Monday, August 27, 2012

The Life Equations

[Guest blogger Kara considers different factors regarding the rape exception.  While SPL does not necessarily agree with every view written here, Kara makes several good points deserving of discussion as she earnestly explores the issue.]

The horrid sentiments expressed by Todd Akin have left a lot of people livid and angry.  I am one of them.  This culture of blaming a rape victim that lies latent in his words, that if you get pregnant it must have not really been rape, that women have some strange control over pregnancy and thus can at least in part be blamed for pregnancy, is disgusting.  It is a culture that propagates the idea of women as the key holders of chastity and encourages marginalization.

As a pro-life person, I also despise what he said because when it comes down to a moral and philosophical debate on the rights of the unborn, all of a sudden this man's words can and often are attributed to "my side".  I reject that entirely, of course; I suspect Todd Akin and I share as many opinions as I share appendages with a fish, but in our emotionally-charged and partisan world, he has created a rallying cry for even the most superficial of pro-choice arguments.

Sherif Girgis writes in the New York Times about the problems with Todd Akin's statements:
Second, Akin’s efforts to defend the prolife view had the opposite effect, by feeding the (entirely unfair) narrative that pro-lifers are ignorant of and callous toward women’s true needs. The abortion debate is one between decent people with honest disagreements on the moral status of the unborn, not of women.
But this is a good time to talk about something as pro-lifers.  Pro-choice groups will be quick to jump on pro-lifers who allow exceptions in cases of rape: "If you think it is a human being, then isn't it always wrong to kill a human being?" That is a good question for each of us to ponder.   What are the moral underpinnings of a rape exception?

I preface this by saying that I have a very strong non-opinion on the matter.  That is, I am convinced that I, and the vast majority of humanity, minus the women who had lived it, have so little observational data that I can't comprehend the situation at hand.  I am female, but I have never even been sexually harassed, much less raped.  Consequently, I cannot form a moral opinion that would be suitable for public policy, as either way I go, my argument would be weak.

As has been discussed in countless articles before, one of the most compelling cases for abortion is bodily autonomy.  I, however, like the hosts of this site, do not see that as compelling enough.  Pregnancy, while duly fraught with hardship and difficulty, is ultimately a temporary condition.  The resulting post-born child is a longer time and effort commitment, but we do have a society that offers other options through adoption, so let us look solely at the term of pregnancy.  

We know in our society that people die, and are killed, for what is perceived as the "greater net benefit".  This could take the form of a soldier fighting to protect her country, or what we tolerate for carcinogens in our drinking water.  The EPA determines Total Maximum Daily Loads of particulates coming out of coal power plants not based on what would be needed to safely protect all human life, but based on what constitutes an "acceptable risk", which is defined as x number of people getting cancer after ingesting or inhaling x amount of substance.  They do this because the overall perceived benefit of economic activity, including the electricity needed to power street lamps at night which reduce car crash casualties, is perceived to be higher than the cost of a certain number of life-terminating cancers.

So when we apply this rationale--that we should strive to ensure there is the greatest net benefit between all parties involved--we can attempt to boil down the question of abortion into some equations:

The Life Equations

Life = Life

Nobody is saying the life of a fetus is worth more than that of the mother.  Few people argue for a ban on abortions where the life of the mother is at stake.  It does not make any sense anyway, since until viability, without the mother both lives would be lost, as opposed to only one life lost with a medically-needed abortion.

Life > 9 months of impact-free Life

Though the nine months of pregnancy clearly affect the pregnant woman on multiple levels, in a typical pregnancy, Life still trumps.  We can't talk about bodily autonomy as being more important than life; it certainly isn't for post-born people.  No mugger says "your money or your bodily autonomy!" 

Life is the most basic requirement we have to interact and exist in this world.  A person can live, grow and interact with the world without bodily autonomy (consider conjoined twins).  A person cannot have bodily autonomy without life.  In the case of financial burden, again, there are hardships (and we should regularly support and fight for causes that reduce those financial burdens) but still, Life trumps.  Unless we think the mugger will kill us anyway, or that we have the ability to overcome the mugger, the vast majority of us would be handing over that cash, even if it was the last dime we had.

Life ? Lifetime of vegetable-inducing impact

I have never been in a violent or forced sexual situation, but I do know that there are events in everybody's life that can severely impact them forever--some things that can make them a mental and emotional basketcase.  When we consider life as we know it, the type of life we strive for, life is more than lungs taking in air and a heart beating.  Life is being able to interact in your world, explore, develop relationships, grow.  When you are a vegetable (physically, mentally or emotionally) you are not doing this.  You are not living.  

