Abortion and the “Middle Position”

By on February 1, 2011

Is the "middle position" on abortion–that it is acceptable under certain circumstances, such as rape or incest–logically consistent? Two scholars debate the issue.

todd-bindigTodd S. Bindig, Ph.D.
Author, Identity, Potential and Design

Todd S. Bindig, Ph.D., teaches philosophy at Erie Community College. He is author of Identity, Potential and Design: How They Impact the Debate over the Morality of Abortion (VDM Verlag Dr. Mueller E.K., 2008).

 

lynn-wardleLynn D. Wardle
Brigham Young University

Lynn D. Wardle is Bruce C. Hafen Professor of Law at Brigham Young University. He is former president of the International Society for Family Law and co-author of Fundamental Principles of Family Law.

Part 1: Todd S. Bindig, Ph.D.: Why Pregnancy Due to Rape Fails as a Justification for Abortion

When we examine the controversial issue of the moral permissibility of abortion, we find three basic points of view:

  1. Abortion is morally unproblematic and that access to abortion should not be limited in any way.
  2. Abortion is generally morally wrong but ought to be allowed in some “special cases.”
  3. Abortion is always morally wrong and never ought to be permitted.

Though it gets prolific support from the “mainstream” news and entertainment media as well as the current administration, the first view is actually the minority viewpoint. (To my knowledge, to date none of the major American pollsters have ever shown more than 10 percent support for this point of view.) Of the two remaining views, the majority falls into the category of those who hold the position that abortion is generally morally wrong but ought to be allowed in some “special cases.” Of the “special cases” generally given for the permissibility of abortion, one asserted most commonly, and most passionately, is in the event of a pregnancy that is the result of a sexual assault.

The intuition that, though abortion is generally morally wrong, it is conditionally allowable in the case of a pregnancy resulting from a rape seems to result from some version of the following reasoning:

  1. Rape is one of the most traumatic events an individual can experience.
  2. When one is the victim of a rape, we ought to do anything possible to assuage the victim’s suffering.
  3. If the victim has become pregnant as a result of the rape, this will generally add to the victim’s trauma.
  4. Therefore, we ought to allow the victim to terminate this unwanted pregnancy if she believes that this will help her get over the trauma of the rape more quickly, even if we would otherwise say that abortion is morally wrong.

This view is so widely accepted that any argument against it is interpreted as irrationally extremist and “heartless.” But as I intend to demonstrate, this majority view is both illogical and impractical. Not only is abortion of rape pregnancies unjustifiable on moral grounds; it fails to attain its intended goal. In fact, it only makes the situation worse.

Morally Unjustifiable

If abortion is generally morally wrong, this wrongness is usually expressed in terms of harm done to the pre-born child in the womb. But if abortion ought to be allowed in the case of pregnancy resulting from sexual assault, one needs to make the argument that due to the special nature of this specific case, the wrong done by abortion to the pre-born child in the womb is justifiable.

Let us suppose that someone broke in to my house, beat me up, and stole my iPod. This would cause me great distress. The thief has done me a great harm, and it is my desire that someone be flogged for this transgression. Let us suppose that the law agrees that a flogging is in order. Would it be morally acceptable for this flogging to be administered to one of my children? None of my children are the thief. My children had no part in the crime. The only way they are even remotely in the equation might be that they add to the stress I feel from my work, stress that was alleviated by playing my iPod, which is now gone.

Nobody would disagree that it would not be even remotely acceptable for me to take out my anger with my attacker on my children—or anyone else other than my attacker, for that matter. A possible response to this example is that, in the case I offered, I am seeking to punish someone, and punishment can be justly given only to the guilty, while in the case of the pregnancy resulting from sexual assault, the victim is not seeking to vicariously punish the rapist via the abortion of “his” child, but rather the victim is seeking to “repair the damage” of enduring a pregnancy to which she did not consent and that she does not want.

First of all, in reality, many victims of sexual assault do see abortion as a way to vicariously strike out at the rapist—this is a common line of reasoning given in many first-person accounts found in Victims and Victors[1]; Aborted Women, Silent No More[2]; Forbidden Grief[3]; and Women Exploited,[4] four excellent books that discuss the impact of abortion on the women who have had abortions, drawing almost exclusively on first-person accounts of women who have had abortions.

