Abortion exceptions and consistent philosophies

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.


  1. Reblogged this on yasniger and commented:
    You don’t have to agree with this to make sense of it. I don’t, not entirely anyway. But it is a very good read nonetheless.

  2. I am very glad that the law in Illinois in 1963 did not allow me to be executed for my father’s crime. It angers and it hurts me that so many people think that I have no right to live because of what my father did. I didn’t commit a crime. I did not stand trial. I am alive and I am glad that I am alive and I refuse to apologize for wanting to live.

    What’s more, the sheer hypocrisy of the left claiming that being pro-life is somehow catering to rapists when they oppose concealed carry licences, sentencing guidelines for violent crimes, increased spending on law enforcement, the death penalty–the things that are proven to keep rapists from committing the crime in the first place–is just sickening.

    1. One of the consequences of blogging about abortion is that you will be read by people who are very personally affected by it. Thank you for sharing your perspective.

      1. You are very welcome. I find that my perspective is one that is seldom considered in this debate.

  3. This is an interesting and thoughtful perspective – one I’ve not seen before. The idea of moral responsibility for the potential child created by consensual intercourse is compelling as far as it goes. Actions have consequences and planning for and/or mitigating those consequences is part of being an adult. But people are people and they make mistakes – they have unprotected sex because they’re misinformed or under-informed about the efficacy of condoms and other contraceptives, or they don’t have access to reliable contraception, or they do their best to avoid pregnancy but the condom breaks or the IUD fails. An unplanned and unwanted pregnancy happens because things have gone wrong – and things go wrong for even the most organised and responsible among us. Insisting on an absolute moral standard that allows for only one response to the messiness that is this particular sphere of life seems to side-step the very complexity you note so eloquently in your post.

    It”s also to ignore that it’s not just a moral issue but often a medical and practical one. My first pregnancy, for example, ended in a missed miscarriage. The embryo failed for whatever reason, but my body continued on as if were pregnant. When we found out, my ob/gyn whipped me into hospital and performed a D&C – the procedure for an abortion. My life wasn’t endangered so I wouldn’t have fitted into any of the exceptions at the time of the D&C, but if the tissue from the failed pregnancy had been left there and had become infected, it could have been. What was already a stressful and very sad situation (we wanted the baby very much) could also have become a health emergency. Blanket bans on abortion fail to account for the vast range of medical/emotional issues individual women experience. Therefore it seems to me that whether to abort or not is a personal, private decision for the woman, her loved-ones, and her doctors, and not a decision that ought to be dictated or legislated by the moral/religious beliefs of others.
    Thank you for your thoughtful post. There’s so much heat and light around this topic that it’s hard to discuss politely.

    1. The first issue you bring up – the one about failure of contraception or lack of education – is an issue I had in my mind while writing this post but in the end I decided to leave it out and focus just on my view of the logical consistency of the rape and life of mother exceptions. As you and I both said, it’s such a complex issue that the only way to really do it justice is to write a book, not a blog post. What I would have said, at minimum, was that if conservatives are serious about reducing the number of abortions, then they must support education programs that have been shown to be effective.

      The second point that you bring up – your particular medical procedure – is something that I had not heard of and some I’m very grateful for you to educate me on that topic. This is a constant problem with legal/medical policies in general – that procedures can often have multiple applications so when they earn some sort of “taboo” status people who need help can be hurt. Sandra Fluke raised this issue in her congressional testimony about Catholic institutions and health care – some contraceptive medications can be used to treat non-contraception related problems. A similar example is marijuana, which has a taboo status as an illicit drug but which is an enormously effective appetite stimulant, anti-nausea agent, and pain-killer which can be very effective for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.

      This is, by the way, one of the reasons I’m very uncomfortable with government involvement in medical decisions, but that’s another topic for another day. (I am referring not only to Obamacare, but to many changes in the delivery of health insurance since the 1960s).

      Thanks for broadening my perspective.

  4. You have done an excellent job of thoroughly analyzing a very controversial topic. No apologies are in order for presenting this topic and addressing the complexity of it. Well done.

    1. Thank you. I’ve been gratified by the many constructive comments.

  5. Interesting argument. So, you don’t buy into the idea of “inalienable” rights? I’m genuinely asking. When you look at it from your perspective, I can see the consistency. But, when, you take a “rights” approach, Romney’s position does get a little more inconsistent logically.

