Friday, October 14, 2011

Does rape justify abortion? Three points

"Having lived through rape, and having raised a child 'conceived in rape,' I feel personally assaulted and insulted every time I hear that abortion should be legal for rape and incest. I feel that we're being used to further the abortion issue, even though we've not been asked to tell our side of the story." -- Kathleen DeZeeuw, quoted in Victims and Victors
Abortion defenders frequently appeal to cases of pregnancy resulting from rape. Surely abortion should be allowed in such tragic and unfair situations, they argue. What can one say in response?

Rape is a truly horrifying crime. Rapists should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. Victims of rape should be supported and treated with enormous compassion. But rape as an argument for the permissibility of abortion fails completely and decisively. Here's why.

(1) The vast majority of abortions have nothing to do with rape. Less than one percent of abortions end pregnancies that are a result of rape or incest. Thus, rape cannot justify the standard pro-choice position (and current legal regime in the United States) of abortion on demand. Pro-choice advocates must offer reasons to think that the other 99-plus percent of abortions are permissible. Appealing to rape is very often a red herring.

(2) Even in the cases of pregnancy resulting from rape, abortion is impermissible. Why? Because abortion is the unjust killing of an innocent human being (as I argue elsewhere), and the circumstances of sexual assault pregnancies do not change the ethics of such killing. Consider the following.

First, the fact that one has been the victim of a horrible crime does not justify inflicting a similar injustice against another innocent person. If abortion is such an injustice, then abortion in cases of rape is clearly wrong, for two wrongs do not make a right. An innocent child may not be put to death for the crime of her father.

Second, the circumstances of someone's conception have no bearing on his or her moral status as a human being. The people alive today who were conceived in rape (many of whom are now pro-life activists) may not be killed on those grounds. To argue for the permissibility of abortion in cases of rape -- indeed, to argue for the permissibility of abortion in all other cases -- one must show that the unborn (the embryo or fetus) who is killed by abortion is not a valuable, rights-bearing member of the human family, like you and me. The circumstances of conception are obviously irrelevant.

Third, we many not kill valuable, rights-bearing members of the human family in order to relieve or prevent emotional or psychological distress. The reasons for having an abortion after rape do not justify the killing of human persons. So, again, if the unborn is a valuable person, then abortion in cases of rape is not justified.

Finally, an abortion defender might argue that because a woman who is pregnant as a result of rape didn't consent to the sex that led to pregnancy, she has no obligation to let the unborn human being "use" her body as a "life-support system" (as a defender of the argument might put it). But a lack of special obligation does not justify intentional and direct killing, which most abortions entail. And not all of our obligations are voluntarily assumed. For more, see my critique of the bodily autonomy argument famously proposed by Judith Jarvis Thomson.

None of this is to deny that a woman who is raped is brutally victimized, and that she is further wronged if she subsequently becomes pregnant, unfairly tasking her with the gestation of a child (who is also an innocent victim, having come into existence in such a terrible way, through no fault of her own). Carrying to term a child conceived in rape is a heroic act, but sometimes heroism is the only acceptable course of action. Explains philosopher Christopher Kaczor:
The weight of philosophical discussion from Plato through Kant up to such twentieth-century writers as Dietrich Bonhoeffer urges us to do good and avoid doing evil, even when the personal cost is great, even if we are forced to choose between the morally impermissible and the morally heroic in cases where the merely permissible is not available due to the evil choices of others.
Fortunately, pregnancy care centers all across the state and nation stand ready to help women suffering after sexual assault. They are not alone.

(3) Research shows that abortion does not benefit women who have been victimized by rape. The rationale for rape victims getting abortions in the first place -- it will spare them emotional or psychological pain -- is simply not true in the real world. In their book Victims and Victors: Speaking Out About their Pregnancies, Abortions and Children Resulting from Sexual Assault, David C. Reardon, Julie Makimaa (herself conceived in rape) and Amy Sobie document the cases of women who became pregnant as a result of sexual assault. They write:
It is a little known fact that the vast majority of sexual assault victims do not want abortions. In addition, when sexual assault victims do have abortions, the long term, and even short term, psychological effects are devastating. Most of these women describe the negative effects of abortion on their lives as even more devastating than sexual assault.

Sexual assault is actually a contraindication for abortion. A doctor treating a pregnant sexual assault victim should advise against abortion precisely because of the traumatic nature of the pregnancy. ... [B]oth the mother and the child are helped by preserving life, not by perpetuating violence. ...

Abortion only adds to and accentuates the traumatic feelings associated with sexual assault. Rather than easing the psychological burdens, abortion adds to them.
Abortion and rape are both wrong because they are the unjust, brutal, dehumanizing treatment of innocent human beings. Abortion when pregnancy is a result of rape makes no moral sense. Notes Kaczor in his recent book The Ethics of Abortion: Women's Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice:
Unfortunately, nothing, including having an abortion, can undo a rape. However, to bear a child conceived in these most difficult of circumstances is to perform an act that is in complete contradiction of what takes place in a rape. In rape, a man assaults an innocent human being; in nurturing life, a woman protects an innocent human being. In rape, a man undermines the freedom of another; in nurturing life, a woman grants freedom to another. In rape, a man imposes himself to the great detriment of another; in nurturing life, a woman makes a gift of herself to the great benefit of another. While, unfortunately, rape once perpetrated can never be undone, the rationalizations, maxims, and motives of rape are never so completely rejected as when someone chooses life in the most difficult circumstances, circumstances that make such a choice heroic.