In August of 2012 Ted Akin, a Republican representative from Missouri, created quite a stir when he said, “First of all, from what I understand from doctors, (pregnancy from rape) is really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something. I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.”
While primarily regarded as a political matter, this does raise some important philosophical concerns.
One point of concern is a matter of both ethics and epistemology. To be specific, his making the claim that the female body can “shut down” a pregnancy in cases of “legitimate rape” raises the question as to whether or not a person in his position (a member of congress who gets to make decisions about women’s health) is morally obligated to make the effort to know what he is talking about.
On the face of it, someone who is in a position to create and pass laws regarding rape and abortion certainly seems obligated to know the actual facts about rape and pregnancy. After all, passing such laws from a position of ignorance will tend to do more harm than good (and any good done would seem to be a matter of accident) since they would not be based on reality. In the case of rape and pregnancy, anyone who has taken a high school level class in anatomy and physiology (which I did) or a competent sex education class would be aware that the female body lacks these “shut down” mechanisms. It hardly seems unreasonable for a congressman to have at least a high school level knowledge regarding the human reproductive system.
Of course, it could be argued that such classes do not typically explicitly state that the female body lacks these mechanisms and someone might claim that the occurrence of pregnancy from “legitimate rape” is very low. However, this claim would be at odds with the known facts. Back in 1996 the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston conducted a large (4008 women) study over three years and found that there is a national average of a 5% rate of pregnancy among rape victims. This results in an estimated 32,101 cases of pregnancy per year in the United States. As such, Akin was wrong about the facts.
While having just one congressman being wrong about this is a matter of concern, there is also the general concern regarding the extent to which views about abortion are based on beliefs that are mistaken. After all, to the degree that opposition to abortion in cases of rape is based on the mistaken belief that women are all but immune to being impregnated by “legitimate” rape this opposition is unjustified. Naturally, there can be other justifications presented, but clearly Akin’s “shut down” view fails to justify his view that abortion should not be allowed even in cases of rape.
Akin does allow that the “shut down” mechanism might fail, thus allowing for a presumably slight possibility that a woman could be impregnated by “legitimate” rape. However, he asserts that even in such cases abortion should not be permitted. As he sees it, “there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.”
I, not surprisingly, agree that rapists should be punished. I am reasonably sure that this is a non-controversial position. However, the matter of not “attacking the child” is more controversial.
As Akin presents the matter, a woman who has an abortion after being “legitimately” raped is “attacking” and presumably punishing the child (Akin seems to be saying that the rapist should be punished and not the child). While the idea of punishing a child seems horrible, there is the question of whether or not this occurring.
One key point is whether or not the entity in question (which might be just a fertilized egg) is actually a child. This, of course, is a matter that is disputed in the course of the larger debate over abortion and addressing it would expand the essay far beyond its intended scope. As such, let it be assumed for the sake of this argument that the entity is a child. Let it also be assumed, obviously enough, that abortion kills this entity.
As might be suspected, casting the abortion as punishing the child is a clever rhetorical move since it seems terrible to punish a child for the action of another. It also allows those who oppose abortion rights to cast abortion in the case of rape as a woman punishing a child rather than a woman deciding not to bear the child imposed on her against her will by a rapist. While this has some rhetorical punch, it falls apart under examination.
While the entity (or child, if one prefers) is killed by the abortion, the entity is not being punished. Punishment entails a retribution in response to wrongdoing and requires that the entity in question be capable of being punished (and not merely harmed). In the case of the entity, it has done no wrong—mainly because it does not seem to be an agent capable of wrongdoing (or even a moral agent at all). That is, it simply lacks the attributes needed to be wrong doer. To use an analogy, a very young kitten who scratches a person and infects him with cat scratch fever is not a wrongdoer—it has no understanding of what it is doing nor intent to cause harm. To use another analogy, cancer cells might cause a person harm, but they are not doing wrong—they have no moral agency. Naturally, a person can inflict harm on the kitten or destroy the cancer, but neither the kitten or the cancer are being punished. They lack the attributes needed to understand that they are being punished and hence cannot be punished, although they can be harmed or killed.
Likewise, a zygote and even a fetus lack the agency and understanding to be wrongdoers. They can, of course, be harmed but they cannot actually be punished. After all, they lack the attributes needed to understand that what is being done is punishment and hence they can be harmed but not punished.
Naturally, it can be countered that although the claim that the entity is being punished because of the crime of the rapist is a rhetorical point, what actually matters is that the entity is being harmed. That is, a woman who is raped should not be allowed to have an abortion because doing so would harm the entity. The assumption is, obviously enough, that the fact that the woman was raped is morally irrelevant. This is, as might be imagined, a rather extreme position. However, it is worth considering because people like Akin and Paul Ryan, the Republicans VP pick for 2012, hold to that view.
Roughly put, the principle that Akin and Ryan seem to be operating on is that it does not matter how the woman was impregnated, what matters is that she is pregnant and that the abortion would kill the entity. More generally, it does not matter how an innocent life got there, the right to life of that entity overrides the rights of the host. One interesting way to look at this matter is to look at illegal immigration in the United States.
Suppose that the United States is looked at as being analogous to a woman and that people trying to get into the United States illegally are looked upon as being analogous to rapists (yes, this is horrible comparison but is not intended to degrade illegal aliens). The children that the illegal immigrants bring with them or give birth to in the United States are, obviously enough, analogous to the child in a pregnancy.
Given the principle that Akin and Ryan seem to be operating on, children that end up in the United States cannot be deported if doing so would harm them. After all, this would be comparable to aborting them.
The obvious counter is, of course, that the illegal children have parents that can take care of them and hence the abortion analogy breaks down because the United States cannot be expected to take care of children when there are parents who can do that. After all, to expect Americans to bear the cost of raising someone else’s children would be wrong.
Of course, Akin and Ryan are expecting women impregnated by rape to do just that—that is, to bear the cost of taking care of children they did not choose and that were forced upon them. Naturally, it would be morally commendable for a woman to elect to raise the child—but it hardly seems reasonable to say that a woman is obligated to do so.
To use another analogy, the principle that Akin and Ryan seem to accept would seem to obligate people to raise any child that someone was able to get onto their property. So, if someone managed to sneak into Ryan’s house and leave behind babies, then Ryan would be obligated to raise them. After all, while the trespasser broke it, the rights of the babies trump the rights of the property owner. It would not do, of course, to attack the babies because of the crime of the trespasser.