Redefining rape

Should a twelve-year-old girl impregnated by her mother’s boyfriend be forced to carry the child to term? Yes she should, according to 173 House Republicans, including the Speaker.

Should a twelve-year-old girl impregnated by her mother’s boyfriend be forced to carry the child to term? Yes she should, according to 173 House Republicans, including the Speaker. Because she wasn’t the victim of forcible rape, you see. And since “mother’s boyfriend” isn’t a legally recognized status, she’s not technically the victim of “incest,” either.

James Joyner is right to point out that the “rape exception” to anti-abortion laws makes either no sense or the wrong kind of sense. If bans on abortion reflect the inalienable human rights of the fertilized egg, then surely those rights can’t be diminished by the conditions of conception. The “except for rape” rule would be justified only if the point of the law is to punish women for having sex. (That is the point, of course, which is why the “pro-life” lobby is strongly anti-contraception and anti-sex education. But it wouldn’t do to say so.)

Still, the gross (in both senses of the term) injustice of forcing a woman to bear her rapist’s child means that absolute bans on abortion have very little support among the voters. And the right-to-lifers have generally been satisfied with something that, according to the logic of their own position, shouldn’t satisfy them at all.

But the vicious lunacy of the new Republican majority in the house seemingly knows no bounds. H.R. 3, “The No Taxpayer Funding For Abortion Act,”identified as a high priority by Speaker John Boehner – reiterates current law banning the use of federal funds for abortion, but changes the rape exemption to provide that funding shall be available “if the pregnancy occurred because the pregnant female was the subject of an act of forcible rape or, if a minor, an act of incest.”

The key word is “forcible.” Date-rape, rape by drugs, and statutory rape are all excluded. So my hypothetical twelve-year-old – and some uncounted number of not-so-hypothetical victims of other “non-forcible” rapes each year – are S.O.L.

If the Republicans were trying to eliminate the rape exception entirely, they could at least lay claim to a sort of foolish consistency. But given that they’re willing to deprive some fetuses of their inalienable right to life in justice to their innocent mothers, the decision to proclaim that a large class of rape victims is not innocent can only be called stupid and heartless.

It’s time for Democrats – and sensible people of other political persuasions – to start calling the Republicans on their mindless extremism. The downside of Barack Obama’s bipartisan rhetoric is that he hasn’t clearly explained to the country that the days when there were two responsible political parties contending for power are over, at least for now. But that just puts the burden on the rest of us to make that case.

Footnote And Michelle Bachmann has decided that tax cuts for the rich are not only more important than education for they young, they’re more important than decent treatment for wounded warriors. Where do they find these people? If Democrats can’t make Republicans pay a political price for this sort of nonsense …

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

75 thoughts on “Redefining rape”

  1. Fair enough Henry, my little logical syllogism was rushed and poorly thought out. I concede that a zygote probably doesn't have consciousness, but why focus on the short-lived zygotic stage? As I also said in my last comment, the early embryo has brain functioning. Do you claim that the early embryo does not have consciousness then? And also, when did consciousness become the criteria for equating value? How about the unconscious adult person in a coma? Does that person lose worth?

  2. …and let me add one more thing onto my last comment. After going back and reading your comment Henry, you did in all fairness say that you believe the argument is not over value but interest, and that a zygote does not have an interest. So let me slightly modify my last comment to ask when did consciousness become equated with interest, rather than worth? Use my same analogy of the unconscious adult person in a coma and apply.

  3. In order to have interests one must have the possibility of consciousness. A person in a coma who has no possibility of ever becoming conscious again has no more interests than a dead person, except that, if it is possible for a person in a coma to feel pain (I don't know if it is), then a person in a coma has an interest in not feeling pain, and we should not needlessly inflict pain on him or her.

    A zygote, not being conscious, has no interests while it is a zygote. With normal development, it will become conscious and have interests. We should factor that into the moral equation. But we should also factor in something that you seem to ignore, which is the pregnant woman's interest in controlling her body and deciding whether to bear a child.

    In light of the fact that a zygote has no interests as a zygote, and will experience nothing if it is aborted, I believe that the pregnant woman's interests clearly outweigh the zygote's. As the zygote develops into a fetus, and the fetus approaches term, the moral equation gradually shifts. Some would argue that the pregnant woman's interests remain paramount until she begins labor; others draw the line at viability. Where to draw the line is not an easy question and has no definitive answer — unless one makes one up by deciding that there is such a thing as a "soul" that enters the body at a particular point and that at that point the body may not be destroyed.

