August 30, 2011 19 Comments
In the debate between those who support abortion rights and those who do not, a certain familiar cliche will often tend to rear its head. One side or the other will offer up the hypothetical situation of a woman seeking an abortion after being impregnated by rape. It seems almost an inevitability, like a particularly grim analogue of Godwin’s Law, and there are many who are opposed to abortion except in cases where the woman has been raped. It seems simple, obvious even, that people might make this exception, but it’s worth considering the motivation behind it.
I broached this on Twitter, and @Rattlecans suggested that the kind of people who debate abortion from an anti-choice perspective don’t think of it as something that will ever affect them personally; for whatever reason, they and the women they know are not the kind of people who suffer unwanted pregnancies. Rape is the only way, they believe, that this kind of crisis might actually occur within their lives, and so they frame their discussion of the right to an abortion around that issue. This is probably a bit simplistic to be taken as a universal maxim but it’s a thought worth bearing in mind when these arguments come up.
My understanding of it is different, though. I think there’s an inherent subtext to that line of moral debate, which runs something like this: ‘Imagine a woman. She is pure and innocent, virginous, even, until a corrupting sexual force is imposed on her. She has absolutely no control over the circumstances of her pregnancy. She is blameless. Unlike other women, she should be allowed an abortion to restore her and nullify the rape.’
The problem here is that it reinforces some particularly damaging and illiberal attitudes to female sexual behaviour. It suggests that women who consent to sex (and maybe even enjoy it) have forfeited their right to sympathy and support in the event of unwanted pregnancy. It suggests that any woman who becomes pregnant without having been raped has no right to complain about their pregnancy.
The second major problem with rape exceptions is that they cast women entirely as victims, denying them the autonomous agency to engage responsibly in the sexual world. The abortion is a way of cleansing the sullied body, protecting the victim from the ravages of sex, rather than a way for a woman to take responsibility for her own medical state. Ultimately, framing one’s position with hypotheticals like this only allows for women to conform to one of two narrow roles: the victim, who is entirely passive and needs to be looked after, or the whore, who brings whatever befalls her upon herself and gets what she deserves.
Since this blog largely preaches to the converted, I’m directing this appeal to pro-choice readers. I understand that if you are trying to reason with someone who says that abortion is unacceptable under any circumstances, asking their feelings on cases involving rape can be an effective way to draw them away from moral certainty and make them accept that there are complex issues at play. However, not only is it a bit crass and exploitative to use hypothetical rapes to manipulate the course of a debate, but as far as I can see it’s a dead end which reinforces too many anti-choice prejudices. Abortion to avoid delivering a rapist’s child can be justified as a necessary evil, but to do so accepts that abortion in general is evil. Furthermore, it posits a kind of moral hierarchy of women seeking abortion, with some (rape survivors) as more deserving than others. Another cliche in these discussions is the woman who ‘treats abortion like emergency contraception’. This woman, because she is reckless and irresponsible, because her reason for wanting an abortion is something as unimpressive as simply not wanting to have children, is undeserving; her choice to have an abortion is far less forgivable than the rape survivor’s. It is essential to resist this kind of prejudice and not to build arguments based on the idea that some women are more or less deserving than others. As far as I can see, the only argument which pro-choice people (especially men) need to justify supporting abortion rights is this: neither I nor anyone else has the right nor the moral authority to dictate to another person the choices they make about their body. And that’s that.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO [Journalist]: Napoli says most abortions are performed for what he calls “convenience.” He insists that exceptions can be made for rape or incest under the provision that protects the mother’s life. I asked him for a scenario in which an exception may be invoked.
BILL NAPOLI: A real-life description to me would be a rape victim, brutally raped, savaged. The girl was a virgin. She was religious. She planned on saving her virginity until she was married. She was brutalized and raped, sodomized as bad as you can possibly make it, and is impregnated. I mean, that girl could be so messed up, physically and psychologically, that carrying that child could very well threaten her life.