Am I really going to do this? Am I really going to stick my neck out and blog about abortion? Am I really going to try and defend a position that will upset liberals and conservatives alike?
When I started this blog, I promised myself I would use it as a public sounding board for my own thoughts, and if in doing so I alienated every reader of the blog and had no followers, then so be it. Mind you, I’m not trying to alienate everybody, but if I was, a regular abortion essay would probably be the fastest route. As a Republican atheist professor, I’m used to having a minority world view.
The stimulus for today’s essay comes from a letter to the editor in the Orlando Sentinel. It appears to be an attack on Mitt Romney from the right:
Mitt Romney’s current position on abortion appears logically inconsistent. It is a stretch to call it pro-life.He says life begins at conception and that the government should outlaw terminating that life. There are exceptions, however, when the life has been created through rape or incest or is a threat to the mother’s life.
Romney would make criminals of those terminating pregnancies because the biological parent does not want a child and can’t or won’t provide for a child’s many needs.
The logical inconsistency comes when Romney is quite willing to end a child’s life depending on who its father is. Abortion is seen as both lawful and moral if the child’s father is a rapist or a relative of the mother. Apparently a life is not a life. The sacredness of a life is conditional in Romney’s view for reasons other than saving the life of a mother.
Tom Morris Orlando
I do not know Mitt Romney’s philosophical position on abortion, so this essay is not a defense of Mitt Romney. Instead, this is an essay on whether or not this position – objecting to abortion except when “the life has been created through rape or incest or is a threat to the mother’s life” – is, in fact, “logically inconsistent.”
It is fairly easy to identify logical inconsistencies when you trivialize a multifaceted moral issue and assert that it only involves one particular proposition – namely, that all life is sacred. All life is sacred, that is true, but that is not the only thing that human beings consider sacred. Furthermore, even if it was the only thing that human beings consider sacred, there are of course cases where one sacred life is pitted against another. Liberals use the sacredness of life argument to object to the death penalty; conservatives (convincingly, in my opinion) use the sacredness of life argument to insist upon the death penalty (in cases of murder in which the guilt of the convicted is in no doubt).
(A similar trivialization of the complexities underlying the sacredness of life also underlie the often shallow moral thinking of pacifists who are always against war, extreme non-violence advocates who are even against violence for self-defense, or vegans who are always against humans eating meat.)
I once read a very interesting essay defending the right to abortion. I regret that I cannot cite that essay here or even name the author, because while I remember the gist of the argument, I don’t remember the text in which I encountered it. What made the essay so interesting was that it announced right up front that the fetus was a life. The essay went on to say, however, that individual human beings cannot be compelled to save another human being’s life. If I remember, the essay began with sort of obvious cases – if someone is trapped in a burning building, another person couldn’t be forced to go in and rescue the trapped person. But then it advanced to less obvious cases, such as say person X has a disease that can be cured if person Y gives person X a kiss. Can the state really compel person Y to give the kiss? Can person Y really be charged with murder for not giving X a kiss? The argument of course ended by concluding that, since a woman’s body is a life-support system for a growing fetus, it was equally wrong for the state to compel the woman to “save” the life of the fetus.
There are numerous problems with this argument, though at the time I read it I was more libertarian than conservative and I was fascinated by the examples the author provided. Even at the time, though, I was not swayed by the argument, and the one perceived loophole that I latched onto was this: the mother put the fetus in that delicate situation.
Probably everyone would agree that you don’t charge a person with murder for failing to rush into the burning house in an attempt to save someone. But everyone would likely agree that that person does deserve a murder charge if they set the fire. There’s probably more disagreement about whether person Y could be charged with murder for failing to cure person X with a kiss, but even those who would object to doing so certainly would have no reservation in charging person Y if person Y was responsible for giving person X the fatal disease in the first place.
In the case of the mother, the argument that she should not be compelled to provide life support for the fetus by the state is far less compelling if she put the fetus in that position in the first place. It is cruel, it seems to me, to put a defenseless fetus in the position of requiring your help and then denying that help. This is essentially why I am “pro-life” – it is very hard for me to see this in any other way. Yet oddly, the pro-life position is rarely phrased in this compelling fashion. I strongly believe that people assume the moral responsibility for the child when they engage in consensual sexual intercourse. (I do, however, acknowledge the unfairness that it is the female who bears the far greater burden – and pro-life advocates should get behind any efforts to enforce fathers carrying their share of that burden.)