Secondly, whether the intent was to vicariously strike out at the rapist or to seek to “repair the damage” of enduring a pregnancy to which the victim did not consent and that she does not want, the pre-born child is still killed; the harm experienced by the one who is harmed is the same. It is true that rape is one of the most horrific crimes imaginable. The fact that it ever occurs is awful and the fact that it occurs with the frequency it does is a moral indictment on our society as a whole. We absolutely should not minimize our sympathy for victims of this terrible crime, nor ought we to minimize the righteous indignation we feel toward or restrain the vengeance we take against those who perpetrate this objectively evil act.

However, our sympathy for the women who, on top of being raped, become pregnant from this attack ought not to justify the brutal killing of a human being who is entirely innocent of the crime. Certainly, the pre-born child is the child of the rapist, but the children of criminals are not justly jailed—let alone executed—for the crimes of their fathers. If the son of a murderer were put to death for the crime of his father—one for which he was entirely innocent—I can think of no one who would not think this to be gravely immoral. Add to this that the pre-born child is the child not only of the rapist but also of the victim of this awful crime. It is her child, and all of the responsibilities a mother has for her child hold, whether the child was intended or not, whether the child was wanted or not. One does not cease to have responsibilities for one’s child simply because one did not want the child.

In conclusion, the question of whether or not abortion, though generally morally wrong, is conditionally allowable in the case of pregnancy due to sexual assault must be resoundingly answered in the negative. Clearly, it is not morally acceptable to inflict harm on an innocent individual in order to vicariously lash out at a different guilty party. Additionally, it is not morally acceptable to choose to kill/allow to die/fail to sustain the life of another innocent human being when that which one would sacrifice to sustain that innocent human being’s life is profoundly less significant—one’s comforts or convenience, for example—than the innocent life lost. This is even more clearly the case when the innocent life lost is that of one’s own child.

If abortion is morally wrong because it is the killing of a human being, then the manner in which this pre-born child came into being is morally irrelevant. The truth remains that to have an abortion would be to kill—or at least to cease in the sustaining of the life of—an entirely innocent individual who is additionally one’s own child. While we must be sympathetic to the sufferings of the rape victim, it is not morally allowable or in any way justifiable to attempt to alleviate these sufferings by having one’s pre-born child killed. Pregnancy due to sexual assault in no way morally justifies abortion.

Not Practical, Either

The intuition that abortion, though generally morally wrong, ought to be allowed in the case of pregnancy resulting from sexual assault seems to be rooted in the intuition that the pregnancy adds to the trauma of the rape and that the abortion will somehow assuage the suffering that the sexual assault victim is experiencing from the rape, speeding her recovery. Though I have just shown that it is, in fact, not morally justifiable, let us assume, for the sake of argument, that abortion in this situation is. It seems only reasonable to examine whether or not an abortion in this situation would have the desired effect. If the contrary is true, irrespective of the moral justifiability of the abortion, it makes no practical sense to allow abortion to be available in this situation. In actuality, there is strong evidence that abortion will not only not alleviate the sufferings of sexual assault victims but only make them worse. Theresa Burke writes:

[In] the largest study ever done of women who had pregnancies resulting from rape … 89% of those who aborted a pregnancy resulting from sexual assault explicitly stated that they regretted having their abortions. They often described their abortions as more traumatic and difficult to deal with than the sexual assault. … Conversely, among the sexual assault victims who carried to term, in retrospect they all believed they made the right decision in giving birth. None regretted not having an abortion.[5]

Some typical examples of the testimony given by the women in the study Burke mentions follow—the women’s identities were kept confidential; the names given are aliases.