I believe the trauma induced by rape to likely be one of those horrible things that some might never recover from.  In the case of rape, where a woman descends into the depths of depression, and she is unable to overcome the tragedy that befalls her, I personally find it difficult to say that she should not be given all the tools possible to survive that life-ending rut.  I do not know if an abortion in this case would do her much good--I do not know that as she is suffering, destroying the child would help her--but since I do not know the situation, I cannot make that call.  I am sure there are women who think it would help, feeling that knowing the rapist's child is in her would lead her into depths from which she could not ever recover.  Then I am sure there are women who would feel worse for it: first a victim, then a murderer.  I cannot say either way.  

This is not to say the child is at fault or suddenly not human.  It is to say the woman is also not at fault to strive for the survival of her mind.  While I do think abortion in the case of rape is the killing of human life, that a child of a rapist is as much a human before birth as the child of consensual sex, and that abortion should be avoided if possible, I am not willing to say that the holistic life of a fetus is worth more than the holistic life of the mother.  I would avoid abortion personally, and I would support efforts to help and encourage women who do not choose abortion.  But ultimately Life = Life, and there is no net benefit to be gained by choosing one over the other.

So: I am nebulously in favor of a rape exception.  What are your opinions, and what rationale leads you to them?


Michelle Zhang said...

This is the "exception" that I myself has gone back and forth on. On the one hand the fetus conceived of rape and the fetus conceived of consensual intercourse biologically are no different, on the other compassion for the life and well being of the mother is very important as well.

I think right now I am in the extremely as I lean more towards no rape exception. This has come about after reading a lot of the stories and hearing from Rebecca's Keisling who is a strong advocate against the rape exception and is a person conceived in rape herself. But I am still not entirely sure of my stance.

What further complicates things is that in many states a rapist can file for custody of the child if he was not convicted of the crime. And as we all know many rapea go unreported and of the ones reported many are not convicted. That adds a whole new complication to the issue.

Bryan said...

"We can't talk about bodily autonomy as being more important than life..."

On the contrary, we most certainly can. I can't demand your kidney if both of mine fail, regardless of the fact that you'll be perfectly fine with one kidney. The government can't require that you donate blood despite the fact that people die every day from blood shortages. Etc. This reasoning is also reflected in our laws:

"Allegheny County refused to issue an order whereby McFall, a terminally ill patient with a rare bone marrow disease, could compel Shimp, his cousin and the only suitable donor, to undergo testing and a bone marrow transplant. The court based its decision on the fact that “[t]he common law has consistently held to a
rule which provides that one human being is under no legal compulsion to give aid or take action to save another human being or to rescue.” The court called the refusal morally indefensible, but argued that forcible submission to a medical procedure would violate the first principle of society, respect for an individual."

"The right of an individual to control his or her own body is deeply rooted in our nation’s history and tradition. At common law, every person of adult years and sound mind had the “right to determine what shall be done with his own body”779 and any touching of one person by another without consent or legal justification was a battery.780 Indeed, well over a century ago, the Supreme Court proclaimed, “No right is held more sacred, or is more carefully guarded, by the common law, than the right of every individual to the possession and control of his own person, free from all restraint or interference of others, unless by clear and unquestionable authority of law.”781 Thus, at common law there was a right to control one’s own person; that is, a right of bodily integrity."

Kara said...

I suppose I was not clear in my inferences. I was not referring to a legal weighing of one person's life over another bodily autonomy. I was referring to the hierarchy of needs for any one individual to survive. That is, given the choice to maintain my bodily autonomy or my life, if my goal is to exist in this world, I must choose my life and forgo the bodily autonomy, as must anybody to reach that goal.
True, I was doing this to later compare the net benefit of an action for individual A and individual B, that is, the mother and the fetus respectively, but that is a separate question which I was not really addressing in this post: is pregnancy a special case where the deference to bodily autonomy, and the legal standing it has acquired is not applicable or invalid - where absolute bodily autonomy should be reconsidered, due to the unique circumstances that develop the dependency, in favor of a different system, such as a net benefit assessment?
To sum up very briefly my legal thoughts on the matter, no, legally, you cannot and should not be compelled to do something with your body that you do not want to do. However, letting someone die through not giving up your bodily autonomy, even if potentially morally reprehensible, is a different thing than killing someone and claiming justification through bodily autonomy. That is, bodily autonomy allows for inaction - to not be compelled to action. It does not permit otherwise illegal action upon the dependent party.

