Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Rape, Pregnancy, and Rationalization

I owe Congressman Todd Akin one thing: until he opened his mouth last weekend, I did not know that many anti-abortion Americans think violent rape rarely or never causes pregnancy.

This is just plain wrong. Violent rape is, so far as science knows, just as likely to cause pregnancy as any other kind of intercourse. But Akin's ramblings illustrate one of the most common reasons that people believe wrong things.

We would like for all the good things in the world to line up on one side, and all the bad things on the other, so that we could take the good side and not involve ourselves in evil. Sadly, the world is not like that. Most of the time, even the best things come with costs, and sometimes really bad things can have good consequences. This messiness is especially offensive to the highly moral.

Many anti-abortion Americans want to ban all abortions. Because they think that "human life" begins at conception, they think that all abortions are murders, and therefore that nothing justifies abortion. Most Americans, however, are thoroughly wishy-washy about abortion; they sort of dislike it on principle but think that sometimes it is less bad than other options. One situation in which most Americans think abortion should be legal is rape. Insisting that a raped woman carry her fetus to term and deliver it seems downright cruel to most people, and even to some anti-abortion activists.

So what is an anti-abortion hardliner to do with this conundrum? Why, insist that it hardly ever happens! First, reduce the number of such cases by distinguishing between "forcible" rape and other less dramatic forms -- this is the significance of Akin's comment about "legitimate" rape. Second, dream up some pseudoscientific reason why women who are "legitimately" raped -- i.e., raped with great physical trauma -- don't get pregnant. This is the teaching of Dr. John Wilke, one of the leaders of the anti-abortion movement in America, and so far as I can tell the doctrine of mysterious "secretions" that "shut down" a woman's reproductive system in response to rape originates with him.

It is, alas, a lie. Raped women get pregnant every day. So if you really want to ban all abortions, you are going to have to say to those women, I'm sorry for what happened, but this is God's plan for you and you have to see it through. There is no magical way out of this dilemma. Denying that it happens may salve your conscience as long as abortion is legal, but if it is ever banned, then the ugly truth of this choice will stare you in the face.

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