Friday, July 06, 2007

The (Im)Practicality of a Rape Exception

My FindLaw column for next week will tackle the subject of the "rape exception" that some abortion opponents would recognize to a proposed abortion ban. This exception provides a useful opportunity to glimpse what pro-life advocates find objectionable about abortion.

One aspect of the rape exception that I will not discuss in the column is the practicality of such an exception, assuming that one favors it in principle. If only rape victims are allowed to have an abortion, many women who are desperate to terminate an unwanted pregnancy will feel forced to lie and say they were raped. One could respond to this "moral hazard," of course, by requiring a woman to report to the rape to the police before she may terminate on that basis. As everyone knows, however, rape victims often choose not to report the crime because of the stigma and humiliation associated with victimization and the often-callous treatment they face as they navigate the criminal justice system. The result of requiring a report would therefore be to drive rape victims away from a desired abortion -- at least by a lawful practitioner. Perhaps some abortion opponents would find this consequence tolerable, but for those who think the "rape exception" is a workable compromise, such pragmatic realities might lead them to think again.

While on the subject of abortion, rape, and women's freedom, I recommend that readers check out Professor Kim Yuracko's review of my book, When Sex Counts: Making Babies and Making Law, which appears today at the FindLaw site.

23 comments:

egarber said...

I can't figure out how a rape exception doesn't destroy the whole rationale behind pro-life dogma. If the whole foundation for opposing reproductive privacy is that a fetus is a person, how does it make sense to stake out a class of "persons" who can by law be "murdered?"

In rape cases, the fetus itself is no different than any other.

I would suggest that those pro-lifers who accept such an exception are really just making a Roe-ish argument -- i.e., in most cases, a POTENTIAL person should be protected, but not in all. Looked at this way, differences with pro-choicers are really just by degree, not kind.

Sobek said...

"In rape cases, the fetus itself is no different than any other."

That's basically the argument my conservative Catholic friends make in opposing a rape exception.

The difference in my view is choice. The common term "pro choice" is, in my opinion, a misnomer, because it really stands for the proposition that someone need not face the consequences of their free choice. In the case of rape, there obviously is no choice on the woman's part, by definition. In such a circumstance, I still would recommend against abortion -- adoption is always preferable -- but I would find it much more understandable.

Derek said...

egarber -- here's one way someone could be pro-life and endorse the rape exception: they might think that because the fetus is a person *and* because the mother chose to engage in behavior that she knew, or should have known, could result in pregnancy, she has a duty to bring the fetus to term. In the case of rape, the second condition wouldn't apply. So someone could hold that even though the fetus is a person, the mother doesn't have the duty to submit her body to it for 9 months.

I'm not saying I agree with this argument (or its premises), but it doesn't seem to me incoherent.

stats said...

I'm almost postitive that Michael Dorf wrote a Findlaw article addressing why allowing abortion in the case of rape doesn't nullify the pro-life position.

It was probably at least 1 year ago.

egarber said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
egarber said...

I'm not saying there's no way to come up with a rational position that allows one to be pro-life while accepting a rape exception.

What I AM saying though, is that I can't reconcile that position with the argument that a fetus is a person -- i.e., a *child* (which we hear all the time). If a fetus is indeed a *child*, what's the difference between a raped woman who destroys a fetus and a raped woman who decides to have the baby, only to kill it later in its sleep?

I'm only trying to decipher logic here. I totally see the distinction between a woman "volunteering" for pregnancy rather than being forced into it. But if a fetus is an actual *child*, then HIS / HER interests in not being destroyed would seem to trump how he / she was conceived. Therefore, the only way the voluntary vs. forced test can work is if somehow the fetus is less than a person (imo).

I of course welcome any corrections or different perspectives.

But to clarify, here's my question: can one think a fetus is a child and still favor a rape exception?

Carl said...

Egarber, most people who support the rape exception also support an exception when the life of the mother is in danger. So they don't believe the fetus's right to life is absolute any more than they believe that mine or yours is. The issue then is whether the mother has some interest here that trumps the fetus's. It's hard to say what that might be. Perhaps they view the presence of the fetus as a continuation of the rape. If that's the case, then killing the fetus would be justified on whatever grounds a woman would be justified in killing her rapist. Thompson's violinist example provides a more fanciful but perhaps also a conceptually easier to digest defense of the position (although she seems to have intended it as a defense of abortion in generalin face of the view that the fetus is a person).

egarber said...

Carl, thanks for the response.

You said,

Egarber, most people who support the rape exception also support an exception when the life of the mother is in danger.

Fair enough. But I'd turn it around, and ask it this way. Can one feel a fetus is a child and still opt to save the life of the mother during a threatening pregnancy, killing the fetus in the process?

Here, I think it's very possible to answer yes, since unfortunately, there are situations in everyday life where choices are made to save one life over another.

I still think that's different than the rape situation -- as horrible as it is, nobody's life is threatened when a raped woman is pregnant after the fact. Extending the "threatened life" scenario into rape seems arbitrary, at least for this exercise.

Carl said...

egarber wrote:

I still think that's different than the rape situation -- as horrible as it is, nobody's life is threatened when a raped woman is pregnant after the fact. Extending the "threatened life" scenario into rape seems arbitrary, at least for this exercise.

I agree that you cannot defend the rape exception on a "threatened life" grounds. Anyone defending the "continuing rape" argument I was suggesting would presumably have to argue that a person's right to keep their bodies free of trespass permits them to adopt whatever means necessary to protect that right, even where this inevitably leads to the death of an innocent person.

I'm somewhat skeptical of such claims, which is why I find Thompson's violinist argument a bit hard to swallow. I'm not sure the victim ought to be charged with murder, but I am uneasy about Thompson's claim that there is nothing morally objectionable about allowing the violinist to die.

The view I was suggesting would also likely be self-defeating. After all, a woman who became pregnant through consensual sex might later decide that the fetus is no longer welcome to the use of her body. To maintain the rape exception here, its advocate would need to defend a view on which the fetus that is the result of consenual sex gets a 9 month free pass that cannot be trumped by whatever psychological harm might come. I imagine that such a position would ultimately boil down to a paternalistic desire to punish the woman for her "mistake," more than any morally significant distinction between the origin of the fetus.

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