Rape and incest are deeply tragic. They do not justify killing a child.
Editor’s note: This article is part of The Conversation with America Media, offering diverse perspectives on important and contested issues in the life of the church. Read other views on abortion and the reversal of Roe v. Wade, as well as news coverage of the topic, here.
As protestors were marching in front of the homes of Supreme Court justices and a would-be assassin turned himself in from Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s backyard, it seemed impossible that the public debate over abortion could become more acrimonious. Then, in early July, as President Joseph R. Biden Jr. signed an executive order protecting and promoting abortion, he told the story of a 10-year-old rape victim from Ohio seeking an abortion.
The young girl’s story had been taken up by some news outlets and pro-abortion activists as proof of the necessity of abortion access—and of the heartless nature of pro-life advocates who dared to claim that, even in such heartbreaking circumstances, the life of the unborn child should not be forfeited for the father’s crimes. But, is it really “heartless” to grieve for the 10-year-old victim while urging her to be brave and not kill the innocent child conceived through the vicious act of rape? It is understandable, in this hardest of hard cases, to reach for any way to demonstrate compassion and mercy. But that does not absolve us of facing the moral question about whether or not abortion, even in the case of rape, can be compassionate or merciful.
Is it really “heartless” to grieve for the 10-year-old victim while urging her to be brave and not kill the innocent child conceived through the vicious act of rape?
Make no mistake, rape is a vicious act. One hardly need be religious to see the wreckage left in the wake of a rape, and the vile nature of the act. It is, as the church teaches, always intrinsically evil. Rape violates both the bodily and moral integrity of the victim—forcibly taking what is created to be given only as an expression of love, in reciprocal gifts of self through sexual intimacy. And the rape of a child is particularly horrific.
Children simply do not have the emotional and psychological resources that many (but not all) adult women have to cope with traumatic events. In a healthy family environment, a 10-year-old child unconsciously observes the day-to-day expressions of respect and affection between her parents and other adults. She is not privy to the passion and joy that characterize the nuptial embrace, but she may well perceive that her parents find unique pleasure in the privacy of each other’s company. The violent rape of a child creates a chasm between these happy domestic observations and the act of sexual intercourse. Her first experience of sex becomes a source of pain and humiliation, of cruel domination instead of loving participation. This experience may haunt her for the rest of her life.
The absolute number of pregnancies resulting from rape is fairly small. Yet in those rare cases, too often those closest to the victim respond to the pregnancy itself as if it were solely a continuation of that evil act. This is both unjust and unhelpful. It is unjust because a child conceived through rape remains a unique human being whose life has value and meaning. She is a child of the mother as well as the father. Neither the rape victim nor the innocent child conceived through the vicious act bear blame or moral responsibility for the actions of the rapist. But in condoning the killing of the unborn child, the victim is urged to embrace the long-rejected idea that children should be punished for the sins of their fathers.
Neither the rape victim nor the innocent child conceived through the vicious act bear blame or moral responsibility for the actions of the rapist.
Just as the church rejects the state’s execution of the rapist, it pleads with the baby’s mother to sustain the life of the unborn child. And many rape victims do so—only to find that as they carry the child to term they find meaning and joy in the new life developing within them.
This is not to suggest that every rape victim will find such meaning, nor to argue that pregnancy, even a deeply desired pregnancy, presents no physical or emotional challenges. But too often abortion is presented as if it will automatically lessen or eliminate the emotional and psychological pain of the rape victim through the intentional death of the unborn child. This is simply not true. While the intensity of the pain and misplaced shame resulting from rape may fade over time, nothing will fully erase the horror of the crime. Her life and her body are irretrievably altered. Abortion cannot undo these wounds, instead only trying to hurry past them at the cost of another life.
Too often abortion is presented as if it will automatically lessen or eliminate the emotional and psychological pain of the rape victim through the intentional death of the unborn child.
Fourteen years ago, a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the rape of an 8-year-old child did not justify execution of the rapist. In explaining its analysis, the majority wrote: “When the law punishes by death, it risks its own sudden descent into brutality, transgressing the constitutional commitment to decency and restraint.” The court was reiterating its position from an earlier case involving the rape of an adult. If the state is not justified in ending the life of the rapist, attempts to justify the killing of the innocent child conceived in rape are even more dubious.
As a majority of the Supreme Court recognized in the recent Dobbs opinion, “Some believe…that abortion ends an innocent life.” This belief is supported by undisputed scientific evidence that “abortion ends the life of a whole, separate, unique, living human being….” The church teaches that every human being is of infinite value, and that value is not forfeited due to sex, race, disability, parentage or nationality. The tragic circumstances surrounding the conception of a child do not justify killing that child.
Sometimes the mother is a child herself. She needs love, support and companionship. She needs the strength and wisdom of adults who know her story and travel with her on the road to healing. She needs justice for the crime committed against her, and grace to extend justice to the child she is carrying. She does not need others urging her to become the agent of death for her own child.
The church and many people in the pro-life movement stand ready to support and accompany her on the difficult road she must walk toward healing and childbirth. Those counseling abortion in these tragic circumstances perpetuate the cycle of violence in the vain hope that more violence will bring peace to the victim. They are wrong. As Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
More from America:
- Our post-Roe world makes it clear: Laws will never be enough to create a pro-life culture
- Can a pro-life and a pro-choice Catholic find common ground? We gave it a shot.
- How I found healing after rape, an abortion and the loss of a very-much-wanted baby
- We need to talk about ‘life of the mother’ exceptions in abortion law.
- The Editors: Roe v. Wade was a legal and moral travesty. Its end can bring true justice for women and the unborn.