December 11, 2009

Trotting out the "12-year-old rape victim"

I have recently been following - sometimes against my better judgment, and frequently against my better emotional fitness - the #prolife hashtag on Twitter. In addition to the expected news stories and retweets, there are a small but vocal cadre of poor-choice Twittererers who also make liberal use of the tag. Not that they have much to say: mostly factoids, misrepresentations of the pro-life position, and vapid bumper-sticker aphorisms that don't really mean anything: "If you can't trust me with a choice, how can you trust me with a child?" (When you thnk killing people is a valid moral option, should I trust you with the choice?)

Inevitably, at least daily, someone will bring up what pro-life writers like Scott Klusendorf call the "hard cases." On Twitter, this tweet is typical of what I see:

[W]hat about the 12 yr old girls who have been raped by their fathers & could die during pregnancy.

This one is so extreme, it manages to hit all the talking points: very young pregnancy, rape, incest, and danger to life. Surely, in such an instance, we can tolerate just one abortion, right?

But hold on. First of all, any one of those "hard cases" is very rare. And I'd hazard a guess that all four at once is so exceedingly rare, it's well nigh impossible.

And that's the main problem with "hard case" casuistry: at best, you can make a case for abortion in those hard cases, but you can't justify extending the argument to any and every abortion being morally permissible. If I were to admit that abortion is justified for the 12-year-old incest-rape-victim ectopic-pregnancy girl, how does that justify the hundreds of thousands of abortions that are carried out every year on adult women whose pregnancy is healthy, normal, and the result of a consensual sexual encounter where the condom happened to break?

The question to ask in these cases (unfortunately too complex to express in 140 characters) goes something like this:

If I concede that abortion is morally justifiable in this hard case (be it rape, incest, or whatever), will you join me to oppose abortions carried out for no such pressing reason?

If the pro-abortion-choice person says yes, as Klusendorf says, you may have gained an ally in working to end abortion on demand. On the other hand, if she says no, then she isn't really concerned with the hypothetical 12-year-old rape victim. The "hard case" exception is a red herring.

The unstated assumption in this argument is that "if difficult circumstance X [as well as Y, Z, and W in this particular epic tweet] obtains, then abortion is justified." But it's not necessarily so.

I'm a hard-justice kind of person. Not only do I support the death penalty, I feel it's also justified in a number of serious offenses beyond homicide - rape being one of those. String the rapist up by his testicles with concertina wire, and let him bleed to death. But it doesn't follow that a pregnancy caused by rape justifies an abortion. Regardless of his origin, someone conceived by rape is still a human being. A woman raped has certainly been victimized, but that cannot justify her victimizing another human being in turn, because of the sins of his father. It seems to me also that the same argument applies to the case of incest.

In a very small number of pregnancies, there is a very real danger to the physical health of the mother. And in this case, I believe that a therapeutic abortion may be justified if it would save her life. Although it is an unpleasant alternative, it might be an act of self-defense. Better that one person lives, than two die.

The use of a 12-year-old in this argument is ambiguous. Is it dangerous to the health of a girl of that young age? In that case, it's just a variation on the "health of the mother" argument. If it's simply a matter of a 12-year-old girl being too young to be a mother, on the other hand, then it's no different from any appeal to poverty or bad circumstances. Being 12 years old does not change the humanity of your unborn offspring, and therefore its moral status is no different than the offspring of an adult woman with a healthy pregnancy: you can't just "choose" to kill human beings merely because you don't want them.

It is wrong to kill blameless human beings without appropriate justification. That is axiomatic. And I don't find anything in the above to be appropriate justification. There is no "12-year-old pregnant rape and incest victim" exception to the axiom, no matter how many times the pro-poor-choice tweeters trot it out.1 The purpose of these "hard cases" is not to make a coherent argument for abortion rights; rather, it's intended to short-circuit your reason and go for your emotions. (After all, who would be so heartless as to "punish" a 12-year-old girl with twin Lovecraftian horrors of pregnancy and childbirth?) Don't be snowed, and don't be afraid to call it the emotionalistic nonsense that it is.

Postscript: If you'd like to follow me on Twitter, my nick is "RansomOttawa." If I recognize you as a personal friend or someone I know (or am interested in) from online, I'll probably return the favour. I do tend to be a bit high-volume when it comes to trading blows with the #prochoice clowns, so be warned.


1 My opponent in this instance, however, didn't find this so axiomatic: as he later said, "there are no absolutes in this world"; and, a few minutes later, "I think there absolutely should be a victim exception." Wrap your head around that dizzying intellect for a minute. Then, he called me an idiot for pointing out the obvious.