Kristine Kruszelnicki said...

"I am not willing to say that the holistic life of a fetus is worth more than the holistic life of the mother."

Are you an ageist then? If the fetus and the woman are both equally human why does one get to kill the other simply because one is older and more developed than the younger and simply because one is dependent on the other?

I fail to understand this argument because it grants too much to pro-choicers. On the one hand you want to say that a fetus is a human being worthy of not being killed by a woman facing hardships, but when it's a fetus whose father is a rapist you say "go ahead: dismember, disembowel and decapitate the child because your hardships are that much harder than the other woman's.

In other words: the woman with the hardship of financial desperation and facing family humiliation doesn't deserve the right to choose to kill her preborn offspring, but the woman facing the hardship of rape does deserve the right to choose to kill?

This kind of double-standard is so dangerous as it compromises the central truth of the pro-life position: that a fetus is a human being worthy of not being prematurely killed. The moment you start going back on that for some fetuses and some women, you may as well not oppose any woman's abortion.

Kara said...

I agree Michelle, this is something I too have gone back and forth on.

Ultimately, I think the child conceived of rape has just as much a right to life as any other child, and it is a true tragedy for such a life to be wasted like that. But similarly, it is a huge tragedy for a previously vibrant and engaged person to be completely and fully taken out of life. We all bear scars from mildly traumatic experiences in our lives. When those scars have the ability to permanently take someone out of life - where they are experiencing a severe case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, I find it morally difficult to say they must be resigned to that fate, through no fault of their own. If the trauma of that experience can be intensified through a pregnancy, and I suspect for some women, that is precisely what happens, then I believe it would be wrong for her to be barred from saving her mental life.

LN said...

So maintaining bodily autonomy is fine, but restoring it is wrong? That doesn't make much sense to me. If someone manages to override my bodily autonomy, I'm screwed because restoring it requires an action?

Kara said...

No, I am not suggesting that age makes one individual more deserving of life than another. They are both equally deserving of life, both the *mother* and the *fetus*. However, this equivalency is a two-way street. I make the case that physical life, however, is equivalent to mental/emotional life (not health, but life). That is, to be a shut-in, non-responsive basketcase due to post-traumatic stress disorder is equivalent to not physically living. As far as I can see would only apply in a pregnancy under the case of rape (trauma).

Severity is everything in my argument. Hardships are surmountable, hardships are part of life and help us to grow, or at least are catalysts for growth in this world. When a hardship reaches the point that it terminates our ability interaction, growth, relationship building, etc, it ceases to be a hardship and becomes a mental/emotional/physical mortal injury. Again, based on observations, I believe rape to be the only pregnancy inducing event that is capable of producing this reaction.

Most importantly, because of this equivalency, that is the life of the mother = the life of the fetus, without one being more important than the other, I don't see any place where the law could fit. Where both sides of the equation are equal, life = life, to compel an action or inaction that favors one life over the other is to legally favor one over the other. Again, in relatively less severe "hardships", you would have an equation of Life > Avoiding Hardship. Life should win.

I agree with you, a fetus is a human being worthy of not being prematurely killed. I also believe a mother is a human being worthy of not being prematurely destroyed (on a mental/emotional or physical level).

Kara said...

No, if someone overwhelms you and forces dependency on you, you have the legal avenue that they have committed a crime and you are the victim. To take the previous metaphor, if the sick man subdued the cousin, and took the bone marrow, then that is the first crime that would have taken place. If someone else had subdued the cousin, then the sick man would still be responsible for receiving stolen goods. Restoring bodily autonomy in this case is not an independent action, but a reaction to a crime committed, it is reparations.
On the other hand a fetus hasn't committed a crime to develop the dependency. It owes no reparations, so destroying it would not be a reaction, but an independent action.

Kara said...

Now if you had a case where the cousin gave the bone marrow, and then later demanded it back for whatever reason, citing bodily autonomy, then yes I would say the cousin does not have a legal avenue to press his case. He is "screwed"

LN said...

Yes, but this is why there's a violinist analogy. It eliminates the "well he committed a crime so it's ok" avenue. It would and should still be legal to restore your bodily autonomy despite the dependent person being innocent. Are you saying you would oppose restoration in that case as well, because it's an action?

