Last week the state of Alabama enacted one of the strictest abortion restrictions in the country. The law makes the performance of an abortion a felony punishable by life imprisonment of not more than 99 years or less than 10 years.
The law allows an exemption if the abortion is deemed necessary in order to prevent a serious health risk to the unborn child’s mother, but it allows for no exception in cases of rape or incest. In what appears to have been a response to the law, President Trump tweeted over the weekend,
As most people know, and for those who would like to know, I am strongly Pro-Life, with the three exceptions – Rape, Incest and protecting the Life of the mother – the same position taken by Ronald Reagan. . . . We must stick together and Win . . . for Life in 2020. If we are foolish and do not stay UNITED as one, all of our hard fought gains for Life can, and will, rapidly disappear!
When asked what prompted the president, a senior White House official told CBS News, “It’s private conversation, but also I think it’s a personal thing that this is the best way to be pro-life . . . which is that you have these exceptions for rape, incest, the life of the mother.”
Many Americans seem to agree with President Trump that “best way to be pro-life” is to allow these three exceptions. According to a recent Gallup poll, more than half of pro-lifers (57 percent) think abortion is allowable if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, and also two-thirds (71 percent) think abortion should be legal if a woman’s life would be endangered.
Are they right? Should a consistent pro-lifer consider one or all of these exceptions to be a legitimate reason to allow the death of an unborn child? Let’s examine the justification for each exemption and weigh them against the standards normally accepted as being a consistent with a robust defense of unborn life.
(NB: For the sake of brevity I’ve had to elide over the more emotion-based arguments that are often used to justify these exemptions. However, Christians should not ignore such concerns. While the issue can be debated in an emotionally neutral manner, we should never forget that these exemptions are considered necessary because they result from difficult or horrific situations and can have a profound effect on the lives of women.)
Evaluating the Exemptions
The fact that incest remains on the list of possible exemptions to abortion is a sign that many people have not given the issue sufficient consideration.
The legal definition of incest is sexual contact between close blood relatives, including brothers and sisters, parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren, or aunts or uncles with nephews or nieces. In 18 states first cousins are also included in the definition of incest.
Incest is a crime in all states, and is illegal in 48 states even if consensual by both parties. Yet when most people think of incest they are likely assuming that the sexual contact was nonconsensual, such as in cases where a father impregnates his minor child. But a pregnancy that results from nonconsensual sex is rape—even if the rapist is a blood relative. If what we oppose about a pregnancy resulting from incest is the rape, then there is no need to create a redundant category. We could reduce “rape or incest” to the single category of “rape.”
What about when the sexual contact was consensual? Even if we believe (as I do) that incest between consenting adults should remain illegal, there is no reason to think it justifies allowing an abortion. If abortion is prohibited on moral grounds, why would there be an exception for a woman who was impregnated by consensual sex with her cousin?
The reasoning against incest is usually grounded in the potential damage it can have to family life or the risk of passing on genetic diseases. Neither reason, though, is moral grounds on which a consistent pro-lifer would support an abortion. We don’t support the killing of an unborn child because the child might disrupt a family. We also don’t support aborting children when they have already been diagnosed with a genetic malady, such as Down syndrome, so why would we support an abortion to prevent potential genetic conditions?
Including an exemption for rape is understandable, and it may even be necessary legally. But from a consistent pro-life perspective it would not be moral. As Trevin Wax says, “Allowing abortion in the case of rape is not the way to express sympathy toward a victim of this crime. Abortion only destroys the life of another victim.”
The philosopher Steven Wagner provides a thought experiment to show why rape, while a horrific crime, is not a legitimate justification for an abortion. Imagine that a woman named Mary wakes up in a strange cabin and has no idea how she got there. She goes to the window and sees snow piled so high that she can’t leave. On the desk by the window, she finds a note that says, “You will be here for six weeks. You are safe, and your child is, too. There is plenty of food and water.”
Since she just gave birth a week ago, she instinctively begins tearing through each room of the cabin looking for her infant son. She finds an infant in a second room, but it is not her infant. It is a girl who appears to be about one week old, just like her son. She then goes to the kitchen area of the cabin and finds a huge store of food and a ready source of water. The baby begins to cry, and she rightly assesses that the baby is hungry. Mary sees a three-month supply of formula on the counter in the kitchen area.
Now imagine that the police show up at the cabin six weeks later. The police say, “We’re so glad you’re okay. Is there anyone else in the cabin?” Mary says, “There was.” The police search the cabin and find the infant formula unopened on the counter. They find the infant dead on a bed. The coroner confirms that the infant died from starvation. Did Mary do anything wrong?
Our moral intuition tells us that Mary was wrong for not feeding the baby. She didn’t ask to put in that situation, but we still think the obligation to feed the child exists even if her only option is to use her own body to breastfeed that child. And even if the note Mary found had a fourth line saying, “If the child in the cabin dies, you will be rescued immediately,” we still would not think she was justified in killing the baby either actively or passively. Dependency is not a justification for killing an innocent human being.
The situation for Mary is similar to the plight of a rape victim. As Wagner explains:
Mary didn’t do anything to put herself in the situation in which she now finds herself, with a child totally dependent on her body for survival. Similarly, the woman pregnant from rape didn’t do anything to put herself in the situation, but she now has a child totally dependent on her body for survival. Both Mary and the woman pregnant from rape are de facto guardians, and as such, they both have the obligation (moral and legal) to feed and shelter the children in their care, regardless of the fact that they didn’t consent to be in the situation they are in.
Protecting the Life of the Mother
Our final category of exemption is the strongest, and likely to be the only morally consistent justification for allowing an abortion: to save the life of the mother. But even this category is more morally complex than most people realize.
The standard most often applied to this category of exemption is the principle of double effect. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains, “According to the principle of double effect, sometimes it is permissible to cause a harm as a side effect (or ‘double effect’) of bringing about a good result even though it would not be permissible to cause such a harm as a means to bringing about the same good end.” This principle requires an action to meet four criteria:
1. The act itself must be good.
2. The only thing that one can intend is the good act, not the foreseen but unintended bad effect.
3. The good effect cannot arise from the bad effect; otherwise, one would do evil to achieve good.
4. The unintended but foreseen bad effect cannot be disproportionate to the good being performed.
The National Catholic Bioethics Center explains that the classic case of this principle is a pregnant woman who has advanced uterine cancer. The removal of the cancerous uterus will result in the death of the baby, but it would be permissible under the principle of double effect.
One can see how the conditions would be satisfied in this case: 1) The act itself is good; it is the removal of a diseased organ. 2) All that one intends is the removal of the diseased organ. One does not want the death of the baby, either as a means or an end. Nonetheless, one sees that the unborn child will die as a result of the removal of the diseased organ. 3) The good action, the healing of the woman, arises from the removal of the diseased uterus, not from the regrettable death of the baby which is foreseen and unintended. 4) The unintended and indirect death of the child is not disproportionate to the good which is done, which is saving the mother’s life.
This principle, however, does not justify abortion for any and all serious medical threats. A woman with hypertension might become less likely to die of the condition if she were to have an abortion. Yet that in itself would not provide a moral justification to kill an unborn child.
Setting aside whether the category is moral, the legal exception may be allowable on the ground that it is unlikely ever to be necessary. Despite the claims made by pro-abortion groups, there is a dearth of evidence that an abortion is every medically necessary to save the life of a mother. From 2011 to 2014, the Centers for Disease Control recorded 2,726 deaths that were found to be pregnancy-related caused by 11 conditions. While some of the conditions could be caused by abortion and thus led to a woman’s death, there is no evidence that having an abortion would have prevented any of the deaths.