Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Pro-life Stance and Rape Victims

Over the last few months, there have been a number of instances of very conservative politicians giving voice to comments regarding abortion and rape victims, and these instances have been seized on by my fellow liberals as proof that Republicans are callous and don't care about rape victims.

But is that really an accurate assessment? I don't think it is. Follow along with me as I delve into the mind of a pro-life Republican.

Let's take the recent comments by the Republican candidate for Indiana Senate, Richard Mourdock:
"I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize life is that gift from God," Mourdock said. "And I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen."
He was not saying that the rape itself was intended by God. He is saying that the conception was intended by God. This is actually an important distinction, and if we are to understand why he made these comments, we must understand this. Let's take a good look at Mr. Mourdock's logic.

First let's establish his core beliefs:
  • A1: God is the giver of life.
  • A2: Human life starts at conception.
  • A3: By A1 and A2, all human conceptions are gifts from God.
Now, let's extend this logic to abortion:
  • B1: Killing a human is wrong.
  • B2: By A2, abortion is killing a human.
  • B3: By A3, B1, and B2, abortion is wrong and a rebuke of a gift from God.
Now let's examine how rape impacts this logic:
  • C1: God gave humans free will to act as they please free from God's control.
  • C2: By C1, all evil acts done by a human are beyond God's control.
  • C3: Rape is an evil human act.
  • C4: By C2 and C3, rape is an evil human act not ordained by God.
  • C5: Rape can result in conception.
  • C6: By A3, C4, and C5, conception is a gift from God following the non-ordained, evil human act of rape.
  • C7: By C6, the fact of conception as a gift from God is unaffected by the circumstances preceding it.
  • C8: By B3 and C7, allowing abortion after a rape is wrong.

This is an entirely internally-consistent belief structure. It is a valid argument—that is, the conclusion follows logically from the premises. Richard Mourdock says he struggled with it, and I'm sure he did. Melding the brute fact of evil in the world with a benevolent God is not an easy thing to do. And I have no reason to think that the reason he holds this belief is because he discounts the emotional trauma experienced by rape victims. Indeed, he probably abhors rape as much as any of us do, and for us to insinuate otherwise is both cruel and inaccurate.

The way to attack a valid argument is to demonstrate that it is unsound—that is, that the premises are false. The premises above are those which are stated above on their own: A1, A2, B1, C1, C3, C5.
  • A1 and C1 are religious beliefs and of course have no place in our secular government. However, even if we managed to convince Mr. Mourdock of this, the overall structure of the argument wouldn't change very much: the parts about God would be gone, but the rest would remain because they do not depend on any god to be valid.
  • B1 and C3 are ethical statements that I think most people would agree with.
  • C5 is a statement of fact.
So what does that leave us with? A2. Mr. Mourdock's conclusion is entirely dependent on the idea that human life begins at conception. This is also why Paul Ryan gave an interview saying that rape was a form of conception—not because he was minimizing rape, but because in his understanding, conception, no matter how it is derived, results in a human life.

This really shouldn't be a surprise. And yet we react to these conclusions as if it stemmed from a callousness towards rape victims, rather than from the overriding concern of killing an innocent human. Although I haven't asked him or other pro-life individuals about this, I would assume that they would suggest psychological counseling to help the rape victim deal with the pregnancy, and to give the child up for adoption once it has been born. (Though pro-life Republicans aren't well-known for such consideration, unfortunately.) But to them, government restriction on abortion is no different than a restriction on murder. And with the premise that life starts at conception, this is an entirely valid conclusion.

Though making them sound like they hate rape victims and women on this issue may be politically expedient, the more important discussion to be having is around the issue of when human life begins. This is sometimes framed as a personal, religious issue, but it really isn't. There are real aspects of human development that allow us to make these determinations, as I discussed in my post on abortion rights and personhood. The way forward is to convince people that a ball of loosely-organized cells is not in any way like a fully-formed baby, and at the very least, show people that the only reason they might think differently is based on religious beliefs that shouldn't be forced on others.

I urge everyone to critically examine comments like these and trace them back to their premises. Judging them based only on our own premises and looking only at the surface remarks is not particularly helpful to us as a society, even if they have some political resonance (e.g. "you didn't build that", said by President Obama, which was referring to the schools and infrastructure that businesses rely on, not the business itself). If we can understand why someone holds the position that they do and argue on that basis, we'd have much a healthier political discourse.


  1. Thank you for your post. Because I am anti-abortion I was falsely accused of not having concern for rape victims.

  2. Clicking around on your blog for the first time. I cannot help but disagree with your series of posts on this theme. We agree on a lot of things, including the importance of argument, so even though this is an old post, I am choosing to argue.

    First, as far as pure argument goes -- logical consistency has nothing to do with morality or ethicality. Many logically sound arguments are morally reprehensible. This is value judgement, and you should not be framing your thoughts or justifying people’s ethics based on the soundness of their argument.