“Nina”:

The rape was bad but I could have gotten over it. The abortion is something I will never get over. No one realizes how much that event damaged my life. I hate my rapist, but I hate the abortionist too. I can’t believe I paid to be raped again. This will affect the rest of my life.[6]

“Patricia”:

I killed part of myself when I had the abortion. It only compounded my pain; it didn’t solve anything. … I would definitely discourage a woman from having an abortion following rape. … Only through seeing the pregnancy through to completion will she really allow herself the chance to heal completely. … The effects of abortion are much more far-reaching than the effects of the rape in my life.[7]

“Marie”:

Far from helping me deal with the rape, the abortion just covered the issue. … Abortion is not helpful; it only obscures the areas that need healing by placing a huge wall of guilt between the real issues and the woman’s conscience.[8]

“Helene”:

The negative feelings resulting from the rape were not eliminated by the abortion. Nothing was solved; instead, the grief was now doubled. … I no longer have any negative feelings about the rape. … It is the abortion that I still struggle with on a daily basis. … In my opinion an abortion is never, in any circumstances, a good solution to rape or incest or any crisis pregnancy. An abortion only adds to and compounds the trauma that has already occurred. … I feel those who support abortion in cases of rape and incest do not know what they are talking about. What they think of as an act of mercy, is no mercy at all. Abortion does not help or solve a problem—it only compounds and creates another trauma for the already grieving victim by taking away the one thing that can bring joy.[9]

The pages of the four books I mentioned in the beginning of this paper (Victims and Victors; Aborted Women, Silent No More; Forbidden Grief; and Women Exploited) are literally filled with similar testimonies. It is no wonder, then, that the suicide rates of sexual assault victims who have become pregnant and had a subsequent abortion are so high.

In one study, these women were “three times more likely to commit suicide within a year of their abortions than women in the general population, and more than six times more likely than the women who carried their pregnancies to term.”[10] Additionally, “according to another study undertaken at the University of Minnesota, teenage girls are ten times more likely to attempt suicide if they have had an abortion in the last six months than are teens who have not had an abortion.”[11] A Finnish study that surveyed, literally, all the medical records of Finnish women over a seven-year period found the “women who aborted were seven times more likely to commit suicide.”[12] Sandra Mahkorn, a rape counselor with decades of experience, argues that “encouraging abortion as a ‘solution’ to a rape pregnancy is in fact counterproductive, because abortion only serves to reinforce negative attitudes.”[13] Mahkorn had the following things to say about abortion and pregnancy resulting from sexual assault:

The belief that pregnancy following rape will emotionally and psychologically devastate the victim reflects the common misconception that women are helpless creatures who must be protected from the harsh realities of the world. … Pregnancy need not impede the victim’s resolution of the trauma.[14]

And additionally:

While on the surface this “suggestion” may appear acceptable and even “humane” to many, the victim is dealt another disservice. Such condescending attitudes on the part of physicians, friends and family can only reaffirm the sense of helplessness and vulnerability that was so violently conveyed in the act of sexual assault itself.[15]

Let’s suppose that there is a twelve-year-old boy who firmly believes that the only way he can make it through the psychological trauma of being a teenager is to become a star linebacker for the football team. However, he is very small and there is no indication that he will grow to be big enough to be a star linebacker. He goes to his parents and personal physician and says: “The only way that I can survive the trauma of being a teenager is to be a star linebacker, and the only way I can be big enough to do that is for you to give me steroids.” What would be our impression of any parent or physician who complied with this request? All available evidence points to the severely detrimental effects of taking steroids. It seems that any parent or physician with any sense would refuse the treatment and recommend some other, more beneficial course of action.

The same conclusions seem to apply to abortion in the cases of pregnancy resulting from sexual assault. All available evidence indicates that there are severely detrimental physiological and psychological effects to this course of action, and nearly every woman who takes this action deeply regrets it.

Thoroughly Irrational

In conclusion, it appears that the majority position, which claims that abortion is generally morally wrong but allowable in the special situation of a pregnancy caused by a sexual assault, is a thoroughly irrational position to hold. Clearly, if abortion is generally wrong, then the situation that caused the pregnancy is morally irrelevant to the question at hand. Additionally, all available evidence indicates that not only is abortion not morally allowable in this circumstance, but it also has severely detrimental effects on the women whom we have sought to help and is thus impractical. In the end, it seems safe to conclude that the case of pregnancy resulting from a sexual assault is no justification for allowing abortion.

Notes

[1] David C. Reardon, Julie Makimaa and Amy Sobie, eds. Victims and Victors: Speaking Out About Their Pregnancies, Abortions and Children Resulting from Sexual Assault (Springfield, Ill: Acorn Books, 2000).

[2] David C. Reardon, Aborted Women, Silent No More: Twenty Women Share Their Personal Journeys from the Tragedy of Abortion to Restored Wholeness (Springfield, Ill: Acorn Books, 1987).

