Posted by: bridget | 30 August 2007

Debunking the Pro-Choice Argument, Part VIII

Sherry Colb has written a series of pro-choice articles on abortion, arguing over such issues as imprisoning women who seek abortions, rape exceptions, and life exceptions. Without fail, her arguments miss the mark. (Hat tip: Old Ford Road.) Here goes, in no particular order:

Pregnancy is a unique condition that demands special treatment as a matter of simple equality. It is this uniqueness that, in my view, provides the basis for the right to terminate a pregnancy. Forcing a person to share her body with another living creature (whether one classifies it as a “potential person” or as a “person”) for nine months against her will is a grave assault on her bodily integrity, particularly given the sex-specific nature of the burden. (See, here.)

The latter part is the most clearly illogical: abortion is a grave assault on the bodily integrity of a child, and, given the age-specific nature of the burden, we ought to avoid it.

The “sex-specific nature of the burden” argument is a good one in favour of changing government regulations that unfairly target one gender. For example, some colleges are changing their tenure system to acknowledge the fact that women bear children during prime research years. New regulations allow women to work for a longer time before receiving tenure review, to ensure that they have had an equal opportunity to do meaningful research.

We do not, however, use government action to rectify biological inequalities. Women live longer than men; yet, we don’t mandate that women give organs to men to equalise longevity between the sexes. Likewise, the fact that women bear children is no more a cause for legalised murder than is the premature deaths of men an argument for forced organ donations.

Furthermore, the fact that this burden falls more heavily upon women than men does not justify relieving the burden through violence, especially violence against another group.  The sex-specific nature of pregnancy would justify, for example, a law which forces fathers to support women during pregnancy, but not pregnant women to support indigent men.  No fetus is responsible for the fact that pregnancy affects one group more than another; it certainly should not receive the death penalty for that.

Finally, Prof. Colb assigns too much value to the sex-specific nature of pregnancy.  If men were to become pregnant, would she disapprove of abortion?  A pregnant woman is not pregnant solely by virtue of being female; it is the result of either sexual intercourse or fertility treatments.  She is not a representative of all womankind; she is an individual who is pregnant.  In short: womanhood is a necessary factor for, but not a direct cause of, pregnancy.

Prof. Colb makes much ado about the fact that a woman shares her body with another living creature.  Heaven only knows what she thinks of the Hensel twins, who are forced into such an existence for their entire lives.

Siamese twins aside, consider this scenario: a woman gives birth in Fargo, North Dakota, during a snowstorm.  She and her husband are trapped in the house with food, but no infant formula.  She is the only person who may keep that baby alive (via breastfeeding).  It is not her fault that her baby cannot eat the leftover Mexican food in the fridge, nor is it her fault that her husband cannot breast-feed the child; yet, almost any criminal justice system in the world would prosecute her for negligent homicide if she were to not breast-feed her child.  So we would require that she use her body and its organs to sustain another life, against her will.  What justification is there for requiring women to breast-feed to sustain their child’s life (if no other options are available), but deeming pregnancy to be too onerous a burden?

The rape exception: Prof. Colb then takes on idea of “rape exceptions” to abortion.  As a matter of full disclosure, this blogger supports such exceptions, as a philosophical matter. (More later.)  Now, pro-choicers love rape, because, in their minds, it presents the ultimate catch-22 against the pro-life argument.  Either the people are all about punishing women for having sex, or they are so cruel as to force a woman to be pregnant with her rapist’s child.  Prof. Colb attacks the philosophical underpinnings of the rape exception:

Take, for example, the case of a baby born of a woman victimized by rape nine months earlier. Assume that the woman had hoped her pregnancy was the product of consensual sex with her husband but learned, when she saw the baby emerge, that her husband could not possibly have been the father. Perhaps she and her husband both have blue eyes, and the baby has brown eyes, like her rapist. There is surely no “rape exception” (nor, I imagine, would anyone want there to be) for infanticide in such a case.

The point, as this elephant understands it, of a rape exception is that women who were raped ought to not carry their rapist’s child to term.  After birth, they are free to give the child up for adoption or raise it as they see fit; however, the pregnancy itself may be too emotionally traumatic for them to handle.  Such an exception becomes exponentially less rational as the pregnancy wears on: if the first five months were acceptable, why not another four?  It surely does not apply after birth; it hardly would even apply after she found out about her pregnancy.