    Second, you are framing the issue of abortion as if the only open question is regarding the science of conception. This is missing an extremely important point. This is about women’s rights. And many people don’t actually agree that women should have rights. Let me explain.

    By removing a women's choice to abort a baby, you are making it possible for any man to control any women's destiny and life, or "punish her" for whatever he perceives as her crimes. For a society as a whole, this means you are enslaving women to the wills of the worst men in the country. No amount of "counseling" makes up for a complete lack of self-control.

    In less advanced societies, this looks like raving bands of young men who travel from village to village raping women. But the same happens in our society. Imagine a man that is competing for the same job as a woman to be an astronaut, dancer, scientist, or anything (since pregnancy can sometimes be depilating or even deadly). Imagine a husband that doesn't like that his wife makes more money than him and wants her to lose her job. This man can just rape her, or even just get her drunk and have sex with her in order to destroy her life. He gets to make the choice about what happens next in her life. But note that it only works in one direction -- the man has his power. The women does not. That's just biology, we cannot change that.

    That's why it is called pro-choice. That's why it's called family planning. It's about letting women live as if they mean something, have control of their lives and are not victims of their biology. As soon as you remove this option, as soon as you take back this ability, you have now given all the power in society to men, and men alone.

    If you think this doesn't happen, look to every society in the modern world. Women are viewed as property, to varying extents, everywhere. This idea originates from this biology-based difference in power. Babies are used as an excuse to force women to live meaningless lives as livestock, as a breeder. The threat of rape is everywhere. Raping another man’s wife is punishment for something he did. Even without rape, taking away abortion means women cannot have active sex lives, or ever make a mistake without potentially risking her health or her life. Meanwhile, men are awarded this freedom (creating the conditions in which they rape...) . It creates de facto second class citizens by biology alone. Our society needs to be better than that.

    It is true that the pro-life movement shows no concern for rape victims, nor women at all. A society that does not allow abortions believes that women are second class citizens. For me, framing abortion as if it’s just about the science of conception is implicit misogyny. Instead frame this as if it matters to you a woman has the right to not be used as breeding cattle, not to have to beg for permission to make her own choices in life from every man in society -- because it only takes one man. It has to be the women's choice, we have to balance the power. This is the only way to do it.

    As a women or as a member of a couple, I may make the choice about when I think life begins into account when I make decisions about whether or not to abort. But as long as society decides for me, women can never be free to live without fear.

    1. Thank you so much for your detailed thoughts, Clare. I love a good argument.

      I'd argue that logical consistency is important in everything we do. That does not mean that we can't carve out exceptions, and consider other aspects, but there should be a strong case for doing so. We should be aware of, and seek to minimize, inconsistencies when there is no strong case for the inconsistency to continue existing.

      In this post, I did not set out to justify the pro-life view, but to explain it. To understand it as they understand it. These people will not be won over by being told they're backwards, that they hate women, etc. And for better or worse, there is a strong emotional/qualitative case for them that can be hard for some to resist (e.g. a fetus looks like a baby, is alive, etc.), which gives their side an edge they would not otherwise have.

      I concur that there is a not-insignificant number of people in our country (mostly men, but even some women) who would rather see women submissive, domestic, etc. Certainly subconsciously, even if not overtly. And yes, it is much worse in other places, as you describe. And that could form a strong case for exemptions to the aforementioned consistency.

      How do you square your position--that "the pro-life movement shows no concern for rape victims, nor women at all"--with the fact that 46% of American women consider themselves "pro-life"? Yes, there are some women who buy into the worst misogyny you describe, but most or even all of them? That seems to me like an excuse to dismiss their perspective as invalid by default, that only women who are pro-choice have a valid opinion. I don't think that is your intention, but that would seem to be the effect, no?

      My perspective is not an abstract question of science, but a real one of ethics and morality. Hard facts about the world sometimes undermine what we would otherwise want, and those facts cannot just be ignored in pursuit of that goal when they are inconvenient. But the facts are fortunately on our side here.

      My view is that by staking a position on sound science we have an answer to those who would attempt to use junk data and emotions to move restrictions forward (e.g. "fetal pain", "heartbeat", etc.). It also provides a defense against the effective maneuver that often traps pro-choice advocates into arguing that abortion would be fine right up until birth (which almost never happens except in extreme cases, of course, but this nuance often gets lost), which to many laypeople would seem like an abhorrent position. It also provides an alternative anchor that moderately pro-life people could grasp with only a modulation of their current views.

      Society has a say in a person taking the life of a newborn, and there is a continuum into that newborn from its fetal life. Roe v. Wade recognizes this, and allows society to have some say based on the (IMO outdated) concept of viability. I do not believe that ensuring that women have a choice in what happens to their bodies and lives, and protecting newly conscious human beings, are mutually exclusive. I believe both can be achieved with the right laws and programs.