A few notes: (1) SPL doesn’t take a stance on the rape exception and invites bloggers
to discuss both sides of the issue. (2) Because I’m talking about rape and
pregnancy, I use female pronouns to refer to rape survivors. However, please
remember that not all rape survivors are women. (3) I reference Thomson’s
Violinist a few times. If you don’t know what that is you can read a
summary here. You can read more about my perspective on bodily rights arguments in general here.
abortion should be legal in cases of rape. I find that many pro-life activists
disagree very strongly with my stance. In the course of our discussions, they make
assertions and ask questions that often reflect a misunderstanding of my position. In
this post I am trying to clarify what I think the rape exception is—and isn’t—about.
rape exception is about bodily integrity.
preface this point by saying, for me,
the rape exception is about bodily integrity. There are many
pro-lifers who believe abortion should be legal in cases of rape, and I
expect they have a variety of reasons for their stance, including some reasons
I am going to object to later in this post. So please understand I am not
trying to speak for everyone who makes an exception; I’m only speaking for
myself and the people who ground their stance in bodily integrity.
society pretty carefully guards people’s bodily integrity. We don’t have
required blood, bone marrow, or organ donations, not even
from the dead. Taking a non-voluntary blood
sample from a drunk driver is
controversial. We won’t legally require all
citizens to get vaccinated. All of these situations involve risk to other
people’s health and safety (people dying on organ waiting lists, people hit by
drunk drivers, people getting what
should be preventable diseases), but our society
is generally willing to pay such a price; bodily integrity takes precedence.
none of those situations involves such a direct threat to another’s life as abortion.
It’s hard to find a truly analogous situation. But I find most people agree
that you should legally be allowed to unplug from Thomson’s violinist, even
though that would allow the violinist to die.
|Even if the violinist was Sherlock. Er, maybe.|
baseline stance, we protect one person’s bodily integrity even at the expense
of another person’s life. I think there are strong reasons to argue for an exception when it comes to most abortions.
But those reasons get a lot weaker when we are talking about pregnancy
resulting from rape. It’s very difficult for me to imagine any other
circumstance where we would tell someone she is legally required to give of
her body that way when she did not cause the other person’s
precarious position. (Justice For All has a great analogy to explore
that concept in their De Facto Guardian
paper. Everyone interested in the abortion debate
should really read this paper—or you can listen to a presentation of the concepts here.)
don’t believe we should legally require people to give of their bodies in any
situations analogous to pregnancies from rape, I can’t justify that legal
requirement for pregnancies from rape either. My support for the rape exception
is about my understanding of—and agreement with—how our society treats bodily
integrity. And that’s all it’s about.
pro-lifers (and, in fact, many pro-choicers) seem to think I believe abortion
should be legal in cases of rape for a whole variety of other reasons—reasons that
have little-to-nothing to do with my stance. I hope this post helps clarify a few issues.
rape exception isn’t about valuing children conceived in rape less than other
tell other pro-lifers I think abortion should be legal in cases of rape, the
most common response is “Why do you think children conceived in rape are worth
less than other children?”
answer: I don’t.
are conceived doesn’t change our worth. It is illogical and unfair to hold
anyone responsible (especially children) for situations over which they have no
control, and a child has no control over how she is conceived. This is why I
hate the phrases (thankfully now rarely used) “illegitimate child” or “bastard
child.” It’s why I also hate the phrases (unfortunately still often
used) “rapist’s child” or “rape baby.” It’s wrong to assign a
child negative qualities based on how she was created.
doesn’t change the child’s worth, but it does change other factors that affect
the morality of abortion. For example, as pro-lifers, we very strongly
emphasize responsibility and consent to risks. How often have you heard any of
parents consented to risking pregnancy, and they are responsible for putting
the child in a position of dependence.”
choice is the choice to have sex in the first place.”
aren’t talking about forced pregnancy because people choose to take that risk!”
frustrated when our opponents seem to suggest pregnancy happens in a vacuum,
divorced from our choices and therefore wholly out of our control. So we
respond with ideas like those listed above, and I get that. But when we’re talking about rape, those ideas are
irrelevant. The child conceived in rape is worth just as much as any
other, but a rape survivor is not responsible for the fact that the child is
growing inside her. By definition, she did not consent to that risk.
