Abortion in the Hard Cases

Over the last few years, there has been a flurry of activity at the individual state level to declare personhood at conception.  In every case, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence, the measures have been voted down.  One of the reasons why voters turned it down was that it would force women to carry to term unwanted pregnancies including those that became pregnant as a result of rape or incest.  This exception is often brought up as a reason for keeping abortion legal.  In fact many who consider themselves Pro-Life will often argue for provisions in laws that keep abortion legal in these cases.  Because this argument is put forth so often, it is instructive to evaluate the merit of the argument to determine whether abortion should be allowable in these, rare, but real cases when pregnancy occurs.

It is important to mention at the outset that those women who become pregnant as a result of rape or incest are victims of the morally reprehensible actions of others.  There is no question as to whether they have suffered a great evil.  Our response must always be one of compassion.  Still, the question is whether as a result of the evil they have suffered, it gives moral justification to commit further evil by taking the life of the unborn child.  Furthermore, as was mentioned above, it is rare that someone becomes pregnant as a result of rape or incest.  Some studies have shown that it occurs in as few as one in a thousand cases and accounts for approximately 2 percent of all abortions.  This is not to minimize the suffering and trauma associated with these cases but to put the frequency in context.  One case of rape or incest is too many.

One further clarification is necessary.  These so-called hard cases should not be relevant to the case for abortion on demand despite the fact that they are often invoked to defend that position.  Supporters of abortion on demand state that a woman has a right to have an abortion for any reason she prefers during the entire nine months of pregnancy and not just rape and incest.  Therefore to argue for abortion on demand from the hard cases is analogous to arguing for the elimination of all traffic laws from the fact that in rare emergencies one might need to violate them. This is important because laws are not made based upon exception.  Laws are meant to conform to normal behavior and nearly every law admits to exceptions.  Nevertheless as it shall be shown, these situations do not constitute valid exceptions to the absolute norm that abortion is always a grave evil.

Finally, it is important to mention as well that because a sexual assault like rape or incest is an act of aggression and cannot be ordered to the unitive and procreative meanings of the sexual act, “a woman who has been raped should be able to defend herself against a potential conception from the sexual assault” (USCCB, Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, 36). This means that she can have recourse to any contraceptive measure provided it is not abortifacient in nature.

With these necessary clarifications in place we can begin to look at the justification that is often offered to defend abortion in these so-called hard cases.  There are a number of arguments put forth why abortion is morally justifiable which are summarized succinctly by Bioethicist Andrew Varga.

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 (The Main Issues in Bioethics, pp. 67-68).


The underlying principle at play here is that evil may never be done so that good may come about.  Any argument related to these hard cases would amount to a utilitarian ethic.  Certainly the trauma that is associated with being a victim of rape or incest may cause great mental and emotional distress.  The child in the womb may serve as a reminder to the mother of the trauma in which she has undergone.  Nevertheless this cannot justify the taking of the life of the child in the womb.


Each of these arguments begs the question that the child in the womb in fact is a person with an inherent dignity from the moment of conception.  Therefore it has a right to life that ought to be protected from the moment of conception.  The manner in which the child has been brought into being ought not to have any effect on its moral status.  The child may have been conceived as a result of a sexual assault or as a result of a loving union of husband and wife. The result of each of these methods is the same.  A new and complete human person has been brought into being with the full dignity of any human person.  Therefore because the children are the same regardless of the manner in which they were brought into being, the moral status ought to be identical.

Despite the fact that the child is the result of an act of aggression, the child himself is not the aggressor.  It is the perpetrator of the assault who is the aggressor. The unborn entity is just as much an innocent victim as its mother. Therefore, abortion cannot be justified on the basis that the unborn is an aggressor.

In arguing that abortion is justified because of the emotional and mental anguish that the child’s presence places on the mother also presents us with a slippery slope.  From this, one might extend the right to take the life of another person any time that they cause emotional and mental anguish upon the same principle.  For example, suppose a husband were to become disabled later in life and the disability would cause great emotional and mental stress on his wife as his caregiver.  Applying the same principle, the wife would be morally justified in taking the life of her husband.  Although this may seem absurd, it is simply an application of the same principle that a mother uses in justifying the killing of her child that was conceived as a result of a sexual assault.

In conclusion, it should go without saying that the pro-life advocate should not simply stop at protecting the life of the child in the womb.  Much help also needs to be given to the victim of the assault.  Stephen Krason in his book Abortion: Politics, Morality, and the Constitution reminds us that we all have an obligation “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?”

Facebook Comments