Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Abortion in case of rape

I've been asked to comment on an argument for abortion in case of rape. I'm told the speaker is a student of Alvin Plantinga. Here's his argument:

It seems to me that there are three key issues in the abortion debate.

(1) What is the moral status of the fetus?
(2) What kind of moral obligations does a pregnant women have toward the fetus?
(3) If the pregnant woman does have moral obligations toward the fetus, which, if any, of those moral obligations are legitimately enforceable?

Those of us in the prolife community spend almost all of our time on (1) and very little of our time on (2) and (3). I think that’s because many people (on both sides) simply take it as a given that if the fetus has the moral status of a person, then abortion is morally equivalent to murder. But that inference is too quick. The philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson points this out in her article “A Defense of Abortion”. And even though I disagree with her final conclusions, I think this point is well taken.

The fetus is dependent for its survival on the bodily resources of the mother. And, in general, we have the right to withhold our bodily resources from a person even if that person will die without them. I’m not obligated to give a stranger my kidney, for example, even if that stranger will die if I don’t. Or, it seems to me, if one were to maintain that I have an obligation to give the stranger my kidney, it would be all that much more difficult to maintain that this is a properly enforceable obligation.

So it seems to me that to argue that abortion is morally impermissible, it is not enough to argue that the fetus has the moral status of a person or that the fetus is the sort of being that it is prima facie wrong to kill. One also has to argue that a relationship exists between the mother and the fetus that grounds a moral obligation the part of the mother to offer up her bodily resources to sustain the fetus. I think that in typical cases of pregnancy, that can be done. I think, in typical cases, the mother is morally responsible for the fetus’s having become dependent on her. And I also think (though this is something that a strict libertarian would deny) that the biological relationship that exists between a mother and child grounds certain prima facie obligations (I think that anyone who denies that shouldn’t be so hard on deadbeat dads). And it seems plausible enough that these obligations are enforceable (again, anyone who denies this shouldn’t want the government to make deadbeat dads pay up – but it seems plausible enough that it is legitimate for the government to make deadbeat dads pay up.)

But in rape cases, the situation is much different. In such cases, the mother is not morally responsible for the fetus’s being dependent on her. And even though there is the same biological relationship between the mother and the child, the fact that the pregnancy resulted from such a violation of the mother’s person, I think, is enough to defeat whatever prima facie obligations that that relationship confers. In such cases, the mother, it seems to me, doesn’t owe the fetus her bodily resources anymore than I owe a stranger my kidney. And it seems to me that even if, at the end of the day, one wanted to maintain that the mother had an obligation to provide the fetus with her bodily resources, it would still be at least highly doubtful that it is a legitimately enforceable obligation.


By way of reply:

1.I don’t know why he acts as though no one in the prolife community has ever responded to Judith Jarvis.

2.He’s resorting to euphemisms about a “pregnant woman” and her “fetus,” instead of a “mother” and her “baby.”

3.He artificially isolates the obligation as if prolifers think a mother has sole responsibility for the care of her child.

4.Comparing the “bodily resources” of a mother with a donated kidney is disanalogous. I don’t have any objection to organ donation, but it’s not as if our organs were designed to be donated to a third party. That’s not their purpose. They exist for the sake of the host.

By contrast, the “bodily resources” of a mother were designed to provide for a child. Moreover, they were designed by God for that very purpose.

5.Finally, let’s go to the key contention. He’s argument apparently takes something like the following form:

Party A is only responsible for the needs of Party B if Party A took some voluntary action which made Party B dependent on Party A.

Let’s consider some counterexamples:

i) Are grown children obligated to care for their elderly parents in case their parents are too enfeebled to care for themselves? After all, the children did nothing voluntary to make their parents dependent on them.

ii) My brother and I share the same rare blood type. Due to an accident, my brother needs an immediate blood transfusion. Am I obligated to donate my blood to save my brother’s life?

a) I did nothing voluntary to make him dependent on me. I had nothing to do with the life-threatening accident.

b) For that matter, I did nothing voluntary to make him my brother. I had no say in the matter. I didn’t choose him to be my brother.

iii) Parents leave their 6-year-old son in the care of their 16-year-old son while they go to a concert. I did nothing to make my kid brother dependent on me.