Prof. Colb compares rape and sexual intercourse.  She acknoweldges that women who have sex are risking pregnancy, but makes much ado about the fact that such is a possibility, not a certainty.  (This is a common pro-choice argument: pregnancy is not a logical consequence of sex, because it doesn’t always happen.  Well, yes, but vehicular manslaughter isn’t always a consequence of driving drunk, but we arrest drunk drivers and have the audacity to prosecute them when they haven’t even hurt someone yet!  To treat a state as a logical consequence of an action only if it always flows from that action is a radical departure from our jurisprudence.)

If a woman is capable of conceiving, then she is at risk for pregnancy. If she has consensual sex, she may conceive. If she is raped, she may conceive. To guarantee that she will never find herself in a position in which she must either provide intimate care to a developing fetus or terminate a pregnancy, she must disable her reproductive system.

To guarantee that one never dies in a car wreck, one could avoid driving entirely.  We recognise a fundamental difference between those who drive drunk or without a properly-functioning car and those who are hit by a drunk driver.  Voluntary intercourse is a lot like going into a bar in Boston and yelling, “Go, Yankees!”: you just live with the consequences of what happens to you.  A person who is assaulted on the street, however, may seek legal redress: he did not initiate any condition which provoked the state of affairs.  Likewise, we need not require that women continually take contraception to avoid becoming pregnant from rape. Prof. Colb incorrectly conflates the requirement to responsibly deal with the logical results of one’s actions (however desirable or not) and an affirmative duty to protect every aspect of one’s life against hypothetical aggression.

Prof. Colb ends her discussion with the age-old stereotype: pro-lifers are just punishing women for having sex, the punishment for which is pregnancy and childbirth.  The implied ad hominem attack is great: if pro-lifers want to punish women, the movement must lack any other justification.  Ergo, abortion is morally neutral.

From a philosophical standpoint, the rape exception is akin to a severe mental health exception: if a woman is so traumatised by the pregnancy as to attempt suicide, if the pregnancy causes psychosis, or if the mother cannot take psychotropic medications while pregnant, should we permit her an abortion? The rape exception is a per-se severe* mental health exception, one which splits the pro-life community on both issues of rape and of mental health.

*”Severe” being the mental health equivalent of a potentially deadly complication from pregnancy, not the equivalent of, say, morning sickness.

Related Posts:

  1. Part I: If you can’t trust me with a choice, how can you trust me with a child? And, It’s wrong to bring unwanted children into the world.
  2. Part II: Why should a blob of tissue have more rights than a woman?
  3. Part III: If you don’t support abortion, you don’t support women.
  4. Part IV: Pro-lifers want to legislate morality; you can’t be pro-life and libertarian.
  5. Part V: Since so many babies die of spontaneous abortion, how can you be pro-life unless you want to save them first?
  6. Part VI: What about this violinist? If we don’t force people to donate organs, why do you want to force people to remain pregnant?
  7. Part VII: If abortion is murder, pro-lifers should want to imprison women.


  1. Good post.

    I guess I’m more than a little perplexed that the pro-choicers (who say they wish to help and protect women’s rights) are sort of inflaming ideas about imprisoning women for having abortions, etc., should abortion eventually become illegal. I would think it counter-productive to their cause especially when pro-lifers are the ones often scrutinized for insensitivity to women’s rights issues.

    Abortion rights activists like Colb claim that abortion is a human right, yet out of the same mouth claim that if pro-lifers ever win the day, all post-abortive women must be criminally prosecuted if pro-lifers mean business!?

    Um, no.

    All the facts should be weighed in each case, hypothetically. I agree that in some cases, criminal intent could be shown of post-abortive women, but many women are told that the procedure simple removes growing tissue (a blob of cells), etc. I guess my point is that pro-lifers, especially Christian pro-lifers that I know, are much more willing to offer compassion and forgiveness and understand that in each abortion, more likely than not, two people have been victimized.

  2. Thanks Helvidus. To me, it is simple: it is weighing the liberty interest of one versus another’s interest in life. Since the latter’s life includes the inalienable right to much more liberty than 9 months, the child has a greater liberty interest at stake than the mother.

