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Obliterating the Woman

Since it is such a hot topic this week, I wanted to collect together some thoughts on the difficulties anti-abortion advocates run into when dealing with the case of rape that results in pregnancy. I think we can explain both why Senate candidate Richard Mourdock resorted to a short exposition of theodicy in an answer […]

Since it is such a hot topic this week, I wanted to collect together some thoughts on the difficulties anti-abortion advocates run into when dealing with the case of rape that results in pregnancy.

I think we can explain both why Senate candidate Richard Mourdock resorted to a short exposition of theodicy in an answer to a tough question on abortion rights, and come around to why so many people find the normal pro-life answers cruel-sounding.

David Frum says,

My own suggestion would be that if your reasoning process leads to a conclusion this goofy – that a rape victim must be compelled to bear her assailant’s child – then perhaps you ought to check your work. There’s an error in there somewhere.

Noah Millman says,

I don’t know the best way to defend the absolutist pro-life position, but I think it has to start with an acknowledgment that hating the baby that is the product of violence, and hating the burden of carrying that baby, is an entirely normal and human reaction. That the burden of carrying this hated life is, from a human perspective, a cosmic injustice that compounds the original injustice of the rape. That burden may still be unavoidable, ethically – may be your “cross to bear” from a Christian perspective, or the “passion” that you have to transcend to see the right from a Stoical perspective, or whatever. But at least starting there means acknowledging and trying to identify with the rape victim’s perspective on the situation, rather than, as is usually the case, identifying exclusively with the baby, and consequently obliterating the woman from view.

Now before coming around to my response to these views, let’s do some preliminary work.

The abortion debate is usually conducted in the abstract. And both sides of that debate resort to liberal and reactionary principles to defend their positions. Often the logic of these is wound very closely together.

For instance, pro-lifers make reactionary arguments about the duties we owe one another. I often make this argument: that biological parents have ordinary duties to the children they conceive: to feed, clothe, and educate them. Obviously this sense of responsibility means not deliberately causing the death of their child in the womb. It’s own DNA testifies to the parentage of the two individuals who conceived it.

Pro-lifers more often resort to liberal argumentation: the unborn child has a right to life. This right must be guaranteed by the force of law. The unborn child’s rights must be respected whatever our feelings. It is a unique human with its own unique DNA.

On the other side, pro-choicers usually resort to liberal arguments: A woman has a right to choose an abortion. It is a medical procedure and no one else can have a say in it.

But the same pro-choice argument can be stated in a way that sounds downright reactionary. This argument appeals to a woman’s self-ownership. It is “my body, my choice.” This ownership excludes all claims of rights by others that are enforced by the state.

Now on the liberal side, “rights-focused” arguments start running into trouble the moment that specifics are filled in. The Gallup polling on abortion testifies to this. Outside of an ideological hard-core, people have a hard time saying that a healthy woman who deliberately had consensual sex without using contraception has an unlimited right to a later-term abortion. Nor do people like the idea of saying people have a right to use abortion as a sex-selection method in their children.

On the conservative side, the case of rape obliterates most of the pro-lifer’s argument that abortion is a violation of our normal duties to children we conceive. In the case of rape, a woman did not make a choice to engage in potentially reproductive behavior. In fact, it is precisely because the consequences of rape are so grave that many conservatives still feel it should be a capital crime.

But there is a problem with pro-lifers resorting to their normal “liberal” case against abortion in the case of rape. And I think this is why Frum and Millman (who are to different degrees sympathetic to pro-lifers) start to pull back. Millman is right that if pro-life absolutists use this case it seems to “obliterate” the woman, a victim of a crime, altogether.

Rights-focused argumentation works most powerfully when it is used in an emancipatory way against the powerful. That is why it is much more powerful when used by workers against a plutocratic capitalist. The plutocrat’s appeal to his status as “owner” is weak against the appeal of downtrodden workers.

And a victim of rape is in no way analogous to a well-off CEO. Carrying a baby, a living reminder of a violent crime, is something much more traumatic than losing a percentage of excess profits. I think this is why Millman describes the abortion of an unborn child conceived by rape as a way for the victim “to prove her physical autonomy.” In this case, Millman conceives of the abortion not too differently from the way reactionary Murray Rothbard did; a woman owns her body and therefore, like any property owner, she has a right to evict a trespasser.

So in a political debate in the midst of a political campaign, a pro-life politician might make the normal abstract case for why he is pro-life. Usually this is stated in just the normal abstract liberal fashion.

Frum is right that pro-lifers sound “goofy” if, when posed a question about a pregnancy that results from rape, the candidate resorts to a series of disembodied Enlightenment concepts. I agree. It does sound weirdly dogmatic and obtusely ideological to tell a rape victim that an unborn child has unalienable rights, and in this case those are going to impinge on her in the months following the most traumatic moment of her life.

And yet, I still believe abortion in this case is wrong. And so does Richard Mourdock.

So he did something rather natural for a human being and for a politician: he resorted to an (awkward) theological point.

As a politician it allows him to escape the bind of responding to that hard question by resorting to pro-life arguments about when life begins, or the facts of biology. It is a way of saying, “I know this is difficult but I’d like to move on.”

Mourdock stated things poorly, and did in fact make it sound like a baby is a “silver lining” to rape. And Millman is right to deplore that. Yes, pregnancy makes a rape worse for the victim. I think he meant to say that the life lived by a person conceived in rape has great intrinsic value.

But precisely because the normal rhetoric of the pro-life movement is ideological (even emancipatory), because it is a series of Enlightenment principles that can seem disconnected from real life, I think Mourdock’s instinct to abandon it and then invoke, through his tears, a God who can bring great goodness out of unbelievable tragedy is a deeply human response.

Many advocates of legal abortion say that abortion is a tragedy. If it is a tragedy that 41 percent of all pregnancies in New York City end in abortion, then abortion is also a second tragedy (and not a silver lining) in the case of rape. The much maligned Rick Santorum would say, “one violence is enough.”

Real shattering injustices do have a way of making facile pieties evaporate. Those pieties may be liberal, reactionary, or even Christian. And politics isn’t normally the best place to address them. We wouldn’t tell the widow whose husband was shot that her grief is fully addressed by a new tough-sentencing law.

So, if I may respond to my friends David and Noah, I also find something inadequate about ideological answers to rape victims, from both sides. There is something weirdly inhuman about standing behind this legal tragedy as the primary and exhaustive response of our society to a woman impregnated by a rape. As Noah puts it, “That’s tough stuff.”

I prefer the response of a pious teary-eyed naïf who talks of impossible mysteries, yes, but also compassion.



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