Am I obligated to keep my kid brother from harm, or am I free to leave him alone while I go visit my girlfriend?

iv) Two parents are killed in a traffic accident, leaving their 6-year-old son and 16-year old son orphaned. It isn’t fair to the 16-year-old to be forced to take over their responsibilities for the care of his kid brother.

Under the circumstances, is the older brother at liberty to abandon his kid brother?

v) A devoted wife and mother is diagnosed with MS. As the disease progresses, she’s no longer able to care for her family. Instead, she becomes increasingly dependent on her husband and older children to care for her.

Since they did nothing voluntary to make her dependent on them, are they at liberty to desert her?

vi) I’m running late to catch a plane. at the airport, a stranger ahead of me suffers an asthma attack. He points to his backpack, where he keeps an inhaler. If I take time to find his inhaler and deliver a dose, I’ll miss my flight.

Since I did nothing voluntary to make the stranger dependent on me, am I free to let him die so that I can catch my plane?


  1. A woman may have a some kind of moral responsibility to give birth to the child of his rapist, but she does NOT have any moral duty to then RAISE it.

    After the birth, she could abandon the baby to some foundling home or an equivalent institution without any pangs of guilt. That's the way I see it. The possible sorry consequent future of the bastard child is the rapist's guilt, not hers.

  2. There's also the question of why we would support subjecting the woman to another violent act after suffering the first, the rape. How many hundreds of testimonies of women brokenhearted that they killed their babies do we need?

  3. very interesting and well said. Thanks for an intelligent response to a "good" argument for the anti-life movement...

  4. This student is lacking what would be consider a "weightier" portion of the Law:

    A theology of mercy.

    The Parable of the Good Samaritan must strike him as strange as he steps across the road to avoid what he has "no obligation" to.

  5. "A woman may have a some kind of moral responsibility to give birth to the child of his rapist, but she does NOT have any moral duty to then RAISE it.

    After the birth, she could abandon the baby to some foundling home or an equivalent institution without any pangs of guilt. That's the way I see it. The possible sorry consequent future of the bastard child is the rapist's guilt, not hers."

    I don't necessarily disagree - certainly I think adoption is preferable to abortion - but I wonder how you come to that conclusion? Do you hold that mothers never have the obligation to raise the children they birth (assuming alternative parent-figures are around, ie. not on a desert island)? Or that mothers have the moral obligation to do what's best for the child, whether that means giving it up for adoption or raising it, as circumstances may be? Or do you feel that the rape issue changes the mother's moral obligations uniquely: and if so, how (considering the argument in the OP)?

    Adoption is a sticky issue, and another situation in which the best interests of the mother and the best interests of the child can be at odds. For instance, the mother might prefer never to hear from the child again so she could forget the entire affair: but the child, then the victim of a closed adoption, might struggle with the pain of a falsified birth certificate, never knowing his roots or genetic heritage and so on. Similarly a good many adoptees are unhappy about being given up for adoption in the first place; but the child's (possible) desire to belong with his mother has to be weighed against the mother's (possible) mental anguish due to the constant living reminder of her experience. One could even argue that the child had a right to breastmilk: but on the other hand, sexual abuse survivors sometimes find that breastfeeding triggers flashbacks of the abuse.

    So it's not as easy as all that. I think most people would agree that if a woman is able to take care of her baby it is better for her baby that she do so: adoption is the "least worst" alternative. I don't think I could morally justify giving up a baby born of rape, personally: but then, I have a supportive husband and would be able to raise it, which is certainly not the case with all rape victims. But for me, I think I would feel a moral obligation to raise my own child.