A gaffe is not when a politician tells a lie, according to a famous adage by journalist Michael Kinsley. “A gaffe,” he explained, “is when a politician tells the truth — some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.”
When Alabama, Ohio and Missouri enacted broad abortion bans with no exception for cases of rape and incest, they made the same sort of mistake. Their measures gave the public an accurate but alarming picture of how many “pro-life” advocates see the issue. By showing how far they would take their logic, they dramatized the weakness of their case.
In signing the bill, Republican Gov. Kay Ivey cited “Alabamians’ deeply held belief that every life is precious & that every life is a sacred gift from God.” If every life is a sacred gift from God, how it came into being — by consensual sex or by rape — shouldn’t matter. In either case, the fetus is not to blame and is entitled to protection.
This may sound like a radical position. But it’s more common than you might realize. Last year, a Gallup Poll found that 43 percent of Americans who call themselves “pro-life” don’t favor exceptions for rape or incest.
The Republican Party’s national 2016 platform asserts, “The unborn child has a fundamental right to life which cannot be infringed,” with no mention of exceptions. The Texas Republican Party leaves no wiggle room when it says it wants to “completely abolish legal abortion.” Officials of several organizations have signed a letter urging the Republican Party to ban all abortions.
The absolutists have a point. If the life of the fetus is the sole consideration, other factors don’t matter. What matters least of all are the interests of pregnant women. By rejecting any exceptions, anti-abortion advocates starkly reveal their belief that each uterus belongs to everyone except the person in whom it resides.
If a fetus conceived in rape were granted all the rights of personhood at conception, the pregnant woman would forfeit control over her body, compelled to carry a fetus created without her consent. A vicious criminal could enslave her to bear his offspring — and to endure the lasting consequences of becoming a mother.
Or suppose that a child needs a liver transplant. “Even if, because of tissue type, only her father can provide a segment of liver that her body will not reject, our laws have never required any such sacrifice of him,” wrote Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe in his book, “Abortion: The Clash of Absolutes.”
The fact that the father chose to conceive the child makes no difference. His willingness to engage in behavior that leads to a pregnancy and birth does not obligate him to make such a sacrifice.
The logic of “pro-lifers,” however, would justify even greater violations. Thirteen people die every day in this country awaiting kidney transplants, according to the National Kidney Foundation. We could prevent those deaths by requiring kidney donations to those in need, from anyone whose organs would be suitable. But we don’t.
And we’d all agree that if someone needing a kidney tried to extract one from someone without her consent, she would be justified in using force in self-defense, including deadly force.
That’s not because we put no value on the lives of those who would be saved. It’s because we put a higher value on the personal freedom and bodily integrity of those who would be compelled to save them.
Someone impregnated through consensual sex, of course, would be subject to the same constraints. The difference, significant to some, is that she can be said to have incurred the obligation by her own choices.
But compulsory birth in the case of rape is only slightly more objectionable than in other cases. In either, the woman has to surrender her basic physical autonomy for the benefit of someone else, against her own will.
Under other comparable circumstances we would never impose such onerous obligations. Suppose that a man has defective sperm that are certain to produce only fetuses with horrific conditions that will cause death in utero. We could avert these grim outcomes by forcing him to get a vasectomy. But the intrusion on his body and the burden on his freedom would be too radical to accept.
To force women to go through pregnancy and give birth is a violation of the most severe and intimate kind. It’s not an affirmation of life. It’s a denial of the humanity of women.