Is abortion justifiable in cases of rape or incest?

Photo copyrighted. Courtesy of Films for Christ. Photo copyrighted. Courtesy of Films for Christ.

A woman who becomes pregnant due to an act of either rape or incest is the victim of a horribly violent and morally reprehensible crime. Although pregnancy as a result of either rape or incest is extremely rare,[1] there is no getting around the fact that pregnancy does occur in some instances. Bioethicist Andrew Varga summarizes the abortion argument from rape and incest in the following way:

It is argued that in these tragic cases the great value of the mental health of a woman who becomes pregnant as a result of rape or incest can best be safe-guarded by abortion. It is also said that a pregnancy caused by rape or incest is the result of a grave injustice and that the victim should not be obliged to carry the fetus to viability. This would keep reminding her for nine months of the violence committed against her and would just increase her mental anguish. It is reasoned that the value of the woman's mental health is greater than the value of the fetus. In addition, it is maintained that the fetus is an aggressor against the woman's integrity and personal life; it is only just and morally defensible to repel an aggressor even by killing him if that is the only way to defend personal and human values. It is concluded, then, that abortion is justified in these cases. [2]

Photo copyrighted. Courtesy of Films for Christ.

Despite its forceful appeal to our sympathies, there are problems with this argument.

  1. It is not relevant to the case for abortion on demand, the position defended by the popular pro-choice movement. This position states that a woman has a right to have an abortion for any reason she prefers during the entire nine months of pregnancy, whether it be for gender-selection, convenience, or rape.[3] To argue for abortion on demand from the hard cases of rape and incest is like trying to argue for the elimination of traffic laws from the fact that one might have to violate some of them in rare circumstances, such as when one's spouse or child needs to be rushed to the hospital. Proving an exception does not establish a general rule.

  2. Since conception does not occur immediately following intercourse, pregnancy can be eliminated in all rape cases if the rape victim receives immediate medical treatment by having all the male semen removed from her uterus.[4]

  3. The unborn entity is not an aggressor when its presence does not endanger its mother's life (as in the case of a tubal pregnancy). It is the rapist who is the aggressor. The unborn entity is just as much an innocent victim as its mother. Hence, abortion cannot be justified on the basis that the unborn is an aggressor.

  4. This argument begs the question by assuming that the unborn is not fully human. For if the unborn is fully human, then we must weigh the relieving of the woman's mental suffering against the right-to-life of an innocent human being. And homicide of another is never justified to relieve one of emotional distress.

    Although such a judgment is indeed anguishing, we must not forget that the same innocent unborn entity that the career-oriented woman will abort in order to avoid interference with a job promotion is biologically and morally indistinguishable from the unborn entity that results from an act of rape or incest. And since abortion for career advancement cannot be justified if the unborn entity is fully human, abortion cannot be justified in the cases of rape and incest. In both cases abortion results in the death of an innocent human life.

    As Dr. Bernard Nathanson has written,

    “The unwanted pregnancy flows biologically from the sexual act, but not morally from it.”[5]

    Hence, this argument, is successful only if the unborn are not fully human.

Some pro-choice advocates claim that the pro-lifer lacks compassion, since the pro-lifer's position on rape and incest forces a woman to carry her baby against her will. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is the rapist who has already forced this woman to carry a child, not the pro-lifer. The pro-life advocate merely wants to prevent another innocent human being (the unborn entity) from being the victim of a violent and morally reprehensible act (abortion), for two wrongs do not make a right.

As theologian and ethicist Dr. Michael Bauman has observed:

“A child does not lose its right to life simply because its father or its mother was a sexual criminal or a deviant.”[6]

Furthermore, the anguish and psychic suffering caused by rape and incest has been treated quite effectively. Professor Stephen Krason points out that…

“psychological studies have shown that, when given the proper support, most pregnant rape victims progressively change their attitudes about their unborn child from something repulsive to someone who is innocent and uniquely worthwhile.” [7]

The pro-life advocate believes that help should be given to the rape victim…

to make it as easy as possible for her to give up her baby for adoption, if she desires. Dealing with the woman pregnant from rape, then, can be an opportunity for us—both as individuals and society—to develop true understanding and charity. Is it not better to try to develop these virtues than to countenance an ethic of destruction as the solution?[8]

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  1. Concerning this, Dr. Stephen Krason writes: “A number of studies have shown that pregnancy resulting from rape is very uncommon. One, looking at 2190 victims, reported pregnancy in only 0.6 percent.” (Abortion: Politics, Morality, and the Constitution [Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984], p. 283.) [up]
  2. See Andrew Varga, The Main Issues in Bioethics, revised edition (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), pp. 67-68. Varga himself, however, does not believe that abortion is morally justified in the cases of rape and incest. [up]
  3. On the fact that abortion on demand is legal in America, see Part One in a series on abortion by Francis J. Beckwith, Christian Research Journal (Fall 1990). [up]
  4. See the results of studies of 4,800 victims of rape in the St. Paul-Minneapolis area, as cited in John F. Hillabrand, “Dealing With a Rape Case,” Heartbeat 8 (March 1975), p. 250. [up]
  5. Bernard Nathanson, M.D., Aborting America (New York: Doubleday, 1979), p. 238. [up]
  6. Michael Bauman, "Verbal Plunder: Combatting the Feminist Encroachment on the Language of Religion and Morality," paper presented at the 42nd annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, New Orleans, Louisiana, Nov. 15-17, 1990, p. 16. [up]
  7. Stephen M. Krason, Abortion: Politics, Morality, and the Constitution(Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984), p. 284. For an overview of the research, see Sandra Kathleen Mahkorn, “Pregnancy and Sexual Assault,” in David Mall and Walter F. Watts, M.D., The Psychological Aspects of Abortion (Washington, D.C.: University Publications of America, 1979), pp. 67-68. [up]
  8. Krason, p. 284. [up]

Author: Francis J. Beckwith. Adapted from a series in Christian Research Journal, Spring 1991. Provided with permission by Summit Ministries and the author.

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