8/24/2012—As someone who considers himself pro-life, I have wondered about how the pro-life movement got itself in the position of opposing abortion even in cases in which the life of the mother is at risk or the pregnancy was the result of some form of coercion. It is hard to imagine anyone really wanting to force a woman to go through a pregnancy brought about by rape. So how did it become an issue?
Partly, this is the result of the irresponsibility of American political rhetoric. People often get to say really outrageous things without paying any price for it. I am only familiar with people doing this who are to the right of me on most issues, which is telling because I am sure that people on the right believe that people on the left are the ones playing fast and loose with facts. But I am thinking of global warming deniers, which is more or less the entire Republican Party. There is not any evidence for this denial but it goes on. (I am not talking about what to do about it, of course—one can make a case for doing nothing at all).
Todd Akin only said what many people in the pro-life movement want to believe—that women who are pregnant chose to be pregnant and therefore restricting the right to abortion is fair. It is just not accurate.
The other irresponsibility in American politics, and this is certainly true on the right and the left, is never admitting your opponent has any legitimate position. So we are all driven to extreme formulations and we rarely have any nuanced conversations. The overwhelming majority of women who want abortions did have a choice about having sex. So if that is relevant, it’s something that should be talked about. But that conversation is now impossible, of course.
It is probably also true, although I have not seen it discussed, that Todd Akin believes that there is very little rape. That is what he meant by the phrase “legitimate rape”. Having taught criminal law, I am sensitive to the prejudices around rape. Akin probably has in mind rape by a stranger. There is very little of such attacks in America. Almost every rape is an assault by someone the woman knows—I am limiting this to women only because the matter is abortion. Rape is any use of force or threat to have sex, in most jurisdictions. And there are lesser crimes for any act of intercourse without the women’s consent, however it comes about. For Akin, much of that is probably not “legitimate rape.”
But the greatest reason for this insistence about rape is the phrase that the child of rape is as innocent as any other child. Partly this view is the result of Catholic teaching on the soul and personhood. But partly this is just a deeply moral insight. There have been women who have come to love babies conceived through rape. It’s just that this would be beyond the capabilities of most of us.
Having the baby of your rapist would be a form of moral heroism so high that it is scarcely imaginable. Perhaps religious authorities could think it legitimate to require that great a sacrifice, but how can a government do so? We never require that kind of sacrifice. Even when we draft people for war, we don’t court martial soldiers for refusing to throw themselves on grenades. We reward the heroes who do sacrifice themselves with medals.
Law cannot require moral heroism. I don’t doubt that the child of rape is innocent. But I know that if I were raped, I would do anything to end that pregnancy. So how could I treat anyone else differently?