[3] Theresa Burke, Forbidden Grief: the Unspoken Pain of Abortion (Springfield, Ill: Acorn Books, 2002).

[4] Paula Ervin, Women Exploited: The Other Victims of Abortion (Huntington, Ind.: Our Sunday Visitor, 1985).

[5] Burke, Forbidden Grief, 164–65.

[6] Ibid., 164.

[7] Reardon, Makimaa, and Sobie, Victims and Victors, 57.

[8] Ibid., 62.

[9] Ibid., 68–69.

[10] Burke, Forbidden Grief, 46.

[11] Ibid., 173.

[12] Ibid., 174.

[13] Reardon, Aborted Women, Silent No More, 195–96.

[14] Sandra K. Mahkorn, “Pregnancy and Sexual Assault,” in David Mall and Walter F. Watts, The Psychological Aspects of Abortion (Washington, D.C.: University Publications of America, 1979), 194.

[15] Ibid., 65.

Part 2: Lynn D. Wardle: Abortion in the Case of Rape: A Response to Todd Bindig

In “Why Pregnancy Due to Rape Fails as a Justification for Abortion,” Todd S. Bindig argues, categorically, that abortion is never morally justifiable when performed because the pregnancy was caused by rape. He also asserts that, as a practical matter, abortion under those conditions only makes the matter worse.Some of Bindig’s arguments and conclusions are unquestionably sound: Abortion in general is morally wrong. Abortion involves the killing of a human life in utero. The unborn child should not be punished because of the crime of his father. It is not moral to kill an innocent person to avoid insignificant harm to another person. Adoption of an unwanted child is the best option whenever it is possible. Abortion may exacerbate the trauma of sexual assault for the rape victim. Pregnant women are not helpless, incompetent creatures.

However, some of Bindig’s arguments and conclusions are flawed, and they present in a consistent pattern. The consistent flaws in both the arguments and evidence used in Bindig’s essay are that of overbreadth and overstatement, of stretching statements and conclusions beyond the logic and beyond the evidence.

Bindig’s Evidentiary and Logical Errors

Bindig’s tacit concession that trauma is relevant to the morality of abortion following rape is surely correct. However, his reduction of the matter ignores morally relevant distinctions.

For example, Bindig takes the categorical position that abortion always makes the trauma of rape worse for all rape victims. However, some the evidence he cites directly contradicts his categorical claim. He cites a study that showed that 89 percent of rape victims who had abortions later stated that they regretted it. That means that 11 percent—one-ninth—did not regret it. They did not find or believe that having an abortion made their situation worse. That leaves open the possibility that some victims of rape who became pregnant and had abortions actually experienced profound relief from suffering and significant medical health benefits. At least some of them may have believed that it reduced the trauma, burden, harm, and distress resulting from the rape.

Bindig himself implicitly acknowledges that abortion does not exacerbate the trauma of rape for some women when he admits that not all women but only “nearly every woman who takes this action deeply regrets it.” The difference between “always” and “most” (or “nearly every”) is not morally, logically, or factually insignificant. Factually, the trauma of rape and of any post-rape abortion varies from case to case, from victim to victim. The individual circumstances bear heavily upon the extent and nature of the pregnant rape victim’s trauma. For example, take a woman who loved a man in a long-term relationship but refused and resisted when he requested then forced upon her intercourse. She might have a different degree and kind of trauma than the woman who is kidnapped, beaten, raped, then stabbed and left for dead by a stranger-rapist. Family support and age of the victim may also factor into the degree of trauma.

Bindig also cites several studies that link abortion with increased risk of suicide for women who aborted. While at least one of the studies apparently dealt specifically with rape victims, the others appear to correlate suicide with abortion generally, not specifically the population of women who were raped. Moreover, it is not clear that all the studies compared suicide rates among such women with suicide rates among rape victims who did not have abortions.

Moreover, Bindig’s review of the studies does not discuss control for other factors such as causation and selection. For example, it is possible that the rape victims who did not abort were psychologically healthier, stronger women (less likely to commit suicide), while those who chose to abort were psychologically weaker (more likely to commit suicide). Also, the women who committed suicide may have had no or less effective support systems (such as no or less family support or fewer friends or less access to psychological counseling) than the women who did not commit suicide. They may have been carrying other burdens of rejection (divorce, breakup, or abandonment), or they may have been prior victims of child abuse or sexual exploitation. The evidence is not sufficient to support the broad generalizations made in the paper.

