Sunday, November 11, 2012


As the 2012 elections once again demonstrated, it is hard for pro-life candidates to handle the question of whether abortion is justified in the case of a pregnancy caused by rape. Two goals conflict: preservation of human life and diminution of the mother’s suffering.

“The exception proves the rule” is an adage that refers to a secondary meaning of “prove,” as in test, from which we get the “proof” in “80-proof” whiskey. A rule we can trust should hold up when tested with difficult instances, although lawyers sometimes say “hard cases make bad law.”

Let’s see if we can find a principled pro-life position that doesn’t rule out abortion in cases of pregnancy due to rape, where we are talking about forcible intercourse [Whoopie Goldberg’s “rape rape” or what Todd Akin meant by “legitimate rape“], not consensual intercourse with an under-age girl [statutory rape], or consensual intercourse regretted and redefined.

We agree that the right of self-defense entitles a woman to abort in the case where her life is threatened by continuation of the pregnancy. Given the slipperiness of the definition of “health of the mother,” I generally would not support abortion for “health,“ though it is possible that a certain level of grievous harm would seem to justify it. We do not want to slide far down that slippery slope.

Would you be justified in killing a man to spare a woman from imminent rape? You are taking a life for something short of jeopardizing another life. I would do it…especially for a loved one.

Of course, you do not know for sure that the rape would have been carried out if you had not intervened. That is a problem. Note that we do not have capital punishment for convicted rapists. That suggests we take it less seriously than premeditated murder, for which some jurisdictions will impose the death sentence. If I killed someone who had raped a loved one of mine, I probably would get a lesser sentence, based on a theory of “justifiable homicide.” Would I be allowed to go scot-free? Depends on the jury, I guess.

If you shot at someone who was about to rape, was raping, or had just finished raping, and instead hit an innocent by-stander, ”collateral damage,” would you have done something immoral? We think not. Regrettable, but not wrong. We do not outlaw that, although a jury might be asked to determine whether you had been prudent or “negligent” in opening fire.

Back to rape and abortion. Most pro-lifers would accept an exception for rape [and some additionally for incest], either because they find it moral or because it is a compromise needed to get a modified prohibition on abortion passed into law in a pluralistic society.

Perhaps the “collateral damage” analogy comes closest here, though analogies are rarely exact. An innocent life is lost in sparing the victim of rape from the additional trauma of carrying the baby to term.

Another approach is to acknowledge that one’s belief in the rights of the unborn is theoretical [or “revealed“] and the trauma of the rape victim is certain. In such a situation, theory yields to reality.

I would admire the woman who carried such a child to term, but I could not bring myself to require that by law.




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