On August 14th, an 11-year-old Paraguayan girl gave birth to a baby girl. She had been impregnated after being raped by her stepfather; the pregnancy only became evident when she was 22 weeks along. Paraguayan law permits abortion when the woman’s life is at stake, but otherwise there are no exceptions. Pregnancies resulting from incest or rape, or which merely threaten the health of the expectant mother, must go to term.
An international outcry erupted against Paraguay’s insistence that the 75-pound girl bear her rapist’s child. It had no effect. Citing a United Nations study showing that 70,000 adolescent girls die as a result of pregnancy or childbirth complications each year, Amnesty International argued that the girl was at risk and the family’s request for an abortion should be granted. Paraguay did not budge. “We are not, from any point of view, in favor of the termination of the pregnancy," a government spokesman said.
Mike Huckabee, a Republican running for his party’s presidential nomination, told CNN that he agreed with Paraguay’s refusal to allow the girl to have an abortion. “I wouldn’t pretend it’s anything other than a terrible tragedy, but let’s not compound the tragedy by taking yet another life,” he said. Watch his interview here:
Huckabee’s position is not mainstream, even for conservatives. Most Republicans running for president and most pro-life Americans believe an exception should be carved out for rape and incest victims.
But this more moderate position carries a difficult burden of justification. To say that women who have been raped are eligible for abortion is to admit that there are some circumstances in which a woman’s right to control her body supersedes the fetus’s right to life. Once that proposition is granted, the abortion debate puts the fetus and the expectant mother on a balance: Each has value; each deserves respect. The question is how to weigh each party’s claim.
The tragic episode of the Paraguayan girl’s pregnancy reminds me of a famous defense of abortion offered by philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson in 1971. The unusual, bold premise of her article, “A Defense of Abortion,” is that pro-lifers lose even on their own terms. Thomson begins by granting, for the sake of argument, the abortion opponents’ most compelling claim: that the embryo is a person, and has rights, from the moment of conception. There is a philosophically coherent, even compelling, argument that women should still have a right to abort their fetuses even assuming that fetuses have a right to life.
The argument builds on a series of thought experiments, leading with one that resonates well with the Paraguayan case:
You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist's circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, "Look, we're sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you — we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it's only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you." Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says, "Tough luck, I agree. But now you've got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person's right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him."
Is it just to require you to provide for the violinist’s bodily needs for nine months? “I imagine,” Thomson wrote, “you would regard this as outrageous.” So it may be similarly outrageous to ask a pregnant woman — whether a fully grown adult or a child — to commit herself to a long, uncomfortable and potentially dangerous symbiotic relationship with another organism.
That might sound like a rather crass way to describe the relationship between a mother and a child, and I suppose it is. It would be very nice for you to keep the violinist attached to your back for nine months, and it is arguably even more generous to play host to a fetus, your fetus, with whom you have an intimate biological connection. But the question is whether the government should have the power to require you to engage in this act of generosity whenever a fetus begins developing in your womb — even if you are a child yourself who has already suffered a brutal act of sexual violence.
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