Welcome back for the second part of this series, in which we’re looking at common objections to the pro-life perspective on abortion. If you aren’t familiar with the pro-life view, I’d recommend you take a look at some of my previous posts, links to which can be found in the endnotes[i]. In this post, I’m going to address a topic that nearly always crops up in conversations on abortion; namely, rape.
Abortion and rape are very emotionally heated and tense subjects, and to be writing about both of them necessitates extreme reflection, caution, and care. Though I’m about to argue that rape does not provide justification for abortion, I want to take a moment to emphasise that women who are raped are victims of a dreadful and morally reprehensible crime. As such, they deserve our compassion and care regardless of our stance on the moral permissibility of abortion, and regardless of whether or not they do, in fact, opt for abortion. On this point, I’m sure all can agree.
Before moving on, allow me to provide a summary of what follows. First of all, the argument from rape is stated. Then, four responses to the argument, which indicate that it fails, are offered. Finally, a description of the good that can result from a woman choosing to protect her unborn child is presented. In this way, I hope to persuade you that rape does not justify abortion.
The Argument from Rape
Those who appeal to rape as justification for abortion typically argue that abortion should be legal in order to protect the mental wellbeing of women who have been raped. The argument goes like this: Abortion safe-guards the mental health of women who are pregnant by rape. Since the mental wellbeing of the mother is of greater value than the unborn, and since carrying the unborn to term would cause her immense mental anguish, a woman who has conceived due to rape is under no obligation to carry the unborn to term. Additionally, she did not choose to be pregnant, and the unborn is an aggressor against her integrity. Therefore, she is not obligated to allow the unborn to make use of her body, and is justified in terminating her pregnancy.
Due to the immense emotional impact we justifiably feel when we hear of women who have been raped, this argument has significant rhetorical impact. However, when examined in depth, four problems arise which indicate that, in fact, rape does not justify abortion.
- Rape and Abortion on Demand
Let’s take a look at the first problem; namely, this argument fails to support abortion on demand. “Abortion on demand” is the idea that abortion should be allowed for virtually any reason during all 9 months of pregnancy at the request of the mother. It’s this view that pro-choice advocates typically contend for. Does the argument from rape support this view? Let’s grant, for the sake of discussion, that it’s a sound argument. What follows? Simply that abortion is justified in the case of rape. Clearly this conclusion offers no support for allowing abortion whenever and for any reason, and, therefore, it’s irrelevant to the case for abortion on demand.
Additionally, statistics indicate that pregnancy from rape accounts for around 1% of all abortions[ii]. If abortion is justified only in the case of rape, then it follows that 99% of abortions are morally impermissible. Since the argument from rape would justify abortion only in those specific circumstances, if one wishes to secure a right to abortion for all women in all circumstances, one must provide additional reasons besides said argument. Thus, even if we were to grant that abortion is morally permissible in cases of rape, in the absence of additional reasons justifying abortion in other cases, we should still advocate to restrict abortion rights to those relatively few (though still significant) cases.
- Begging the Question
Secondly, the argument from rape begs the question by assuming that the unborn is not an intrinsically valuable human being. In philosophy, to “beg the question” means to assume what one is meant to be proving[iii]. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the assertion that the unborn is not a valuable human being is incredibly difficult to establish and maintain. If the unborn, contrary to this assumption, is an intrinsically valuable human being, then it has the same right to life that the mother does, and as such is entitled to the same legal protection that she is.
To make this point clearer, imagine that you were conceived as the result of rape. Furthermore, imagine that every time your mother sees you or thinks of you, she experiences immense emotional anguish as memories of her experience resurface. Is the fact that she experiences such anguish sufficient justification to kill you? Clearly not. Why not? Because you have the same right to life that she does. However, if the unborn also possesses that right to life, then wouldn’t it also be wrong to kill him or her? Therefore, the determining question is not whether the unborn was conceived as the result of rape, but whether the unborn is an intrinsically valuable human being. This can only be determined by considering the nature of the unborn and what makes humans intrinsically valuable.
- An Ethical Intuition
Another issue with the argument from rape is this: if the unborn is a valuable human being, then to kill him or her for the benefit of the mother is to violate a clear ethical intuition; namely, that we cannot kill one innocent person in order to benefit another. For example, suppose that I require a replacement of some vital organ in order to continue living. Obviously, it would be wrong to kill you, or any other person, in order to harvest said organ and preserve my life. This doesn’t entail a lack of compassion for me or my imaginary situation. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement of your right to life, and, as Francis Beckwith notes, it’s a refusal to commit murder, even for a good cause[iv]. Similarly, to kill an unborn human being in order to benefit the mother is wrong. “Simply because some people believe that an unborn child’s death may result in the happiness of another does not mean that the child has a duty to die”[v].
- The Unborn as Aggressor
Finally, it’s vital to note that there are three parties in this equation. The rapist is the aggressor—the one who commits the crime—and the mother is a victim of the crime. However, the mother is not the only victim—we must remember the unborn. Since, in most circumstances, the unborn doesn’t put the mother at risk, it’s hardly accurate to describe him as an aggressor. Rather, he is a consequence, and therefore a victim of, the crime perpetrated by the rapist. Thus, abortion cannot be justified on the grounds that the unborn is an aggressor.
For the reasons outlined above, it seems that rape isn’t sufficient justification for abortion. Evidently, this is a hard truth. Rape is a terrible crime, and most of us can’t begin to imagine the immense turmoil and distress that women experience when they discover they are pregnant by rape. Women in these situations should be met with compassion and generosity. However, the four responses I’ve offered indicate that abortion simply is not an appropriate response. Rather, if a woman chooses to selflessly bear a child conceived by rape, she performs a beautiful, morally praiseworthy act. If, after giving birth, the mother isn’t in a position to care for a child, or doesn’t want the responsibility of motherhood, she has the option of putting the child up for adoption. Doing so acknowledges her desire not to take on the responsibilities of child-rearing, but also heeds the value of the child before birth, and preserves their right to life.
In closing, allow me to dwell for a moment on the virtue of women who are victims of rape, and yet choose to carry the unborn to term. It’s worth repeating that a woman who willingly bears a child conceived by rape performs a beautiful, morally praiseworthy act. Christopher Kazcor poignantly describes this act as:
…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… women who face pregnancies due to rape deserve unconditional love and compassion whether they choose abortion or not. But true love and compassion includes honesty about difficult moral truths, and, sometimes, even a call to heroic generosity.[vi]
Sometimes the truth is difficult to bear. But if we join together to support women in these circumstances, perhaps we can turn something ugly and unthinkable into something virtuous and just.
[ii] Kaczor, C. (2015). The ethics of abortion: women’s rights, human life, and the question of justice (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge, p. 189.
[iii] For example, suppose a well-meaning Christian were to argue for the reliability of scripture by saying “scripture is trustworthy because the Bible says so”. This statement begs the question, as it’s only by assuming that scripture is trustworthy that we can trust what the Bible says, which is the point our Christian friend is attempting to prove.
[iv] Beckwith, F. J. (2007). Defending life: A moral and legal case against abortion choice. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, p. 106
[vi] Kaczor, C. (2015). The ethics of abortion: women’s rights, human life, and the question of justice (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge, p. 196.