Anonymous said...

So now that we've decided that pregant women need to be forced to give birth regardless of whether they want to or not, does this mean we're going to support these babies? or will the women involved be on thier own from then on?

I've yet to see a substantive analysis of the consequences of abolishing reproductive choice. I see lots of talk about how abortion should be illegal, but no talk about what will happen after it is. I assume it will be all churchbells, daises, roses, unicorns, and cherubs. America will regain it's morality, and the 1950s nuclear family unit will become the norm once again; 100 years of prosperity and peace.

Anonymous said...


Not my specialty, but I think it is a mix of arguments that "unstring the violinist" (ala Greg Koukl.) First one argues that the unborn is a living human. Then one argues that it is wrong to kill innocent humans. Then one points out that the violinist objection would apply equally well to parents of born children. Why is an infant not also in the position of the violinist, invading the life of the mother and making all manner of demands for it's mere survival, demanding sacrifices of money, time and potentially uprooting the woman's career, damaging her mental health, etc. The reason that parental duty normally doesn't factor into pro-life arguments is because most pro-abortion folks deny the life and humanity of the unborn. Who has parental duty to a blob of flesh?

chucklingabit said...

I'd like to share a thought experiment regarding rape and abortion. Consider a woman, Jenn. She is wildly in love with her husband, Bill. One night, Jenn goes to the corner store to buy cigarettes. On her way home, she is raped. However, the rapist both wore protection and also used the pullout method. Furthermore, she used the morning after pill. Now a couple days later, her husband is comforting her and it somehow leads to sex. 9 months later, a child is born. They name her Jessica. They nurture her, coddle her, hold her and love her until she is 2 weeks old, when Jessica develops a medical condition. Upon heading to the hospital, they find out it is a disease that effects the brain, and that Jessica will be developmentally disabled. Furthermore, they mention that it is genetic illness. They test Jenn, finding that she doesn't have the defective gene. They call in Bill. Similarly, Bill does not have the defective gene. As the grim truth is revealed to Jenn, she finds herself horrorstruck, and it rekindles the PTSD. She has carried her rapists progeny through nine long months, loved and kissed it, and is now confronted with the sad fact that her child is her rapist's child. The doctor on staff helpfully offers a scalpel to Jenn. "Here, this will help you get closure," as he gestures to the spinal cord of Jessica.

Sure, it's less likely than the standard rape case, but it is of course at least possible. Is there any amount of therapeutic benefit Jenn could derive from severing little Jessica's spinal cord, that would justify her actions? If a police officer were in the room, should he stop Jenn from slaughtering her child?

Just a thought.

chucklingabit said...

Those are all interesting questions, but seemingly completely unrelated to the ethics of abortion. After all, if one came across a parent holding their two year old child's head in a vice and slowly crushing the child's skull, no one would base the ethical status of the act upon whether or not someone would be standing by to provide financially for the child after the father was stopped.

So those questions matter, but not at all as to whether it is morally right to kill innocent humans.

Anonymous said...

So your answer to my question is that it's not convenient to what you want to talk about so you ignore it?

Sounds about right. Most pro-lifers don't talk about things that aren't convenient to thier view of the world.

Bryan said...

"Why is an infant not also in the position of the violinist, invading the life of the mother and making all manner of demands for it's mere survival, demanding sacrifices of money, time and potentially uprooting the woman's career, damaging her mental health, etc."

Because people have a right to bodily autonomy, not a right to not be financially drained by children, a right to a career, etc. Furthermore, a parent's responsibility to a child can be obviated by adoption if they no longer want the child, which isn't an option for non-viable fetuses.

Kara said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kara said...

Hi Troll!

Not the subject of debate on this article - though an interested and important topic in the larger debate outside of abortion! Staying on topic is useful to coherence of debate, but that doesn't mean there isn't a forum for your query. Why don't you write a blog post on what policies you think should be instated in our society to ensure that our social safety net an adoption structures are improved, so that no child, whether wanted or "unwanted" will be suffering for the circumstances of their birth.
It will still have nothing to do with the morality/ legality of abortion, but I agree, we need a stronger social system! I promise to comment on your post and point out where I agree and disagree (although as a liberal progressive, I can give you the hint that I do want to see a stronger, quicker and easier adoption system and/or better support systems for new parents)

Kara said...