responsibility and consent to risks are such important factors, it should be
clear how cases of rape are fundamentally different even though the child’s value
is the same. You would have to ignore the very nature of rape—the entire reason
it’s so much worse and so controversial—to think fetal value is the only factor
that could be different about a rape case.
rape exception isn’t about the rape survivor’s emotional turmoil.
think abortion should be legal in cases of rape, people have accused me of “caving
under pressure.” They seem to think I just don’t have the nerve to tell women
who are emotionally or psychologically traumatized that they should still carry
think it’s important to understand the gravity of rape and how it affects
people. And I worry that some pro-lifers, eager to show the consistency of
their pro-life stances, end up speaking callously or dismissively about rape. I
think, as a movement, we should acknowledge that, yes, many rape survivors want to carry resulting pregnancies and need more
social support. But we should also acknowledge
that, no, not all rape survivors want to carry resulting pregnancies; some
really, really do not want to. I often feel as if my fellow pro-lifers prefer
to pretend those women don’t exist.
the rape survivor’s emotional turmoil is important and we need to strive to
understand where she’s coming from. But actually, no, I don’t think her
emotional turmoil justifies the rape exception (though
some think maybe it could).
pro-lifer, when I think about the morality of abortion in a given case I try to
imagine how I would view that case if we were talking about a born child rather
than an unborn one. And we would not say killing a born child should be legal
if the parent is too emotionally traumatized to care for that child. If we
wouldn’t say that for a born child, I don’t believe the reasoning works to
justify abortion either.
if we look at the issue in terms of bodily integrity, it gets more complicated.
It’s hard to think of equivalent situations where born children are using their
parents’ bodies the way unborn children do. To me, this is why grounding the
rape exception in bodily integrity is so different, and more compelling, than
grounding the exception in the woman’s emotional turmoil.
rape exception isn’t about political expediency.
people assume I grant the rape exception because I believe that’s the only way
we can get pro-life legislation passed.
there are many people who grant the rape exception
for this reason. After all, only about
1% of abortions are for cases of rape. Given that the debate over
the rape exception is especially emotional, controversial, and entrenched, I
expect many pro-lifers would rather focus on the majority of abortions which
seem clearer cut—that is, abortions performed on a healthy fetus carried by a
healthy mother for pregnancies resulting from consensual sex. I think
some pro-lifers grant the rape exception to simplify the conversation. They
believe it’s more effective to focus our finite political power elsewhere.
if we had the political power to do so, I would not support outlawing abortion
in cases of rape. This is because I don’t argue for the rape exception to be
politically practical; I argue for the rape exception because I believe it’s
the right and consistent stance to take. Our society already guards bodily
integrity even in cases where doing so can hurt other people, and to my view
supporting the rape exception is consistent with that approach.
The rape exception isn’t about punishing the child.
this point before. People who make this claim
usually try to assert that if you advocate for an effect that harms people, you
are punishing those people regardless of your motivation. So even if I don’t
want to punish anyone for being conceived in rape, they assert that, effectively, I am still
punishing the children.
we have to do is apply this line of thinking to a myriad of other topics and we
see the assertion is disingenuous. If you believe marriage should be between a
man and a woman, does that mean you want to punish people for being gay? If you
support social welfare of any kind, does that mean you want to punish
taxpayers? If you believe we shouldn’t be legally obligated to donate our extra
kidneys, does that mean you want to punish people dying while they wait on organ donor lists? Why do you think
people waiting on organ donor lists are worth less than everyone else? Why
don’t you care about their lives??
I did there?
apply this punishment accusation to almost anything. If we’re saying that
motivation is irrelevant and only effect
matters, then when you support any sort of law or regulation or principle that
narrows the options of any group at all, people can accuse you of wanting to
punish that group. In fact this is the exact mentality that leads so many of
our opponents to accuse pro-lifers of wanting to punish women for having sex.
If you think that accusation is unfair, maybe keep that unfairness in mind
before accusing those of us who support the rape exception of wanting to punish
The rape exception is not about avoiding punishment for the rapist!
of you have heard (or said) “punish the rapist, not the child”?
a rule I don’t know about that says if I support a rape exception, I am not
allowed to also support punishing rapists? Are the rape exception and
punishments for rape mutually exclusive? Does anyone actually believe that people
who support the rape exception have some desire to take the focus away from
seriously, where do people get this phrase? What is the logic behind this idea?
