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Arguing in the Affirmative

Recently, while discussing his views on abortion, Todd Akin, a Republican representative from Missouri and challenger for incumbent Claire McCaskill’s senate seat, commented that pregnancy from rape is very rare, because “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

There is no stress reaction or biological response to rape that makes pregnancy less likely. Pregnancy from rape occurs with significant frequency, and Mr. Akin’s scientific ignorance calls into serious question his capacity to replace Mrs. McCaskill in the U.S. Senate.

However, the scientific ignorance of one man is not sufficient to discard an entire policy position. The point that Mr. Akin was ultimately trying to communicate, that there should be no exception for rape in our society’s abortion laws, relies in no part on the premise that pregnancy from rape does not exist. To the contrary — the conclusion that there should be no rape exception flows naturally from our existing approach to abortion.

The basic premise for our abortion laws is that there is a conflict between a fetus’s right to life and a woman’s right to liberty. The pro-life position posits that the life interest is stronger, that it should hold precedence over a liberty interest. The pro-choice position posits the opposite. In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court set a balance on abortion law in this country. As the likelihood of a successful pregnancy was lower earlier in the pregnancy, and the burden of carrying the pregnancy to term more onerous, the Supreme Court decided that abortions in the first two trimesters could not be banned. But, as the burden was less onerous later in the pregnancy, and the life interest stronger, abortions could be outlawed for the duration of the third trimester.

In asking whether there should be a rape exception to abortion laws, we must ask in what way the circumstance of rape changes the balance.

We would regard as barbaric a justice system that allowed victims to take vengeance on the children of perpetrators. We do not punish a thief by executing his three year old son. The criminality of the father has no bearing on the innocence of his children. Why then would we sanction a murder, where otherwise we wouldn’t, just because the subject is the offspring of a criminal?

The emphasis that pro-choice advocates place on cases of rape is part of an unfortunate trend in American political discourse. We tend to regard the issue of political rights not in the way we should, in the abstract, but rather by asking ourselves the question of whether or not we like the would-be recipients of rights, whether or not we think they deserve them. And so in every rights debate, rather than calmly discussing the issue, we race to brand the users of the rights in question, with proponents rushing to find examples of saints, and the opponents rushing to find examples of sinners.

This sort of discourse is poisonous, because it pits society against itself. The emphasis on whether or not the individuals deserve the rights inevitably leads to political speech that demonizes a portion of our citizenry as degenerate, as promiscuous.

No rational mind in this country is “pro-rape.” But in the aftermath of Mr. Akin’s revealed ignorance, pro-choice advocates have seen an opportunity to re-brand the issue of abortion as a battle between pro-rape and anti-rape parties. On the back of this convenient fiction, they hope to rewrite the balance we have set between life and liberty over decades of debate. But the idiocy of Todd Akin is only a reason to re-elect Mrs. McCaskill, and nothing broader.

Arguing in the Negative

We agree with the affirmative in saying that the question of abortion is about setting a balance between the right to life and the right to liberty. And we’ll also agree that discussions of rights should put aside the question of whether or not groups of individuals deserve rights as unnecessarily divisive. But the assertion that the circumstance of rape does not change the balance between life and liberty is the wrong one. Yes, the life interest of the fetus is unchanged. But the liberty interest is considerably stronger.

One of the key elements to the argument against the liberty interest of women is to say that if there were substitutes for abortion available, that it would be acceptable to ban abortion altogether because the alternatives of contraception (or abstinence) would still be available. If women fail to make the effort to avail themselves of contraception, then the line of thinking goes that they regard the prospect of pregnancy as non-burdensome.

Without an exception for rape, this argument reaches a ludicrous extreme. To outlaw abortion in all cases but rape is a position that at least recognizes the liberty interest of women. To outlaw abortion in all cases including rape is to claim that the life interest of the fetus, no matter how undeveloped, trumps every liberty interest of a woman. It establishes a hierarchy of rights that is absolute, in which even the slightest of life rights trumps the strongest of liberty rights.

Perhaps, someday, this is the balance that society will set. In a democratic society, that possibility cannot be discounted. But it is clearly not the balance that society wishes to set today. And the only way our laws could come to reflect that balance is by accident, if voters did not realize they were electing men and women with such extreme positions.

Mr. Akin’s comments are not a distraction from a legitimate position. They are a highlighting of an extreme position, one that has been widely adopted by Republicans, but remains highly unpopular in the mainstream. To publicize Mr. Akin’s abortion policy, and the policy of the Republican party is not political opportunism, it is responsible campaigning. There is no twisting of words or misrepresentation — what makes politically aware Republicans uncomfortable with Mr. Akin’s position is that they know how truly and deeply unpopular his views are among the national electorate.