Friday, September 16, 2005

Abortion And Rape

It has always struck me that one of the biggest problems for the mainstream pro-life movement is their position when it comes to abortion after rape. It seems difficult for them to find a position on the issue consistent with the values they claim to espouse. Here is why.

In the last post I mentioned two big arguments of the pro-life movement: The supremacy of the right to life over other rights (like dignity and autonomy), and the (at least partial) responsibility of the woman for her pregnancy. The scenario where a woman is raped creates a tension between these arguments.

The mainstream position seems to be that rape is an exception to the general rule that abortion is always wrong. Why is this? It is true that an unwanted pregnancy can feel much worse if caused by rape. The feeling of violation can be extended throughout the pregnancy, and the woman might be torn between giving the child up for adoption (which can be a heart-breaking experience in itself) and keeping the child around, a constant reminder of the terrible act. So the consequences for the mother are likely to be worse.

But looking at the situation honestly, has the sole fact that the consequences are worse ever motivated the mainstream pro-life movement to make exceptions? A young teenage girl can be terrified of what is happening, completely unable to cope emotionally, and this tends not to change the judgement that 'abortion is murder'. Only if the woman's life is in danger will an exception otherwise be made, and that is an extension of the idea of the right to life. So if not the extent of the consequences, then what motivates the exception in the case of rape?

Well, it is the second principle above, that normally the mother gives up some of her rights by dint of being responsible for the pregnancy. Here of course there is no responsibility so the principle is applied to give an exception. The major problem for pro-lifers is that adopting this contradicts the idea that the right to life trumps all other rights. If this were truly taken seriously, it would not matter that the pregnancy was no fault of the mother. In order for this to matter, the fault of the mother must be the deciding factor above the life of the child. Acknowledging that the rights of the mother have some part to play means accepting that the whole thing must be considered on a case by case basis, and not purely on the basis that there is a child who must not be killed.

So what is the alternative? Some go further than the above and argue that abortion is wrong even in cases of rape. It avoids the above problem of compromising the life of the baby for the sake of the mother. However, it appears an incredibly uncompassionate response. It also jettisons the principle of the fault of the woman by not needing any fault on her part to require her to carry the baby. It means that even an unarguable victim is forced to undergo the further consequences of an unwanted pregnancy without fault, rather than being given the chance to prevent these consequences. I do not believe it to be too emotive to suggest that in a way this compounds the rape - enforcing a violation of bodily sanctity on one who is completely blameless.

To summarise: To make an exception for abortion after rape compromises on the absolute supremacy of the right to life, and to make no exception compromises on the requirement for fault on the mother's part. So, if this is true does this mean the pro-life ideal is inherently flawed? Not necessarily. It just means that to achieve consistency, only one of these principles can be maintained.

If the supremacy of the right to life is maintained, then no exception is made for rape. The woman is denied a means to end the violation of her person started by the rapist. I consisder this horrible, but at least it is consistent.

If the fault of the woman is considered paramount, an exception can be made for rape. However, with the absolute supremacy of the sanctity of life removed, a balancing exercise must take place. If other rights can override it, then why not in some cases without rape? Could the distress and suffering incurred not outweigh the right to life even without rape involved? Insisting that rape is still the only exception begs the question of 'why?'. Why, if the right to life can be displaced? Logical consistency requires weighing up other situations to see if they too could justify abortion.

While this balancing exercise can be difficult, it can be a consistent position. However, it requires leaving behind the absolutist approach to abortion and adopting one of relativism, anathema to the mainstream pro-life movement. It also begs the question of who is to judge. The courts? The doctors?

Might it not be better leaving it up to individual conscience after all?


Michelle Hutchinson said...

Surely the pro-life argument which only lets rape be an exception to some extent saying that the pregnancy is almost a punishment for not having been careful in the first place? Responsibility for actions seems to be the most logical reason why rape victims are allowed abortions but young teenagers wouldn't be (unless they were going down the line of the young teenager not being a competent judge to make such a decision and that abortion has far reaching consequences ie her regretting it in later life therefore in theis case she should be over-ruled. But that seems rather insupportable as having the child could be a very traumatic thing to do, and it could be argued therefore that she shouldn't have the choice to have the child.). People surely wouldn't want to argue that pregnancy in itself were a punishment, but I suppose they might argue that there is to some extent a right of choice for the woman, but that she gives it up if the pregnancy is in any way her fault, much as criminals give up their right to freedom. But it seems to be a much more fundamental right the woman is being made to give up - that of controlling her own body - for a lighter crime. Also this would all still suppose that there is another right which can trump right to life, which pro-lifers presumably wouldn't want.

Pejar said...

Yup, that's basically it. If rape is an exception then what is important is the fault of the woman, not the life of the baby. This defies the absolutist approach generally taken, and allows for a balancing of considerations which is best left to the pregnant woman. That's my basic argument, anyway.

GrannyGrump said...

The "rape exception" arose as an attempt at pragmatism. "We'll placate you by giving you an exception for the few cases where the woman really wasn't responsible for the pregnancy, if you'll back off with abortion-on-demand." In other words, it was offered up in a Neville Chamberlain moment in which people thought they could capitulate just a little bit and get the enemy to go away.

It was a monumentally destructive move, because it allowed the prochoice movement to change the terms of public discourse. Abortion was no longer framed as an evil, but now as a good only grudgingly given to the women we sympathized with.

The question remains, " Is abortion a good?"

Only the most extreme prochoicers claim abortion is a good. The bulk of even those who find abortion acceptable consider it to be not a good, but a necessary evil.

Anybody who recognizes the humanity of the unborn can't concede abortion as a good. And you'll see evidence of this in the Silent No More movement -- women crying out that abortion seemed to be the lesser of two evils as they were doing it, but turned out in retrospect to be the greatest of evils.

And if abortion is a great evil for a woman pregnant through consensual sex, why would we want it to be perpetrated on women pregnant through rape?

As the prolife movement comes to embrace more and more post-abortion women, they are also more and more rejecting of the "rape exception." It's a matter of seeing how much these women are hurting and being horrified at the idea of allowing abortion salespeople to inflict that kind of hurt on a woman already traumatized by a horrible assault.

For more, see Do Rape Victims Really Need Abortions?

Pejar said...


Thank you for a very honest response. The rape exception does damage the integrity of the pro-life movement, although it is the sacrifice it needs to make if it is to gain any sort of public support.

I hope you will forgive me if I am dubious of the figures in that link. For what it is worth, I am generally dubious of figures on both sides of the debate. All I know is that some, and I suspect a large number of those who have early term abortions have no regrets, seeing it as the only sensible choice. I would certainly encourage as many woman as possible to be sure of their choice earlier on.

There will always be those who regret, and those who stand by their choices. You will never hear any argument from me against giving people the chance to make informed and sensible decisions. But in the end, the fact that some will regret their choice is no reason to deny the choice in the first place.

Rape highlights just how little 'culpability' women often have for their pregnancies, and just how much they can be forced against their will to become life support machines. Just as with the famous violinist and my own analogies (like enforced blood donation to keep another alive), I cannot see how we can nullify autonomy and dignity in this way, even to preserve life. And while I can understand the difficulties much more when the foetus has grown enough to have interests of its own to compete with the woman's, I'm afraid when it comes to early term, there just does not look to be a conflict at all.

ಕವನ said...

Averting a rape attempt is a complete defence to murder; Rape itself is considered a violation of the right to life and therefore, an abortion in such a case should be allowed as the act of rape is in contradiction to the right to life in itself and would continue to act against the right to life if the pregnancy so caused is not allowed to be terminated.

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