The Pro-Life Position: Exceptions (Part 1 of 2)

“I am pro-life. I believe that abortion is the wrong choice except in cases of incest, rape, and to save the life of the mother.”    — Mitt Romney, in an op-ed piece in The Boston Globe (7/26/2005)

In “The Pro-Life Position: Just One Question”, I argued that if the unborn is indeed a member of the human family, no matter how small or odd it looks, then “no justification for killing it is adequate.” But, then I left a footnote saying that there are rare exceptions to that rule. So, I figured I may as well address those now….

newborn baby in doctor's handsWhen the issue of abortion comes up, even those that are otherwise solidly pro-life will often want to allow for three exceptional circumstances: 1) incest, 2) rape, and 3) when the health/life of the mother is at risk. We’re talking about serious, emotional trauma and/or medical danger, after all. Certainly, some argue, it would be morally acceptable to terminate a pregnancy in such a case. Right?

Let’s take them one at a time….


In a matter of incest, there are two factors to consider: a) the circumstances of conception and b) genetics. First, the assumption in most cases is that pregnancy in an incestuous relationship results from sexual abuse. That is, one party — usually the female, who is often underage — is forced (sometimes repeatedly) into non-consensual, sexual relations with a close member of the family. This is not always the case, since some incestuous relationships are fully consensual. (Not saying that makes them moral or appropriate, you understand.) But, when it is non-consensual, it amounts to child abuse and/or rape, which I’ll get to in a minute.

The second concern, genetics, is due to the widespread understanding by the public that inbreeding results in harmful mutations that manifest as genetic defects, disease, and deformities. (This assumes the incestuous couple has a “blood relationship”, as opposed to the aggressor being an adopted parent/child/sibling, for example.) Of course, Hollywood and legends tend to overstate the dangers. But, they do exist. The problem primarily lies in the fact that two parents related by blood have a greater probability — though far from certainty — of both possessing a harmful, recessive gene and of producing a child in which it is expressed, resulting in a congenital disease or birth defect. The closer the blood-relation of the parents, the more likely something like this will occur. (That is, parent-child or brother-sister relations are more likely than half-siblings, which are more likely than first cousins, which are more likely than second cousins, etc., to have such a child.) Depending on the specific disorder, the child may die before birth (i.e., spontaneous abortion) or shortly thereafter, or s/he may be otherwise relatively healthy and live.

If the child survives birth, it is possible s/he may lead a very difficult life, with lots of expensive procedures and physical & psychological hardships. Who would want to put a child through all that, right? Who would want to go through it themselves as parents? Valid concerns, and ones worth considering, but, wait… These physically- and/or mentally-challenged children are still fully human. They still have the right to live, even if Nature and Nature’s God have decided they won’t be “normal”. They may have to fight harder to live, and some won’t survive past childhood. So, what?! Besides, some can still grow up to be productive members of society, and even those who can’t can still live lives of joy and inspiration. Just ask the parents of a hemophiliac child or one with Down’s Syndrome or cystic fibrosis or any one of a number of medical conditions whether their child was worth keeping and loving for however long a time s/he had on Earth.


young Eartha Kitt in fancy white dress

Eartha Kitt — actress, singer, cabaret star — conceived in rape

Regardless of the specific circumstance or reason, rape is intensely traumatic and a serious, despicable crime. Anyone who commits such an act should be locked up and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. No argument there. One might ask, though, how often does rape actually result in pregnancy? Well, the jury’s still out on that one, especially since it is very difficult to get accurate numbers. Some have suggested that, even in healthy females of child-bearing age, the physical trauma involved tends to prevent conception or implantation. But, there has been no supporting evidence for this. Among those studies with relevant data, the claimed percentages are wide-ranging. On the low end are estimates of under 1% — as low as 0.6% and 0.1%, in fact. On the high end, I’ve heard of claims in the double digits. But, the most often referenced study, by Holmes et al. and reported in 1996, constituted a 3-year longitudinal survey of 4008 American women. The national rape-related pregnancy rate was determined to be 5% per rape among victims of reproductive age (aged 12 to 45).

But, what about in those rare cases when it is successful against the odds? Most who bring this up as a valid reason for having an abortion argue that, every time the woman sees or thinks of that child, it will remind her of the horrible circumstance that led to her pregnancy. She may even hate or resent the child because of it. Is it right, is it moral, to force that woman to relive her trauma over and over again?

Let me start by saying that in some cases it is true that the presence of the child, both before and after birth, may provoke unpleasant memories or negative feelings toward the child. The thing we must ask ourselves is,

“How should a civil society treat innocent human beings who remind us of a painful event? Is it OK to kill them so we can feel better?”

As I’ve already explained, we know from the relevant sciences (e.g., embryology, genetics, etc.) that the entity formed at the moment of conception is fully human from the very beginning and remains so as it develops. There are also no viable reasons for thinking that size, level of development, environment, or degree of dependency of the unborn make it any less intrinsically valuable as a human being at any stage. “Personhood” is not conferred upon the unborn once s/he can demonstrate rational thought or reaches any other functional stage. S/he is always a “person”. So, why would it be any more morally acceptable to destroy the unborn because, through no fault of her/his own, s/he was the product of a rape? If that was a good reason to kill an embryo, it would logically follow that it was OK to kill a toddler or teenager who reminded us of something traumatic, too. After all, they are all just humans at different stages of life. Why should it matter when we eliminate them?

Scott Klusendorf, President of Life Training Institute, puts it this way:

“If the unborn are human, killing them so others can feel better is wrong. Hardship doesn’t justify homicide. Admittedly, I don’t like the way my answer feels because I know the mother may suffer consequences for doing the right thing. But sometimes the right thing to do isn’t the easy thing to do…. Thankfully, the woman who is raped does not need to suffer alone. Pro-life crisis pregnancy centers are standing by to help get her through this. We should help, too.”

“Hardship doesn’t justify homicide.” I like that.

Black mother and child, smilingThere are a few other points to make before I wrap this up. For one, destroying the unborn child will obviously not “undo” the rape. It won’t alleviate the trauma experienced. In fact, it will add to the psychological damage and the healing that must be undergone, and in many cases it will cause additional physical problems, as well. Second, if the mother is really depressed or resentful (or whatever) in regards to the child, or raising him/her will cause extreme hardship, she doesn’t have to keep the child after giving birth. There are plenty of couples looking for newborns to adopt. True, giving a child up for adoption is emotionally difficult but much better than destroying the child. Finally, if you are a woman yourself wondering how you might feel in such a situation, you might be surprised. I have heard & read of many rape victims who brought their child to term and were glad that something good came out of something so bad. They often use terms like “precious” and “blessing” and “gift from God” to describe those children.

So, to sum up, I do not support abortion even for the normal exceptions of rape and incest. (I am glad to say that GOP presidential candidates Gingrich, Santorum, & Paul all agree with me on this.) All else being equal, there are no good reasons that justify killing an unborn human being even then. We must not punish the child for the sins of one of his/her parents.

In my next post on the subject, I’ll give a couple cases in which I think there is justification for terminating a pregnancy. Meanwhile, if you or a friend find yourselves in need of free pregnancy tests, counseling, post-abortion support, or just want to do more research, please visit: CareNet, Heartbeat International, or Abortion Changes You.


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