certainly consider joining, though I can't make any guarantees since my time tends to be limited. I might be able to debate once in a while, though (I've debated on another debating website).

      Regarding your question of obligation, I think the obligation can be shown in two ways.

      First, because the child is a victim of circumstance, too. What is often missed in this debate (since pro-choice people tend to focus exclusively on the woman and don't believe the unborn child to be a child) is that the child is a second victim of the rape. The woman is certainly a victim and needs to be treated with care and understanding. But the child is also a victim of the rape, coming into existence under far less than ideal circumstances, and having an abortion to kill the child only victimizes the child again, being killed for an act that the rapist, not the child, was responsible for.

      Second, because of her biological association with the child. She is this child's biological mother. This may not be very important to proponents of bodily rights who don't believe parents have obligations to their children unless they're chosen, but I believe this to be a dangerous idea. If you hear a knock on your door and find an abandoned child, it would be wrong for you to close the door and allow the child to die from the elements. But doesn't it seem *more* wrong if there's a note telling you that this is *your* child, not a stranger's child? It seems like you have a greater obligation to care for the child, even temporarily, because the child is yours. Or as my friend Josh Brahm says, it's stealing if a stranger's child takes food from your refrigerator, but it's not stealing if it's your *own* child.

      Third, she is a "de facto guardian." This means that even though she didn't consent to becoming pregnant, she is now the "guardian" of this child (which can be used if someone insists that the biological relationship is irrelevant). She is now, through the circumstance of rape, responsible for an innocent child. Similar to the movie Up, where Carl had to temporarily take Russell in to his custody because he couldn't get rid of Russell without killing him.

    2. Sorry, that should read in *three* ways.