Notice, though, that like the burning building or the disease-cured-by-a-kiss, the crime isn’t the denying of aid, it is the denying of aid when you are responsible for the person needing the aid in the first place. What about rape? In the case of rape, the woman had absolutely no part in putting the fetus in a situation where it required her assistance. To my mind, there is simply no way in which she is morally culpable for sustaining that fetus.
Analogies are rarely satisfying, but imagine the following scenario and reflect about whether you think it is moral or immoral and why. Imagine that the government could select a person at random and deliver to that person a newborn baby and insist that the randomly selected person was now legally required to care for the baby – breastfeed the baby, clothe the baby, raise the baby. Imagine yourself in that situation. Here’s a baby, care for it or we charge you with a crime. Care for it or the community will label you an immoral baby-killer.
In that situation, you would rightly feel that the government had overstepped its authority and had violated your rights. To be sure, you would probably feel horrible for the baby, in the same way that you might feel horrible being unable to rush into a burning building to save some poor soul trapped in a fire, but at the same time you would feel that your rights too had to be respected.
I can’t see any substantive difference between my scenario and the case of rape. Other than that rape is even worse. Not only does the person have to deal with the substantial physical and emotional trauma of having been violated, but the baby they have been forced to care for isn’t external, it is internal. The rape victim will carry that baby around for 9 months.
So to the writer of the letter to the editor, I would say this. The rape exception is not made (at least by me) on the rationale that a fetus conceived through rape is any less a human being than one conceived in some other fashion. The rape exception is based upon something entirely different: that the woman who conceives through rape has no moral culpability for caring for that child. To be sure, many women who conceive through rape do end up keeping and raising the child. That’s a beautiful sacrifice, in the same way that a woman might, in my hypothetical scenario, choose not to protest a government that forces her to raise a child that she did not plan for. But such a response is not a moral requirement. We can also imagine that, like with the hypothetical scenario, a woman who asserts her right not to raise the child foisted on her is likely to endure considerable emotional distress, something that should receive sympathy rather than censure.
What about the other exceptions? Personally, I make no particular exception for incest. The issue is consent, not familial relationship. It is difficult to know what people mean when they make an exception for incest. There are two possibilities. One is that they believe that children of incestuous relationships are more likely to have serious birth defects, which is true though the odds are not considerably greater – but the same is true of children of older parents or parents with known genetic vulnerabilities, so the point is either moot or opens the door to further exceptions which most conservatives, I imagine, would not want. The second possibility is that the person has in mind sexual abuse, but in that case we are dealing with rape so it hardly counts as an additional exception. Indeed, I would include under rape so-called statutory rape, so again, incest does not seem to deserve its own category of exception.
What about life of the mother? Here I don’t see at all how the letter writer can object to this exception (perhaps he does not, his letter is unclear on this point). No one is questioning the sacredness of the life of the fetus, but here it is pitted against the sacredness of the life of the mother. In what moral universe does the letter writer inhabit where he believes it is morally just to force one person (the mother) to sacrifice her life for another person – the fetus?
This isn’t a question of weighing lives against one another – we presume these to be of equal import – but a question of whether it is reasonable for the state to insist that one person sacrifice her life so that another person can live. Again, to be sure, some mothers may indeed do this – but this should be revered as a super-human sacrifice as opposed to expected behavior. And indeed, one might take the position that it is not the wisest choice, as it will force the baby to grow up motherless, and may also force her other children, her parents, and her husband to experience the agony of her death and her absence. The danger of analogies again, but if a state can force a mother to sacrifice her life for her unborn child then why cannot the state force one citizen to provide his or her heart for transplant into another citizen? How can we contemplate this as a moral?
The rape and life-of-the-mother exceptions are not logically inconsistent when one considers the entirely of the ethical and moral questions surrounding abortion. The reason abortion has been an unresolved issue for a long time is because it is a deeply complex issue in which many moral principles are pitted against one another. The reason it will continue to be a contentious unresolved issue is because people on both sides seem unwilling to admit how complex the issue is.
I am indebted to a colleague for alerting me to an article in The Catholic World Report which describes a movement of secular pro-lifers. The reasoning given is similar to the reasoning I lay out in this post, although that article does not discuss the case of rape. That article appeared about a half a year after my blog post.