    Moreover, it is certainly debatable how much of a liberty interest the mother has in “terminating her pregnancy (aka child).” In virtually every case, she engaged in sexual intercourse, knowing full-well that pregnancy would be a possible consequence of her actions.

    Finally, your liberty cannot outweigh the innocent life of another. You cannot murder your neighbor because you want to roam in her backyard over her objection. You cannot threaten the life of your doctor if she refuses to remove a tumor that you do not want to live with for the rest of your life.

  3. Jay,

    I’ve met only a handful of pro-lifers who believe that women should suffer legally for an abortion; generally, for example, they think that it should be cause in fault-divorce states to obtain a divorce.

    Very few people want to imprison recreational marijuana users, but have no problem throwing dealers in jail. They also have no problem with prohibiting the use of drugs. Hum…. is that inconsistent? Or good policy?

  4. Undereducated,

    I completely agree. On one side, there is a temporary liberty interest; on the other, there are permanent interests in life and liberty. Anything that can be said about the mother applies to the fetus, as well. Bodily integrity? Check. Right to self-determination? Check.

    You can’t threaten your doctor’s life, but you can report her to the medical ethics boards and ensure that she does not practice medicine. Practicing medicine is a liberty interest; you aren’t threatening her life by doing so.

    Sex is a lot like drunk driving. You can try to avoid the accident, but, if it happens, tough luck. You risked it.

  5. Theo (Bridget), I’ve had about half a dozen women admit to me in confidence that they were raped- all but one were close friends, the other was someone I counseled in a leadership role. Of those six or seven women, two got pregnant because of the rape. Both women decided to carry the child to term.

    Both also planned to give the child up for adoption once that baby was born- fearing it would be a constant reminder of their horrible experience. Oddly enough, both confessed to me, that on seeing their child for the first time each came to the conclusion that they couldn’t part with their (for one it was a son, for the other a daughter).

    Both young ladies raised their children as single mothers. What did they say to reflect on the whole process. Both expressed similar sentiments that amounted to….and I am paraphrasing here….

    “If it wasn’t for keeping my child, I probably would have killed myself in those first one or two years. If I had aborted him then nothing positive would have come out of my experience, but now I have a son/daughter I love dearly and I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world.”

    Back then I was a single guy with no kids, I couldn’t understand. Now, when I see my daughter, I have a much better understanding.

  6. TT –

    The current moral hazard which exists regarding abortion and rape is that, in order for a woman to bring a rape charge, she pretty much has to abort. Otherwise, no jury would take her seriously.

    If rape were one of the few ways to obtain an abortion, women who kept their children would be taken more seriously by juries.

    There are an unbelievable number of women who are raped in our society; I can’t help thinking that abortion is some of it. (Would you really date-rape a girl if you knew that she would sue your butt off for the next 21 years?)

    I could understand why women who are raped want something positive to come out of the experience; however, I also understand that some women mentally or physically cannot handle it. (I especially feel for women who are on psychotropic or other medications which are necessary for their well-being; their choices are either severe illness or fetal deformity.)

    If a raped woman is so traumatised by the whole situation, and the pregnancy, that she kills herself, then two people are dead. That’s not very pro-life.

  7. “I could understand why women who are raped want something positive to come out of the experience; however, I also understand that some women mentally or physically cannot handle it.”

    Indeed, it all depends on the person. I just wanted to retell their stories, because at the time I was shocked to even think that they could see their child as a “positive” result.

    BTW, I do favor limited exceptions to abortion laws for rape (very early in the pregnancy) and danger to the mother’s life.

  8. BTW Bridget, I just put up a post on conspiracy theories you might find interesting. I was tempted to include you in the post, but I couldn’t find any pictures of you to use…lol.

  9. […] Argument, Part VPeanut GalleryIllinois Judge Allows Pharmacists to Refuse to Dispense Plan BDebunking the Pro-Choice Argument, Part VIII Create your own visitor […]

  10. […] Argument, Part VPeanut GalleryIllinois Judge Allows Pharmacists to Refuse to Dispense Plan BDebunking the Pro-Choice Argument, Part VIII Create your own visitor […]

  11. […] Part VIII: Sherry Colb on abortion […]

  12. […] Part VIII: Sherry Colb on abortion. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: