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Answering the Arguments for Abortion Rights

Part Two: Arguments from Pity, Tolerance, and Ad Hominem

by Francis J. Beckwith

In the first installment of this four-part series we examined a number of arguments for abortion rights which can be classified as appeals to pity. In this article I will present and critique more appeals to pity, along with two additional kinds of argument: appeals to tolerance and ad hominem (literally, "against the person"). Of course, not every defender of abortion rights holds to all or any of the arguments presented in this article. But the truth of the matter is that a vast majority do defend at least some of these arguments. For this reason, the following critique should prove helpful to those interested in providing reasoned answers, rather than inflammatory rhetoric, to the arguments put forth by the abortion rights movement.


Argument from Rape and Incest

A woman who becomes pregnant due to an act of either rape or incest is the victim of a horribly violent and morally reprehensible crime. Although pregnancy as a result of either rape or incest is extremely rare,[1] there is no getting around the fact that pregnancy does occur in some instances. Bioethicist Andrew Varga summarizes the argument from rape and incest in the following way:

It is argued that in these tragic cases the great value of the mental health of a woman who becomes pregnant as a result of rape or incest can best be safe-guarded by abortion. It is also said that a pregnancy caused by rape or incest is the result of a grave injustice and that the victim should not be obliged to carry the fetus to viability. This would keep reminding her for nine months of the violence committed against her and would just increase her mental anguish. It is reasoned that the value of the woman's mental health is greater than the value of the fetus. In addition, it is maintained that the fetus is an aggressor against the woman's integrity and personal life; it is only just and morally defensible to repel an aggressor even by killing him if that is the only way to defend personal and human values. It is concluded, then, that abortion is justified in these cases.[2]

Despite its forceful appeal to our sympathies, there are several problems with this argument. First, it is not relevant to the case for abortion on demand, the position defended by the popular pro-choice movement. This position states that a woman has a right to have an abortion for any reason she prefers during the entire nine months of pregnancy, whether it be for gender-selection, convenience, or rape.[3] To argue for abortion on demand from the hard cases of rape and incest is like trying to argue for the elimination of traffic laws from the fact that one might have to violate some of them in rare circumstances, such as when one's spouse or child needs to be rushed to the hospital. Proving an exception does not establish a general rule.

Second, since conception does not occur immediately following intercourse, pregnancy can be eliminated in all rape cases if the rape victim receives immediate medical treatment by having all the male semen removed from her uterus.[4]

Third, the unborn entity is not an aggressor when its presence does not endanger its mother's life (as in the case of a tubal pregnancy). It is the rapist who is the aggressor. The unborn entity is just as much an innocent victim as its mother. Hence, abortion cannot be justified on the basis that the unborn is an aggressor.

Fourth, this argument begs the question by assuming that the unborn is not fully human. For if the unborn is fully human, then we must weigh the relieving of the woman's mental suffering against the right-to-life of an innocent human being. And homicide of another is never justified to relieve one of emotional distress. Although such a judgment is indeed anguishing, we must not forget that the same innocent unborn entity that the career-oriented woman will abort in order to avoid interference with a job promotion is biologically and morally indistinguishable from the unborn entity that results from an act of rape or incest. And since abortion for career advancement cannot be justified if the unborn entity is fully human, abortion cannot be justified in the cases of rape and incest. In both cases abortion results in the death of an innocent human life. As Dr. Bernard Nathanson has written, "The unwanted pregnancy flows biologically from the sexual act, but not morally from it."[5] Hence, this argument, like the ones we have already covered in this series, is successful only if the unborn are not fully human.

Some pro-choice advocates claim that the pro-lifer lacks compassion, since the pro-lifer's position on rape and incest forces a woman to carry her baby against her will. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is the rapist who has already forced this woman to carry a child, not the pro-lifer. The pro-life advocate merely wants to prevent another innocent human being (the unborn entity) from being the victim of a violent and morally reprehensible act (abortion), for two wrongs do not make a right. As theologian and ethicist Dr. Michael Bauman has observed: "A child does not lose its right to life simply because its father or its mother was a sexual criminal or a deviant."[6]

Furthermore, the anguish and psychic suffering caused by rape and incest has been treated quite effectively. Professor Stephen Krason points out that "psychological studies have shown that, when given the proper support, most pregnant rape victims progressively change their attitudes about their unborn child from something repulsive to someone who is innocent and uniquely worthwhile."[7] The pro-life advocate believes that help should be given to the rape victim "to make it as easy as possible for her to give up her baby for adoption, if she desires. Dealing with the woman pregnant from rape, then, can be an opportunity for us -- both as individuals and society -- to develop true understanding and charity. Is it not better to try to develop these virtues than to countenance an ethic of destruction as the solution?"[8]

Argument from the Unwanted Child

It is argued by many people in the pro-choice movement that legal abortion helps eliminate unwanted children. They believe that unwanted children are indirectly responsible for a great number of family problems, such as child abuse. Hence, if a family can have the "correct" amount of children at the "proper" times, then these family problems will be greatly reduced, if not eliminated.[9] Once again, we find several serious problems with the pro-choice argument.

First, the argument begs the question, because only by assuming that the unborn are not fully human does this argument work. For if the unborn are fully human, like the abused young children which we readily admit are fully human, then to execute the unborn is the worst sort of child abuse imaginable.

Second, it is very difficult to demonstrate that the moral and metaphysical value of a human being is dependent on whether someone wants or cares for that human being. For example, no one disputes that the homeless have value even though they are for the most part unwanted. Now, suppose the pro-choice advocate responds to this by saying, "But you are treating the unborn as if they were as human as the homeless." This is exactly my point. The question is not whether the unborn are wanted; the question is whether the unborn are fully human.

Third, an unwanted child almost never turns out to be a resented baby. This seems to be borne out statistically: (1) there is no solid evidence that a child's being unwanted during pregnancy produces child abuse; (2) according to one study, 90% of battered children were wanted pregnancies;[10] and (3) some writers have argued that there is a higher frequency of abuse among adopted children -- who were undoubtedly wanted by their adoptee parents -- than among those who are unadopted.[11] In his voluminous and scholarly study on the moral, political, and constitutional aspects of the abortion issue, Professor Krason summarizes his findings concerning the argument from unwantedness by pointing out that "the factors causing child abuse cited most frequently by the researches are not 'unwantedness,' but parents' lack of social support from family, friends and community, hostility to them by society, based on a disapproved sexual and social pattern of existence, and -- most commonly -- their having been abused and neglected themselves when they were children."[12]

Fourth, the unwantedness of children in general tells us a great deal about our psychological and moral make-up as a people, but very little about the value of the child involved. For it is only a self-centered, hedonistic people who do not consider it their self-evident obligation to care for the most vulnerable and defenseless members of the human race. A lack of caring is a flaw in the one who ought to care, not in the person who ought to be cared for. Hence, whether or not abortion is morally justified depends on whether the unborn are fully human, not on their wantedness.