Bill Muehlenberg

Abortion and Hard Cases

One of the most common arguments for the legalisation of abortion is the issue of the so-called hard cases. Invariably when a discussion of legal abortion is underway, the pro-abortionist will raise issues such as rape or risk to the mother’s health. How are we to understand such objections Are they sufficient for the legalisation of abortion

Rape and incest are two common excuses offered for abortion. However several comments are in order. First, these are certainly tragic cases, and should not be glossed over. They are of course traumatic incidents which we need to be sensitive to. But killing the child conceived in such circumstances is not the way to proceed. Here are some reasons why.

Regarding rape, the cases of conception are quite low. Pregnancy due to rape is fairly rare. This is because the rapist is often infertile, and normal ovulation is inhibited because of the psychological trauma. Planned Parenthood’s Guttmacher Institute has admitted that in America abortions for rape amount to one per cent of all abortions. Another researcher has found that cases of rape and incest make up only 0.08 per cent of all abortions in America.

And compounding one problem with another hardly is very helpful. Says one ethicist, “One wrong is not corrected by another wrong. One act of violence is not solved by another violent act.”

As one commentator puts it, “post-abortion trauma in many rape cases appears to be no less pronounced than post-abortion trauma in non-rape cases. Rape followed by pregnancy followed by abortion leaves three victims: the woman who was traumatized initially by the rape; the unborn child who is traumatized by the abortion; and, for a second time, the woman who is traumatized by her decision to have an abortion.”

While we can all sympathise with such difficult cases, we must be careful not to allow such concerns to result in sweeping changes to the law. The legal axiom, hard cases make for bad laws, needs to be observed here. Indeed, legalising something because of extreme cases is always problematic. As one author puts it, “To argue for abortion on demand from the hard cases of rape and incest is like trying to argue for the elimination of traffic laws from the fact that one might have to violate some of them in rare circumstances, such as when one’s spouse or child needs to be rushed to the hospital.”

Moreover, it needs to be recalled that when legalised abortion was first debated, it was for these very hard cases that it was proposed. But as concerned thinkers warned back then, this would be the start of a slippery slope. And that is exactly what has happened. As bioethicist John Wyatt puts it, “Over the past thirty years we have moved imperceptibly from abortion as an option in extreme circumstances, through abortion as an option on request, to a duty to abort”.

Again, the bottom line is this: regardless of the circumstances of his or her conception, a child is still a child. Consider this situation: “What if you found that your spouse or adopted child was fathered by a rapist Would it change your view of their worth Would you love them any less If not, why should we view the innocent unborn child any differently ”

A third hard case often mentioned by the pro-abortionists, when the life of the mother is at risk, also needs to be examined. In some cases, such as an ectopic (tubal) pregnancy or cancerous uterus, something must be done. If not, probably both mother and baby would die. In an ectopic pregnancy, the baby is usually dead already or is pretty well guaranteed to die anyway.

Thus some action is necessary, to save at least one party, but this is not really an abortion. The intention is to save the mother, not kill the baby. So it is probably best not to even include this as a reason for an abortion, since the intent is not to kill a baby (which is exactly what abortion is all about), but to save the life of at least the mother.

Birth Defects

A fourth common example of hard cases concerns possible birth defects or abnormalities, such as Tay-Sachs disease, sickle-cell anemia, Down’s syndrome (Mongolism). We have various tests for these conditions, such as amniocentesis. But testing is often subject to error. I know of a number of women who were told by their doctor that the baby they were carrying was at risk of some defect or abnormality, and abortion was recommended. Many of these women rejected this advice, and to their delight delivered perfectly healthy babies.

But increasingly abortion is nonetheless being used when a parent is told a child may have a physical or mental disorder. Indeed, it is already becoming a method of sex selection.

However, a number of assumptions underlie this argument for abortion. One is that handicapped children are social liabilities. Who says so Indeed, what is normal Is a child with only one arm less than a person Is a deaf child a social burden Many handicapped or deformed children, along with their families, have shared of the rich and rewarding lives they have lived. If we decide that society cannot accept a child with Down’s syndrome today, what will we prohibit tomorrow Redheads Dwarfs

Dr C Everett Koop has spent much of his life working with ‘deformed’ and handicapped people. He says that it is his “constant experience that disability and unhappiness do not necessarily go together. Some of the most unhappy children whom I have known have all of the physical and mental faculties and on the other hand some of the happiest youngsters have borne burdens which I myself would find very difficult to bear”.

Moreover, who decides who should live and who should die Those who decide that certain handicapped children deserve to die may also decide that certain adults who are handicapped also deserve to die. Indeed, infanticide and euthanasia are logical outcomes of the arguments for abortion. Bear in mind that before Hitler started killing the Jews, he had 275,000 handicapped people murdered.

No one has the right to decide that another human being is not fit to live. This is especially true since a doctor’s diagnosis can prove to be incorrect. As mentioned, there are many stories of a mother being counselled to have an abortion to prevent the birth of an unhealthy child. Fortunately, the doctor’s advice was ignored and a very healthy baby was born.

And handicapped people certainly do not support abortion. There is not one “national organisation for parents of handicapped children that is on record as favouring abortion for the handicapped. In short, it is not the handicapped (or their parents) who want abortions for those who may be handicapped; it is those who are not handicapped. But should not the handicapped be allowed to speak for themselves ”

A well known story is worth repeating here. A medical school professor gave his students a case study in whether or not to advise an abortion: The family is very poor, the husband is alcoholic and has syphilis; one of their numerous children is mentally deficient, and there is a strong family history of deafness. The wife, who had tuberculosis, finds she is pregnant again. What should she do A student quickly advised an abortion. Thankfully, two hundred years ago the woman did not have that option, and the world has been immeasurably enriched because of the child she bore, Ludwig van Beethoven.


Finally, it is worth noting that all four of these hard cases (rape and incest, risk to the life of the mother, and possible birth defects) make up only a tiny fraction of all abortions. One study put the four as comprising just 0.68 per cent of all abortions. Thus the overwhelming majority of abortions (over 99 per cent) have to do with other than these hard cases so often brought up by the pro-abortion camp.

As mentioned, hard cases make for bad law. Legalising abortion in order to deal with less than one per cent of all abortion cases is neither ethical nor sensible. And as has been noted, expect for a genuine threat to the life of the mother, there really is no need to kill an unborn baby.

In cases such as rape or incest, if the mother really cannot cope with the child, then it can be given up for adoption. But killing the baby is surely not the answer. Since the overwhelming majority of abortions are really cases of after-the-fact contraception, legalisation is not required. And since abortion kills a tiny member of the human race, there is no compelling moral or philosophical justification for legalised abortion.

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