Bindig also argues that rape victims commonly have abortions to retaliate against the rapist. That is simply a straw-man argument. It is a very dubious description of the real world (even if some violent feminist theorists urge abortion for retaliation). Logically, it is doubtful that most rapists would feel “punished” to learn of such abortions.

Bindig bases his conclusion that a rape victim is never morally justified in having an abortion on the fact that the child who would be killed by abortion is biologically her own child, and he asserts that she has moral responsibility to and for her child. This is flawed logic, because the moral basis for the responsibilities of parenthood is an exercise of individual choice—usually the choice to willingly engage in sexual behavior that can lead to pregnancy, or the choice to enter into marriage (in the case of a non-biological child born during marriage). By definition, a rape victim has not made an accountable choice that can serve as the basis for the moral responsibility of parenthood concerning the unborn child conceived as a result of the rape. Only if the pregnant rape victim willingly chooses to continue the pregnancy can it be said that she has assumed the moral responsibility of a parent to the child.

Competing Moral Values

I agree with Bindig’s premise that, generally, abortion is morally wrong. The value of protecting human life is a great moral principle, and the wrong of taking innocent human life is a great moral wrong. However, there are some other comparably important moral values, and there are other morally equivalent moral wrongs. Sometimes situations arise in which equally important moral values come into conflict with the high moral value of protecting prenatal human life. Often it is possible to reconcile those values to find a solution that vindicates both (or all) of the important moral values that are in conflict. However, it is not always possible to reconcile the competing value interests.

For example, when continuation of a pregnancy would result in the death of the mother, abortion is morally justified. The same general moral value (protection of human life) is on each side of the conflict, and the morality of self-defense (defense of one’s life) justifies the abortion. This defense-of-life justification for abortion is widely acknowledged and has been for centuries in both law and moral discourse.

There are some other values of comparable moral significance. For example, when the pregnancy is certain or almost certain to result in severe, irreparable, or long-lasting injury to the mother’s health, abortion may also be morally just. To leave a woman permanently blind, paralyzed, or comatose, for example, is to cause a harm that reasonably could be considered the moral equivalent of the loss of life. In both situations, an abortion may be justified by the save-yourself-so-you-can-save-others principle. The pregnant woman may morally choose to sacrifice the life of the unborn child, despite the high value of unborn life, because the life (or life unimpaired by severe and irreparable avoidable disability) of the mother has equal or higher value. For example, the pregnant woman may have four other small children and an incapacitated parent for whom she is caring. Sacrificing her own life to bring into the world her unborn child would cause serious harms to innocent other members of her family to whom she may owe important prior duties. In such cases of equal competing moral interests, it would not be immoral for the woman to choose to preserve her life (or life-equivalent) and to sacrifice the life of her unborn child if only one of them can be preserved.

By the same token, it would not be immoral for the woman to sacrifice her own life for the sake of her unborn child if she concluded that the child’s life was/would be of greater moral value in the particular circumstances. Her sacrifice of her life to save the life of her unborn child would not be immoral but would be heroic. Recognition of exceptions for saving another from loss of life or life-equivalent harm acknowledges the principles that competing values may in some (albeit rare) cases justify abortion. That does not mean that all competing values morally justify abortion, but it does mean that the possibility must be considered.

So the question is whether the harm from continued pregnancy for a rape victim may ever be equivalent to loss of life. The dilemma of a woman who has become pregnant because of rape presents such a dilemma of competing comparable values. She “is cornered between two acts of aggression.” When the moral values and social interests in conflict are equal, the decision must be left to the individual moral judgment, not social rules or general philosophical propositions.

