Motherhood and Hard Cases

May 15, 2015

This Sunday (Mothers’ Day, coincidentally or not), a shocking juxtaposition appeared in my Facebook feed, of the kind that somehow compels some response, even as I wonder how I can have the audacity to say anything at all.  I suppose it’s because violence always deeply disturbs me, despite, or maybe because of, being so often at a loss.

Almost the first thing I saw was this petition from Amnesty International demanding an abortion for a 10-year-old rape survivor in Paraguay (a more complete story is here). My heart immediately broke for this girl – for the violence that has been done to her, and for the additional violence being suggested as the answer to the first.

Immediately beneath that was a story written for Feminists for Life by an adoptive mother whose daughter was born to a 13-year-old girl who had also conceived in rape.  For this birthmother, too, abortion was presented as the self-evident solution, but in the end it was the attempted abortion that was painful and traumatizing and the birth of her daughter that brought “unplanned joy.”  And not long after that, a similar story crossed my path in which another survivor writes powerfully about mothering as a means of reclaiming the violence done to her, without glossing over the difficulties.

The more hopeful stories like these demonstrate concretely both that there is indeed a better way than adding violence to violence, and that this message rings much truer when the difficulties that remain are acknowledged honestly.

There is a danger, in speaking of situations in which one has no personal involvement, of making any victim of violence a mere character in a drama of one’s own imagining, or worse, a political weapon – reduced, as one Paraguayan senator was quoted in the Washington Post article linked above, to a uterus and a birth canal.  In recognition of this I cannot prescribe with any real precision what is best for everyone, except to say that that question ought to be the starting point whatever the situation.

This is especially so whenever disregarding anyone’s inherent human dignity would appear to simplify things.  It may be tempting, on one side, to resort to that sort of reductionism, not only of prenatal life, but of the physical and psychological impact (to borrow an Amnesty spokeswoman’s phrasing) of abortion itself, not to mention how easily it can mask ongoing abuse.  On the other, it may be tempting to play the same zero-sum game by suggesting, as certain politicians have infamously done, that a woman who conceives by rape has not really been raped – which ends up being as egregious as the opposite claim that a child conceived by rape is not really a child.  Both of these reductions ultimately prove harmful to both lives in question by legitimizing the same deadly dichotomy (which I’ve written about before in another context) that assumes two acts that contribute to the same cycle of violence – in this case, rape and abortion – can’t both be wrong.

There is a similar danger of assuming more facts than one knows for ideological reasons.  Outside of Amnesty’s petition, the accuracy of its urgent portrayal of that particular health situation is unclear, but I am also wary of the temptation to make the same mistake by assuming the opposite in order to simplify an unthinkably tragic situation.  But whatever the particulars, from the standpoint of human dignity the presumption at the outset must be that there are two intrinsically valuable lives at stake.  This is presumed with much less controversy when none of the lives involved are at a stage where their humanity, and thus their worth, is called into question.  Would it even be possible to so cavalierly presume one of those lives to be intrinsically expendable once that person has been met face to face?

Of course, it would be difficult to imagine another kind of situation analogous to pregnancy in the extent to which two lives are so intimately, physically intertwined; the closest possible example I can think of might be that of conjoined twins.  It may be more uncontroversially humanizing to consider what measures would be thinkable in a difficult case if the baby were already born, but that would remove the complication that makes it so wrenchingly tempting to dehumanize in the first place.  In any case, the recognition of two lives, however intricately bound together under however harrowing circumstances, demands as a starting point the consideration of what is best for them both.

This doesn’t mean there wouldn’t still be tough calls to make, as there are in many health-related situations.  But if the Hippocratic oath means anything at all, the deliberate taking of a human life cannot be assumed to be the humane solution.

Julia Smucker

Julia Smucker writes for Vox Nova where this article also appeared.