The case of abortion after rape…

OK, this is a tough one, but, hey, aren’t philosophers (even spare time ones) supposed to tackle tough questions every once in a while…? At least the issue is still on my mind after several days have passed since Todd Akin, a U.S. Representative for the state of Missouri made some truly “outlier comments” on August 19 (quote):

“Well you know, people always want to try to make that as one of those things, well how do you, how do you slice this particularly tough sort of ethical question. First of all, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something. I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.”

To begin with, let me begin with that I believe that rape is one of the most violent and possibly destructive experiences anyone can go through. I count myself fortunate as not having such a memory to look back on.

Also, while I am as little or much of a medical expert as I am a professional philosopher (not at all!), I would simply argue there is little hard (or hard enough) evidence to support the conclusion that a woman’s body would have the ability to “shut that whole thing down.” (here is an article at least looking at some of the evidence, but it seems obvious that this is a topic that could never be studied under controlled conditions so long as ethical review boards do their job, so maybe the best we can say is that we better don’t assume anything…)

Now, if I start with those two base assumptions:

  • Women who are raped go through a most terrible experience and it is a natural reaction to try to remove any evidence associated with it.
  • Pregnancies following rape cannot be construed as some way of saying, “this wasn’t rape” (because otherwise the pregnancy would not have occurred).

where does this lead? I would hope that even the most “pro-life” arguing person would agree that there is a potential value in allowing the mother to terminate the pregnancy (hoping that the process of healing and recovery will not be aggravated by the constant reminder of the experience itself, which seems inevitable during the pregnancy).

Do I believe that this automatically means a woman “should” choose an abortion or that no-one shall raise an objection? No, I don’t. Here’s why:

Regardless of how a child is conceived, a “life-in-the-making” is created. One of the real issues with this question might be seen as whether or not an embryo in its early developmental stages can or even must be considered “human life” (with all rights and privileges usually given to it). And as much as I am willing to tackle that question, I want to concentrate, at the moment, on why this debate hasn’t left my thoughts.

Most importantly, I agree with and emotionally relate to the “pro-life” sentiment that, regardless of whether the embryo can be considered human life at the time when a mother is (or isn’t) given the choice to terminate the pregnancy, this “life-to-be” is worth protecting. For one, it cannot protect itself (if no-one is speaking on its behalf, whatever good and valuable exists might be overlooked and irrevocably destroyed). For another, as much as this life was conceived in an act of violence, I do not think that the “human it could become” should be held accountable or responsible (which, naturally, is not at all what a “pro-choice” position postulates!).

In short: women who are pregnant after having been raped are faced with a tough decision (so long as they have it, that is) between their own emotional healing and well-being on the one side and allowing a new life to be created by their bodies on the other. Given that the life-in-the-making doesn’t yet have a voice to speak for itself, other people feel the need to do so. I think the dilemma arises when those people speaking for the unborn (and unfinished) life want to take “matters into their hands”. How could anyone ever say they “know” what is best for the mother? Or what is best for the unborn child? Or which of the two is more valuable? What those people are trying to do is to protect the value of an unborn child (and I believe that is a good thing!), but the way they choose to do so seems to forget about the value of the life of the mother.

Do I have a solution? Well, I would like to propose a position that is both, pro-life (acknowledging that the embryo, regardless of whether or not it can “already” be considered human life, is worth protecting) and pro-choice (the life of the mother is, in its entirety, worth protecting as well). This may sound like not a solution at all (anything that is even a little pro-choice is, in the end, pro-choice!), but I think that what pro-life proponents are most infuriated about is the seemingly callous way in which people on the pro-choice side of the argument say that abortion is “OK”.

In an “ideal world” (well, as long as rape happens, clearly not ideal, maybe call it crazy if you want), I would hope that good people would talk to those women who, after being raped and finding out they are pregnant, are put in a position where just after having to deal with an extremely traumatic experience they must make a most difficult decision (possibly leading to yet another traumatic experience either way). If those women could experience the support and care, both for their emotional needs as well as for the unborn and yet to be created life, maybe their decision would become at least a little less difficult. Is it possible, maybe even likely that, in any given case, a woman chooses to terminate the pregnancy? Absolutely yes. But should someone else be able to force her to carry to term (and in a way rape her again, by taking away her choice)? Personally, I don’t think so. By taking the decision out of her hands and forcing something upon her which she has no control over (the core elements of any rape), I think it is likely that whatever emotional healing has to occur cannot occur.

Comments welcome!