    1. Well, if I’m understanding your point here, I do buy into the idea of inalienable rights. But take a look again at my comparison to forcing someone to take care of a baby dropped at their doorstep.

      1. What I meant was “inalienable” as it’s defined: “Unable to be taken away from or given away by the possessor”. If you accept that we have inalienable rights, then the circumstances of “how” the baby came to be don’t really matter.

        All that matters is at what point we define that the unborn baby becomes human. At whatever point that is, that baby becomes a human and, as such, has all the inalienable rights humans have.

        The “one person doesn’t have to save another person’s life” argument doesn’t work here for the very reasons you mentioned. If the child were “born”, the parents can most certainly be compelled to provide for its survival. If they don’t and the child dies, they’ll be held accountable.

        So, if we define “human-ness” as beginning at any point in the womb, then the baby immediately has all the inalienable rights we ascribe to humans and the parents become bound to ensure that child’s survival… regardless of how that child came to be.

        That’s about as black and white as I can put the alternative argument. Admittedly, I’m still wrestling with it myself and I’m not sure if I wholly accept it. But, when you’re talking about logical consistency, it’s generally pretty black and white.

        In any case, thanks for the chat. Good to see someone with the courage to put their view out their on such a sensitive topic.

  6. Reblogged this on John Morris and commented:
    This is a really interesting take on abortion. I’m still wrapping my head around it since I had not heard it before. Initially, though, I’d say that I’m not sure if the appeal of this approach is that it’s more true or more convenient politically. Definitely have to do some more thinking on it. What do you think?

  7. […] Republicans simply cannot compromise on them.  I’m speaking particularly of gay marriage and abortion.  Full disclosure here:  I support gay marriage.  I am against abortion except in cases of rape […]

  8. Simply fascinating; I haven’t heard this kind of perspective on the issue, and I very much appreciate it. You clear up an apparent-inconsistency that has always bothered me.

    That being said, I feel like the exception for the sake of the life of the mother is problematic because it casts the issue as a dilemma between killing the child for the sake of the mother or killing the mother for the sake of the child. And I agree with you that The State should not have the power to compel self-sacrifice (pretty sure “compelled self-sacrifice” is a pretty term for murder…). But I believe this is a false dilemma; there is a third path — kill neither.

    Now, granted, there are situations where it may be unlikely or even implausible for you to SAVE both the mother and the child, but there’s a big difference between losing one and killing one. It is a difference in the ends of the actions in question. Abortion directly intends to kill the child. If some other procedure intends to save both and fails, at least it is not indended killing.

    I am not a pacifist or a vegan, but I do believe that when two innocent lives (equal in dignity) come in to conflict, the goal should be to save both.

    1. That also is an interesting point of view. Let me try out another analogy. Two people are clinging to a piece of driftwood, but the collective weight of both is causing them both to sink. A rescuer arrives, and his first move must be to peel one of the two away from the driftwood in order to save one of them before they sink out of sight.

      I realize that’s a stretch, but I see the life of the mother exception in the same context.

      Thank you for reading and offering an excellent challenge. It will give me still more to think about.

      1. I think your analogy models my solution (attempt to save both) as opposed to your solution (abortion, in this case). That is, if the rescuer is pulling one of them onto his boat and, in the process, the other slips off and drowns, his action and his intent were to save them. Abortion, on the contrary, would be if he instead shoved one of the two into the water, so the other could remain unmolested on the driftwood. The goal should be to save both, and each act should be directed toward that end. Abortion is an unacceptable solution because it intends to kill an innocent.

  9. Nice take..Actually I missed it the first time around and caught it as a re-blog from John Morris how I visited as a result of your suggestion…interesting.

    In any event, in a previous life..ie: prior to wordpress, I looked at the abortion issue from almost every angle I thought possible. An example I used in a similar situation which might be relevant here was a boat sinking with a father and one, or possibly two, children aboard. The “worst” scenario I presented was one where the father simply swam away at the first sign of trouble leaving the children to drown. My point at the time was that sometimes there is a difference between what is legal and what is moral. I would assume that most would feel the father engaged in immoral behavior whether or not it was legal and regardless of whether he felt his life would be better without the responsibility of caring for his two children.