  4. Betsy, Excellent site! And while you "gentlemen" are debating Kant, we women are facing real decisions about whether or not we can carry a particular pregnancy to term. And since we face the decisions (and their consequences), we should make the decisions–not John Boehner, or Bux, or anyone else. The very instant you can find a way to make babies without women you can make whatever rules you like about preserving those babies, but as long as they come through us we get to decide. Lest we forget: the 13th Amendment abolished involuntary servitude (or, as one might say, forced labor).

  5. First off Kelly, you do have the right to control your body but you don't have the right to decide to murder another body. You may find these discussions trivial, abstract, or irrelevant, but they get at the crux of the matter. If abortion is murder then a woman choosing to do what she wants with her body by having an abortion is a murderer. Murder is a serious offense. Where is the fetus' right to live? And don't give me this line about not being able to weigh in until I "find a way to make babies without women", because you can't find a way to make babies without men. Has nothing to do with women alone. Talk to me after you find a way to make a baby completely independent of a man. An inconvenient little fact that you overlook.

  6. "In order to have interests one must have the possibility of consciousness. A person in a coma who has no possibility of ever becoming conscious again has no more interests than a dead person,"

    Oh, come on, the response to that is trivially simple: Would you say that of a temporary coma, which you can safely predict will end in a few months?

  7. "Oh, come on, the response to that is trivially simple: Would you say that of a temporary coma, which you can safely predict will end in a few months?"

    Oh dear, I have to go barf a little, but Brett is right, but only trivially; an ethically accepted definition of brain death has to enter into a more specific situation that requires this decision. Do we need to play out the Schiavo episode again? I can draw a bright line between those who learned quite a lot from that episode of government intrusion, and those who did not.

    Where are you Brett? Wait wait, don't answer that! We're busy ah, um, helping educate a fairly inexperienced biblical misogynist here. I'm pretty sure you're not a misogynist, Brett. So no derailing the discussion? Thanks.

  8. Just trying to encourage the use of arguments that aren't quite so easy to dismiss, Russell. Just because you disagree with Bux, (I disagree with him, too, quite substantially, being an atheist.) doesn't mean he's a fool, don't argue with him as though he were.

  9. Ok Brett, I feel you. But we've got a basic "decency" vs. "civility"

    argument going on here (ironic virtual location to mention that) and

    it's manifestly untrue that someone I'm disagreeing with therefore

    may not have the disability of being guilty, to the point of


    True, dat?

  10. Bux, I was misunderstanding you. I'm glad you aren't opposed to using reason or self-evident claims – I may have unintentionally constructed a straw man there. But I think I did so because you had seemed to be arguing that without a basis in holy writ, reason could only ever result in a relativism in which no morality can't exist.

    So what I get you saying, is that there is a moral absolute, and that while you may have to use reason to find it, you are at least on the right track.

    My response to that is twofold. First, ala Descartes, all you can do is think. So whether or not you think you are "on the right track" towards a moral absolute, you are still bound by your mortal mind. History is full of examples of men who thought they were completely reasonable and righteous, acting as God would have them act, yet were complete monsters. This doesn't mean that a moral absolute doesn't exist, only that you can't know it without relying solely on reason. (Here you may wish to plead for "special" spiritual insight, via prayer, etc. But I'm just as skeptical of that sort of divination, in that is seems as easily fooled by our unconscious desires as anything else – likely more so.).

    Secondly, I'm not sure what a moral absolute even is. Is it like some kind of law of the universe? Honestly, I don't know how that is really much different than my own humanist, materialist view. I point to evidence of universal human emotions and patterns of conscious desires, most of which are generally found within my own psyche, and in that by imagining my own desires in others, I have a plenty hard time living up to the beautiful simplicity of The Golden Rule. I think most of us actually do most of our living this way: basing our actions on the concept of what we would like to have done unto us. I don't murder, lie, cheat, steal, or generally harm others, not because it is written in some book, but because it is *plainly* (prima fascie) wrong. There are very real and demonstrable results of each such action. We are not yet at the point of being able to pinpoint the complete physical nature of every thought or feeling, but we're getting close. We know they operate within the fundamental physical laws. It is certainly an absolute that if you cut my arm I will feel pain. It is an absolute that the vast majority of humans have evolved the capacity to do the mental calculations involved in empathy and compassion. In this way you could say that to cause unwanted pain is immoral. Yet it is not the causing of pain that is relevant, it is that the act is unwanted (sometimes pain is necessary). So the real morality here is whether one is respecting the wishes of others. And so what are the rights of others?

    So to summarize, if we presume there is something like a moral absolute, I think mine is just as real as yours – probably more so in that it is evidence based. And both of us us are at the same disadvantage in that we are stuck trying to interpret meanings using reason; you might claim that your bible is somehow a more legitimate source, yet you could just as easily be deriving entirely the *wrong* interpretations and actually behaving less morally. The bible is fraught with such dilemmas. Given the stakes it claims for itself, great evils can be done depending on which way you take it. See homosexuality. Or further back, antisemitism or slavery. Obviously people can be wrong without the bible. I'm just saying they can be just as wrong with it.