A thoughtful, informed decision must be made by the pregnant rape victim, based on her consideration of the kind and extent of the harm caused by the continued pregnancy, the scope of the trauma and suffering, the necessity of the abortion, the degree of relief it might provide, the balance of harm versus good, etc. Since the general social interests and moral principles are in equipoise and the ultimate moral judgment must turn on such fine and individualized considerations, the decision is beyond the scope of general philosophical rules or broad social regulation.[1]

Not So Simple

It is human nature to want to simplify complex dilemmas, to generalize, to try to reduce complicated moral conflicts to toggle-switch, yes-no matters. But some moral dilemmas elude such reductionist simplification, and the quandary of the victim of rape who has become pregnant and who is considering abortion is one of those irreconcilable moral dilemmas. Simplistic, overbroad generalizations that fail to recognize or accommodate exceptional situations—including the extraordinary harms suffered by some victims of rape who become pregnant—may cause great injustice.

Notes

[1]See Lynn D. Wardle and Mary Ann Q. Wood, A Lawyer Looks at Abortion (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1982), 33–39.

Part 3: Todd S. Bindig, Ph.D.: Abortion in the Case of Rape: Answering Lynn Wardle

What strikes me most about not only Lynn Wardle’s response to the arguments I made in “Why Pregnancy Due to Sexual Assault Fails as a Justification for Abortion” but also those of others when I have presented these arguments in other venues is that they almost always misrepresent—or in fact re-invent—my argument.

Wardle Misunderstands

Wardle claims that my argument is that “abortion is never morally justifiable when performed because the pregnancy was caused by rape” and that “as a practical matter, abortion under those conditions only makes the matter worse.”

When attacking an argument, it is important to attack what was actually said in the argument, not what one wishes was said in the argument. My view is, in fact, that the manner in which a pregnancy began, no matter how evil that manner may have been, does not justify the killing of a pre-born child. However, that was not my argument in the piece in question. My argument was that the “middle” position—that abortion is generally morally wrong but conditionally allowable if the pregnancy was caused by a sexual assault—is irrational and should be abandoned.

It is true that one could logically come to the conclusion that, if the middle position is irrational, one must adopt the view that, because abortion kills the pre-born child, abortion is wrong and thus ought not to be permitted. In truth, I would be overjoyed if my argument caused people who hold the middle position to adopt this view. However, most of my critics seem to overlook the other possibility: that, when shown the irrationality of the middle view and still ardently dedicated to holding to one’s intuition that abortion be allowed in the case of assault-caused pregnancy, one could conceivably adopt the view that all abortions are morally justifiable.

In the first half of my argument, I am making the point that the only reason to hold the middle position—the only reason to restrict abortion in any way, shape, or form—is that one also holds the view that abortion kills a pre-born child and that this harm is not morally allowable, generally speaking. The point I was making is that one does not get to kill a child because one thinks it might make one feel better about some trauma one has suffered. There are two ways to deal with this, and as far as I can see, only two ways. One can answer that the part of the middle position where one says the killing of the pre-born child is justified is wrong, or one can abandon the view that abortion kills a pre-born child and say that restricting abortion at all is wrong.

Also interesting in Wardle’s response is the amount of time he spends discussing the question of abortion when the life of the mother is in jeopardy. I never mention this situation, not even once, in my entire argument. My argument was exclusively addressing the issue of assault-caused pregnancy. Danger to the life of the pregnant woman is an entirely different argument, one that I sufficiently addressed in my book.[1]

Abortion: No Miracle Drug

Moving to the argument regarding the practicality of the assault-caused pregnancy justification for abortion, where I address the reality of the underlying assumption that an abortion in the case of an assault-caused pregnancy will somehow benefit the pregnant woman, we again see that Wardle has misrepresented my argument.

Wardle claims that I take “the categorical position that abortion always makes the trauma of rape worse for all rape victims.” This is actually not what I said. In fact, he strangely goes on to use my actual argument as evidence of a contradiction on my part. My actual position is that every available psychological study that has ever been done on the topic reveals that the vast majority of women who become pregnant due to sexual assault and have an abortion have extremely negative psychological repercussions, which these women themselves directly attribute to the abortion. In every psychological study ever done on women who became pregnant due to sexual assault but carried the child to term (whether they put the child up for adoption or kept the child), 100 percent—yes, all of them—argued that they made the correct decision to carry the pregnancy to term and that this was helpful in their healing process.

So, while it is correct that not every woman who has an abortion after being sexually assaulted will report severe psychological distress (yes, a small minority claim no ill effect or even to be better off), there is absolutely no reliable way to determine whether a woman will fall into the majority (about 90 percent) who have severe distress or the minority (10 percent) who do not.

