Essay #5 - Some Hard Cases

   Many Americans hold the view that abortion is wrong except in a few special hard cases such as rape, incest, defect or health problem in the fetus, or threat to the mother’s health or life. Such cases are rare. The figure 7% for all of them put together is commonly cited , with rape accounting for only ½ of one percent. But these figures are almost certainly inflated because they are based only on the reason the woman herself gives for terminating her pregnancy, with no supporting medical evidence from a doctor.

   Yet pro-choice advocates frequently focus on such cases and appeal to our compassion for the women involved to get us to concede that abortion is not always wrong and identify ourselves as “pro-choice.” They then slip quickly from the concession that it might be morally permissible in some special case to the general claim that access to abortion should be unrestricted. Do not let them get away with this move.

   Still, we do need to think through what is morally right in these hard cases. Every abortion involves taking a human life. Can this ever be justified? Killing in self defense if there is no other way possible to save one’s life is usually held to be morally justifiable (although there is a pacifist tradition within Christianity that holds it to be wrong even in such cases), and so, it is argued, abortion to save the mother’s life is morally permissible. In advanced industrial societies with proper medical care such cases almost never occur, but if two human lives are at stake and both cannot be saved, a good case can certainly be made for the permissibility of abortion. The claim that a pregnancy is a threat to her health must be carefully scrutinized. Both mother and child can usually be saved with proper medical care, and the abortion procedure itself poses a health threat.

   Pregnancy resulting from rape or incest arouses powerful emotions, and the horror we feel about rape or incest spills over onto the victims – both mother and baby. The fetus, although innocent, is often seen as embodying or representing the rapist. Women who have been raped feel unclean and shamed in deep ways, even though they did nothing wrong, and other people often view them this way as well. They often fear to confide in anyone. Pregnancy makes what happened visible for all the world to see, and the first reaction on the part of the woman and those close to her is often to want to suppress the horrible facts by aborting the fetus. Pregnancy from incest likewise makes visible what people want to deny and suppress, and again, abortion enables the truth to remain hidden. But at what cost?

   Focusing on rape for the moment, we need to be clear about several things. First, the fetus conceived in rape is as much an innocent human being as any other fetus. But even apart from the claims of the fetus, we need to ask whether abortion is really what the woman needs at this point. I recommend taking a look at Victims and Victors -- a collection of essays by women who became pregnant through rape. Some of them had abortions and some of them carried the baby to term, and the book provides a kind of window into how such women actually feel – a picture surprisingly different from the stock image presented in pro-choice rhetoric.

   Statistics in this area are notoriously unreliable, but what statistics we can piece together indicate that the majority of rape victims choose to carry their baby to term. Why might this be? Well, for one thing, they may feel a kind of solidarity with their poor defenseless baby and a desire not to do violence themselves. Abortion does not erase the horrible trauma the mother experienced. It involves yet another invasion of her body and can trigger flashbacks of the rape. In abortion, as in rape, she is helpless on her back with her legs spread open and a masked stranger is thrusting something hard and painful into her vagina. And what was once alive within her has been sucked out and destroyed.

   What rape victims need is not abortion, but a warm, supportive and safe environment where someone understands what they are going through and helps them get through their feelings of shame and anger and do the right thing. And it is the right thing for the mother to give the baby life, whether or not she chooses to rear it. In a sense the woman pregnant through rape is faced with a kind of Good Samaritan obligation – and one which requires a major sacrifice on her part. She alone is in a position to save this helpless human life. But unlike the Good Samaritan case, the innocent life in her womb has a special claim on her compassion, since it is her own offspring. In giving her baby the gift of life she can triumph over her circumstances and bring good out of evil.