    Returning to abortion. What if the anti-abortion Christian interpretation was wrong? What if God thought it perfectly moral to allow fetuses to be killed? Have you ever even considered that? (I actually hadn't – but I'm not a Christian!). Anyway, if this were true, then all the back-alley abortions, forced pregnancies, unwanted and unloved children – certainly they could be considered a harm, right? Maybe all the anti-abortion protesters are unwittingly contributing to a net suffering, an immorality. That would kind of suck.

  11. It's obviously possible to "make a baby" without a man. You take one willing lesbian spinster aunt, and go to the fertility clinic, and get some embryos. Duh.

  12. ^^^^ If that's a demonstration of "logic and reason," you get an F. The only less-properly constructed syllogisms I've seen come from five year olds.

  13. ^^ Uh, that's not a logical argument. The errors in its construction are relatively obvious even to a layman like me.

    I mean . . . you DO know that both plants and viruses have DNA, right? And yet they aren't conscious? That's just for starters.

    It would be like saying:

    A. non-plant beings do not have chlorophyll

    B. cyanobacteria have chlorophyll

    Therefore cyanobacteria are plants.

    It's . . . it's something you break out the Wolfgang Pauli for: "Not only is it not right, it's not even wrong!"

  14. Wow Betsy, has there been some discovery that I didn't know about? Last I knew, embryos first need a male sperm.

    Phil, my argument was a completely formally logical argument, in that the conclusion logically follows from the premises. The premises were wrong, however, as I acknowledged above. So don't tell me I used a poor logical structure here. It was the material of my premises which were rushed and poorly thought out. You do understand that a completely logical argument can be factually wrong, don't you?

    Eli, I think we're finally on the same page with at least mostly understanding one another's positions now. I think language is still a little confusing here though. I'm on board with the first half of what you were saying, but we still differ in our source of moral absolutes. Love to write more on this but I have kids who need lunch right now. To be continued. Thanks for the response.

  15. Males have no biological role in pregnancy. I think you need to grasp the basic facts of biology and understand what constitutes pregnancy before advancing to theological and philosophical debates regarding it. Pregnancy begins, takes place, and concludes entirely without male involvement. But I'm not going to give you a wikipedia entry on this.

  16. "But I’m not going to give you a wikipedia entry on this."

    I should think not, maybe you could find some online science fiction to back you up. I needn't, of course, relate that pregnancies presupposes conception, and conception sperm. Short of cloning procedures which are not currently developed to the point where they could ethically be carried out on humans, pregnancy does, thus, necessarily involve men.

  17. I have counseled with victims of sexual assault/abuse for many years, ranging in age from 3 1/2 to 60+. There are many different factors that lead to someone being victimized, and the responses are also different. I have worked with teenagers and older women who became pregnant as a result of sexual abuse. Some have chosen to have an abortion and begin their emotional healing from the abuse. No one can feel their pain, nor understand the limits of their ability to cope, therefore I do not believe we have the right to say “you can handle this”. On the other hand, I have worked with women who felt a sense of bonding with the fetus regardless of the origins, and chose to give birth and raise it or allow adoption. Lawmakers and others may make a strong distinction between what makes it “acceptable” to THEM for a woman to make a choice, but that does not change that woman’s situation. If a girl is raised from infancy by a stepfather-the trauma of sexual abuse is no different than it would be if that were her biological dad. What constitutes enough of a threat for a person to qualify as having been raped? How close to death does a woman have to be to allow a therapeutic abortion? These concepts may all look good on paper–but real people don’t fit into these little categories.

  18. ok, i think you are all missing a major issue in your philosophical debate. actually, a couple of you have touched on it a bit, but not to the extent that it warrants. take this hypothetical situation:

    1. an adult person is in a come and has a pretty good chance of coming out of it fully functional again in 9 months’ time but…
    2. in order for that person to come out of the coma, they must be attached, physically, to you. they will need to get some of their nutrients from your blood (including calcium which will make your bones weak and brittle later in life).
    3. there is a small chance that you will die or suffer serious injury due to having this person hooked up to you.

    the question is not whether or not the person in a coma has a right to life. the question is whether the person has a right to be hooked up to you.

    and incidentally, it IS theoretically possible to create an embryo from 2 females. they’ve done it with mice unless this was later proven a hoax:

  19. or a slightly less extreme hypothetical:

    does a person you match well enough with have the RIGHT to your bone marrow? HYPOTHETICALLY, just to make it more objective, let’s say this person was a perfect match and a total stranger.

    and i’m sorry brett, i didn’t see your earlier comment about cloning methods.

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