    Just my thoughts.

    1. Thank you. I have been surprised and gratified at the number of thoughtful comments this essay has received. It’s such a tough topic fraught with understandable emotional overtones.

      I might alter your scenario just a bit – the father here isn’t a particularly strong swimmer or prepared for a water rescue, and his shipmates aren’t his kids but someone else’s, and a third person has placed them all in the boat and set it to sinking.

      Complicated, for sure, but one of the things I think makes the rape scenario unique is that the mother didn’t consent to the creation of the child. It is her child only in the limited sense that one of her eggs was used in the process. (She has about the same relationship to the child as an anonymous egg donor would have to a fertility-treatment baby.) Second, she is being required to engage in a forced rescue of that child. To be sure, her life probably isn’t acutely at risk (like the father in the boat of your scenario), but her forced rescue is at least 9 months long (and possibly life-long) and requires continuous sacrifices.

      In any event, I think your scenario is useful to make the legal/moral distinction. My alteration of your scenario is an attempt to make the moral part of the problem more complex and relatable to that of the raped woman. It is immoral to kill an innocent life, but it is also immoral to force someone to make constant sacrifices for the benefit of someone else that you’re not morally responsible for – that’s slavery. Personally I don’t feel we can make the raped mother morally responsible for the child that results from the rape.

      Anyway, great comment. Glad you circled back and found this post.

  10. In the interest of consistency, you might want to try this one on for size……

    “Personally I don’t feel we can make the raped mother morally responsible for the child that results from the rape.”

    I agree and by the same token I should not be held responsible for the product of someone else’s roll in the hay. It seems a bit inconsistent to me that citizens who have nothing to do with the situation should be “raped” and held responsible for an act to which they objected.

    1. In what way do you believe you are held responsible for someone else’s roll in the hay? I’m not sure I understand your point. You aren’t being “held responsible” in the same sense that a woman who has been raped would be under a zero-tolerance abortion policy. It isn’t like the baby would be transplanted into your body. Surely you see an enormous difference. An attempt to fit these situations into “the interest of consistency” is surely impossible.

  11. Reblogged this on AaronInvestigates and commented:
    A exchange of ideas in the comment section got me to thinking and I ended up posting an article to another site which I also reproduce here…

    An inconsistency came to light in a recent discussion on the abortion issue. As some of you may know, I recently came out as pro-abortion (see collapsed article), but that doesn’t mean I don’t still enjoy pointing out the inconsistencies in the progressive position. In this case my discussion partner was actually a conservative, but the thought he expressed is certainly one that many consider a “main stream” position.

    Personally I don’t feel we can make the raped mother morally responsible for the child that results from the rape.


    I can’t see many progressives disagreeing with that position. The question now on the table is, if we agree that an exception should be made for rape, and I’m for abortions without restrictions, based on the fact that the woman had no choice in the matter, how does that support the notion that the rest of the nation should be responsible in any way for the product of an act of which they either had no knowledge or actively opposed? Rape is rape and choice is choice, shouldn’t the same rules apply to like situations?

  12. Angela · · Reply

    Thank you for your blog … I’ve made the same arguments- with exception to delivering a baby to your home and being forced to raise said baby. For sure you’d feel violated, forced … But would you kill the baby? Most likely not. I don’t think it’s a good rape analogy. Is there a good one? Probably not. My mother had a child who was a product of rape. Not all women can bare that emotional weight. She did. I’d never force another woman to do so. I’m not conservative or Libertarian …I guess I don’t fit the typical progressive pro-choice cookie cutter world view either. I tend to do my best to keep from ideological thinking – whether political or otherwise. As for inconsistencies – I see those with any ideology. They develop as a symptom of possessing one. I base my pro-life choice also on intrinsic valuing. I don’t accept extrinsic value of life. It validates slavery, rape, ethnic cleansing and etc. To me you have a value in of yourself and only you can devalue yourself by choice – and we respond. So the unborn humans life possesses value in of itself. Rape causes me to rethink, think and rethink my views… But can I legislate morality? Or should we? I think no on both. I’d much rather fight for scientific intervention, education, mental health and economic stability.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I always especially enjoy hearing from people whose views are not easily labeled. Complex issues would seem to require complex reactions.

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