Let’s suppose there were some sort of medical condition that was distressing, though not life-threatening. (Realistically, pregnancy is almost never life-threatening to a pregnant woman in the modern West.) Let us further suppose that this condition was temporary, and all the patients who suffered this condition and took no intervention asserted that they made the correct decision in taking no intervention, and they presented with no measurable difference from the rest of the population, after the fact. Now, let’s suppose that there were a drug available to treat this condition, but in every study ever done, 90 percent of patients who took this drug had the side effect of severe psychological distress and a considerably higher rate of suicide in patients than in any other demographic, and there was also no way to determine if any patient in question would be one of the 90 percent who had the side effect or one of the lucky 10 percent who did not. No physician in his or her right mind would ever administer this drug; no rational person would ever take it.

The point is not that the studies are incomplete; all studies are incomplete. The point is not that there might be other factors at play; there are always other factors at play. The point isn’t even that all people are different; of course people are different. The point is that it is ridiculous to look at the evidence that is available and suggest, with a straight face, that a patient should receive the drug in question when there is a 90 percent chance of a severely negative reaction and every study ever done shows that 100 percent of patients who did nothing got better!

And yet this is exactly the same as the situation with abortion in the case of sexual-assault-caused pregnancy. Why should our conclusions be different? The answer is that there is no rational reason for them to be; the only reasons ever given are based on an imagined dream-world, driven by emotion rather than reason, where those making the argument want to give people whatever they think might make them feel better (perhaps out of a desire to appear compassionate or “middle of the road”), regardless of evidence to the contrary and despite the horrific consequences (the killing of a child) of these actions.

It Really Is “So Simple”

So, in conclusion, yes, it really is “so simple.” I have attacked the “middle” position that abortion is justifiable in the case of assault-caused pregnancy. I have argued that the only reason to restrict abortion at all is that one believes that an abortion kills a pre-born child and that this is a morally repugnant act. I have clearly shown that the attempt to justify this via the assault-caused pregnancy argument is rationally groundless. Further, I have shown that the underlying intuition—that the abortion will somehow help the woman—has also been shown to be incorrect with such a preponderance of the available evidence that no rational person would hold this position in any similar case. And thus, this position is not only irrational but also impractical.

So, in the end, yes, it is quite simple: Holding the position that abortion is generally wrong but ought to be allowed in the case of assault-caused pregnancy is irrational and impractical and, therefore, ought not to be held.

Notes

[1] Todd S. Bindig, Identity, Potential and Design: How They Impact the Debate over the Morality of Abortion (Saarbrucken, Germany: VDM Verlag Dr. Muller, 2008), 153–57.

Part 4: Lynn D. Wardle: Abortion in the Case of Rape: Moral and Prudential Considerations

I agree with Todd Bindig that abortion usually exacerbates the harm of rape for the pregnant rape victim. I also agree that it is generally immoral to abort an unborn child because her father was a rapist. Adoption certainly provides a wonderful and preferable option for the pregnant rape victim in most cases when the pregnant rape victim needs and wants to avoid parenthood.However, there are some significant moral and prudential justifications for allowing abortion in some cases of rape. There are countervailing moral considerations that in rare cases may override the moral and social interest in protecting the life of an unborn child.

Rape-Caused Pregnancy Can Do Harm

First, respecting the moral dilemma forced involuntarily upon a pregnant rape victim is not an insignificant moral consideration. It should not be dismissed or considered lightly. The right to act in self-preservation is a right of natural law. (Self-defense is still a valid defense in many contexts in the criminal law.) In some cases, the pregnant rape victim may fall into the self-preservation category.

Second, while I agree that in most cases abortion would increase the harm done to the pregnant rape victim, I recognize that there are some cases—they appear to be only a small number of cases—in which abortion could significantly reduce the harm done to the pregnant rape victim. Bindig tacitly concedes that such rare situations may or do exist. Those exceptional situations must be addressed in the law. The law should provide exceptions to deal with exceptional cases.