Interesting hypothetical scenario.

I am in no way a psychologist, hence my lacking-in-confidence stand on the rape exception, but from what I understand that isn't exactly how PTSD works.

Say an Iraqi veteran has come home with an arm missing. She has gone through a traumatic event, but luckily is able to overcome it and does not have at least a severe case of PTSD. If they lost that arm thinking it was friendly fire and years later, found out it was the enemy who had done it, the critical point in recovery has already passed, she has already recovered enough and made peace with her lost arm. This new information might change her opinion on certain matters, but it will not suddenly give her PTSD. On the other hand, a solder coming back from war who is battling the demons in his head resulting from the violence and pain fresh on his mind could further be haunted with a very visible reminder in the lack of his arm.

But let's, for argument's sake, say I am wrong. PTSD is completely gone, then wham! it is there. There is no logical reason to kill the child. If the presence of the child is likely to send her down a path of mental and emotional ruin, at this point there is a possibility to remove the child, from her world without destroying the child. I am speaking of course of adoption.

What I am suggesting is that potentially, and again, I am not confident in this analysis, maintaining the pregnancy, not the child itself, particularly so soon after a traumatic event, is what can cause irreparable and complete mental/emotional damage or at least inhibit the healing of fresh wounds leading to becoming a basketcase.

Kara said...

LN, Even in the violinist's case, the violinist is still responsible for receiving "stolen goods" even if he was not the person to connect himself to another person. Similarly, if someone steals a necklace from a department store and gives it to you, you will be compelled to return the necklace, even if you did nothing more than accept a gift from a friend. Restoration of the compelled person from the violinist is a return of stolen goods, not an independent action.
I don't really think the violinist's metaphor is really applicable to pregnancy because a pre-born infant does not receive stolen goods (the mother's body). It never existed without the mother's body, it was created there. I don't receive my left hand, it was always there since the very beginning of my creation.

Anonymous said...

OMG it must be trolling to point out that the pro-life movement has an unhealthy obsession with republicans and making abortion illegal when republican policies do not address the underlying causes of abortion in America. It must be trolling to point out that having the tone of the conversation set in such a way where only the "morality" of abortion is discussed favors Republican policy positions. It must be trolling to accuse this site of being a conservative noise machine.

Bryan said...

Hey now, I'm not here to stop you from hatin' on the Republican Party (as long you accuse party members of things they've actually done) cus I'm not particularly fond of the Republican Party either. But I'm gonna draw the line at calling this site a "conservative noise machine." That's simply false. This is a damn good site with a lot of different, informative views going on and at least a few of my friends put in a lot of work to make it so.

Draco Mater said...

I don't know if I'm pro-life, to be honest I tend to look at both camps in despair and claim "none of the above". I'm also not really certain about what I should support in terms of legislation, as I'm wary about imposing my personal views on others. However, I'm personally opposed to abortion. The killing upsets me, the calculated dehumanisation of the foetus upsets me, and the trend of devaluing mothers and children of any age or location upsets me.

I'm in favour of the rape exception, because I think women should be able to seek an abortion in order to genuinely protect their health, including their mental health (although I suppose that's really a "health exception" rather than strictly a rape exception).

I know what it's like to be suicidal, and I think I should have the right to live my life in such a way that I can stay off that precipice. It may be that for some rape victims, they need an abortion to stay off that precipice (besides, if the mother kills herself it doesn't exactly help the unborn child). I would really, sincerely hope that there was some other way, and I think that every other measure should be taken to help them first, but ultimately it's between them and their doctor to determine how best to manage their health and keep themselves alive.

I don't think that rape victims should be encouraged to get abortions just because they were raped though. I don't think the manner of conception should be the deciding factor. Life is life. By my own estimation of my mental health, having an abortion would be much more likely to drive me to suicide. My discussions with relevant mental health professionals lead me to believe I'm not alone in that regard, but also that it's different for every woman. How could I impose such a health risk on other women? Pregnancy itself might be a temporary condition, but trauma can last for much longer and suicide is permanent.

Chris R said...

Let's say a woman gets pregnant from rape and decides to carry to term, and loves her child, but as her child grows, he begins to look more like her rapist, and this causes her great mental anguish. Nightmares, cold sweats, the whole shebang. Does this mean she should be allowed to kill her born child?

Obviously not. It's false to claim that being depressed is the same thing as being killed, or that the two are at all comparable.