A Consistent Ethic of Life (Until Birth)
Abortion opponents are doing away with rape and incest exceptions.
America has an authoritarianism problem, and it’s putting us in league with a handful of other nations that are creeping away from democratic norms and toward autocracy. These punishing impulses are coming out most strongly, at the moment, in legislation targeting voting rights and abortion access. And as law professors Michele Goodwin and Mary Ziegler point out, those abortion restrictions are harsher than ever — many have even done away with exceptions for rape and incest.
Abortion rights are popular — significant majorities of Americans, including a majority of Republicans, want to keep Roe v. Wade in place. And exceptions to abortion bans for women and girls who are victims of rape and incest find overwhelming support from US voters.
But those exceptions are not popular with the tiny minority of politically-connected conservative groups that are penning anti-abortion legislation. Those groups broadly oppose any exceptions to abortion bans at all — not for rape, not for incest, and not even to save a pregnant woman’s life. According to just about every major anti-abortion group in the country, abortion is never necessary to save a woman’s life (I can think of a few women who, if they were still alive, might beg to differ).
Removing rape and incest exceptions is, at least, consistent: If the argument is that life begins from the moment a sperm fertilizes an egg and that fertilized egg should be vested with all of the rights and privileges of a born person, then it doesn’t matter how that egg was fertilized, or whose egg it is — a 9-year-old who is raped by her grandfather should be forced to give birth.
It’s also remarkably cruel. And the truth is that most Americans don’t actually believe that a fertilized egg is the same thing as an infant or a five-year-old or a 65-year-old. If we did believe that — if abortion opponents actually believed that — they would be trying to solve the problem of more than 50 percent of fertilized eggs never turning into infants, because they naturally flush out of a woman’s body before implantation. Imagine if half of all five-year-olds were dying of a mysterious illness — that would be a big problem, and it would command a whole lot of resources. And in fact, human beings have spent billions and billions over many centuries to decrease child mortality rates. If abortion opponents actually believed that a fertilized egg was the same thing as a human being, they would be protesting at IVF clinics as much as at abortion clinics; they’d be demanding a womb for every frozen embryo (I suppose I shouldn’t give them any ideas).
If a fertilized egg is a person, we should be investigating every period as a potential death. If a fertilized egg is a person, men should be on the hook for child support from the moment of conception. If a fertilized egg is a person, then any woman who gets pregnant in the United States is carrying a US citizen. If a fertilized egg is a person, then it should get a social security number and be entitled to a whole slew of benefits. If a fertilized egg is a person, then global mortality rates just more than doubled, and life expectancies have plummeted.
But of course virtually no one actually believes that a fertilized egg is a person. That’s why rape and incest exceptions are so revealing. The fact that huge majorities of Americans, including large majorities of self-identified pro-lifers, support those exceptions shows that for most people who oppose abortion, it really is more about punishing women for having sex for pleasure than it is about preserving life. The powerful anti-abortion organizations and politicians who oppose rape and incest exceptions may be slightly more consistent in their ethic of “pro-life until the moment of birth,” but are clearly also primarily interested in forcing women and girls to be vessels for childbearing — if that weren’t the goal, they would be focused on all the fertilized eggs that die before implantation, the number of which far, far exceeds the number of abortions.
Opposition to abortion rights has always been about misogynist cruelty. It’s always been about keeping women constrained. And by removing rape and incest exceptions, abortion opponents are making their intentions and motivations all the more clear.
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