Third, denial of abortion in the exceptional case when continuation of pregnancy would significantly increase the injury to the pregnant rape victim perpetuates the aggression of the rapist—double victimization. It forces the woman to be complicit in the act of aggression against her. Surely, her dilemma between continuing the act of aggression against herself or passing it along to the unborn child she is carrying as a result of the rape is very profound. Unlike less compelling moral conflicts, such a great, serious moral dilemma may justify a shift of the locus of the decision-making from society to the most poignantly and dangerously affected party, especially in cases in which (as noted below) the mores of society strongly support the morality of the exceptional abortion.

Fourth, respect for rights of conscience in coping with profound and deeply significant dilemmas may justify abortion in the rare case. Our composite and diverse society recognizes the importance of matters of conscience in such founding documents as the Bill of Rights. When the moral dilemma is so very profound, and moral perspectives about what is the right solution to the dilemma are so divided—as in the case of a pregnancy resulting from rape that is causing great harm and threatens to cause increasing and grave injury to the pregnant victim—the best solution may be to defer to the conscience of the victim.

Practical Pro-Life Wisdom

One additional category of justifications for legal abortion in the case of rape relates to what Princeton Professor of Jurisprudence Robert George calls the “poorly understood, largely neglected and desperately need virtue” of prudence.[1] “Prudence is practical wisdom.”[2]

As longtime pro-life legal advocate Clarke Forsythe argues, prudence recognizes that it is “moral … to achieve to partial good in politics and public policy when the ideal is not possible.”[3] It is prudential to do as much as you realistically can to accomplish good and eliminate evil. It requires evaluation of the possible. It accepts the morality of the “ratchet approach” to moving social policy toward a desired goal, even if it takes only incremental steps to achieving that goal.

There is overwhelming popular support for permitting abortion in “hard cases,” such as when the pregnant woman has been the victim of rape. While nearly 25 percent of Americans believe that abortion should be legally permitted for any reason and nearly 20 percent believe that it should be illegal for any reason, the great majority of Americans—well over 50 percent (consistently 53–57 percent in Gallup polls since 2003) believe that abortion should be permitted only for certain (hard-case) reasons. Most Americans who take a pro-life position on abortion believe that abortion should be “permitted … in cases such as rape, incest and to save the woman’s life.” Gallup reported in 2003 that 72 percent of those polled believed that abortion should be legal in the first trimester when the pregnancy was caused by rape or incest, and 59 percent responded that abortion should be legal even in the third (last) trimester when the pregnancy was caused by rape or incest.

So the prudential position is to seek to reform the radical current regime—of Roe v. Wade, of abortion on demand for any reason—by proposing and supporting a rule that would allow abortion only for cases of rape, incest, or threat to the life of the mother. That appears to attract enough popular support to make it a politically feasible position and a threat to Roe.

A purist might argue as a matter of philosophy that abortion when unnecessary to prevent the death of the mother is morally unacceptable. However, the purist must be asked whether insistence on perfection (all or nothing) in lawmaking is not immoral if it perpetuates and gives practical support to the status quo rule of abortion on demand—which allows at least 1.2 million abortions per year—and impedes adoption of a rule allowing abortions only in hard cases such as cases of rape, incest, or threat to the life of the mother, which would outlaw all but a small fraction of that number of abortions.

An Incremental Step

Finally, one of the most tragic consequences of Roe is that by constitutionalizing the issue and mandating legalization of abortion on demand (at least until viability), the Supreme Court effectively terminated the legislative discussion of options, solutions, and compromises to deal with the issue of abortion generally. The moral dimensions have been supplanted in constitutional discourse by claims about personal privacy, individual liberty, and undue burdens.

If the debate about Roe and abortion legality were refocused on the choice between abortion on demand and abortion in hard cases such as cases of rape, incest, or threat to the life of the mother, it would significantly change the demeanor of the public discourse. A proposal that abortion be prohibited generally, but allowed in cases of rape, incest and threat to maternal life, attracts significantly more support than the position of abortion on demand for any reason, which is the Roe constitutional mandate. This proposal has the greatest potential to initiate a valuable redirection of the public discourse.

Focusing public attention on that choice and those issues—rather than on the purist issue whether abortion should be allowed in cases of rape—could lead more quickly to a change in legal policy that would eliminate many unnecessary, elective abortions. That is the most prudent approach.

Notes

[1] Clarke D. Forsythe, Politics for the Greatest Good (Nottingham, U.K.: IVP Books, 2009), i.

[2] Ibid., 16.

[3] Ibid., 11.