People who advocate for the rape exception often do so from a place of particular
empathy for rape survivors and particular concern over the continued violation
of their bodily integrity. There’s really no reason to tell us—of all people—to
“punish the rapist.” I’m not sure I can overemphasize how baffling this phrase
phrase isn’t just baffling because it implies we don’t care about punishing
rapists. It’s also ignorant because it makes it sound as if punishing rapists
is a simple thing to do.
of those who get accused, how many have formal charges brought against them?
And of those who get charged, how many go to trial? And of those who go to
trial, how many get convicted? Seriously, do you know? Because it’s not many.
It’s an appallingly small number, actually.
there’s no shortage of reasons. Many rape survivors have great difficulty
telling anyone, much less telling the authorities, about what has happened to
them. Some aren’t psychologically prepared to process it. Many fear they
won’t be believed, or that there will be
repercussions against them.
who gets pregnant due to rape can find herself in an even more complicated
situation, with geniuses
like Todd Akin acting as if she doesn’t exist, and with a society that
assumes she will want to abort. And, if she chooses to carry her pregnancy,
that same society treats her with increased suspicion about whether
she was really raped. And, if she lives in one of the majority of
states that don’t have specific custody laws regarding rapists,
she also risks having to share custody or deal with visitation or other
parenting issues with her attacker for years to come. There are already cases
have threatened to assert parental rights unless these
women drop charges or testimony against them.
rape survivor decides to go to the authorities, if she takes a while to work up
the courage much or all of the forensic evidence may already be lost, if there
was any forensic evidence to begin with! Sometimes there isn’t any.
she goes forward quickly and there is evidence and she has the evidence
collected, it doesn’t guarantee a successful prosecution. What’s the difference
between forensic evidence of rape and forensic evidence of consensual sex? If
he didn’t leave signs of other physical violence (such as bruises or
strangulation, etc.) and if she didn’t try to physically fight him off
(potentially leaving signs of physical violence on him), the evidence between
rape and consensual sex can be indistinguishable.
please note that many rapes don’t involve that level of physical
violence. Our society falsely believes the “stranger-rape
prototype,” where people think “real” rape requires
a stranger attacking in some alley with a weapon and threats of violence. In
actuality, most rapes are by someone the survivor knows, occur without weapons,
and happen in the survivor’s home or the home of a relative, friend, or
neighbor. Imagine what kind of evidence those rapes leave.)
people tell me “punish the rapist, not the child,” I hear “I really do not
understand your perspective and I am unaware of what a complicated, painful,
and seemingly intractable problem rape is from a judicial standpoint.”
rape exception isn’t about “undoing” the rape.
“undo” rape. Whether a rape survivor gets pregnant or not, whether she carries
that pregnancy or not, she was still raped.
rape survivor gets pregnant and doesn’t want to be pregnant, there are two
separate issues: (1) she was raped, and (2) she is pregnant against her will.
The rape exception is about addressing the second issue, not the first.
rape exception isn’t about wanting women who were raped to get abortions.
less common accusation, but occasionally people will try to claim that I favor
or am okay with abortion in cases of rape.
I think abortion in cases of rape is immoral, because it takes the life of an
innocent human being. I think the moral choice is to carry the pregnancy and
give life to a child who had no choice in how she was conceived. Likewise, I
think it would be moral to stay plugged into Thomson’s violinist, and it would
be moral for all of us to go donate blood, bone marrow, and our extra kidneys
to save other lives. That doesn’t mean I think those actions should be legal
ask if I could look in the eyes of those conceived in rape and tell them they deserved to die. No, I couldn’t. Because
I don’t think they deserve to die. And I don’t think I have to pretend to
think they deserve to die to support the rape exception.
legally require people to donate their extra kidneys? No? So can you look into
the eyes of someone dying in need of a kidney, and tell her she deserves to
die? Man, I hope not. That’d be cruel and senseless. It also probably has nothing
to do with your opposition to forced kidney donation.
applies to the rape exception. Please don’t assume that because I think this
should be legal, I think it’s a good choice. Those are different issues.
many pro-lifers disagree with me on the rape exception. This post is not my
attempt to convince you to make the rape exception. I just ask that, when you
are debating the rape exception with someone, first try to find out how they
ground their position. You may be surprised by all the points we agree on.