Alabama, Abortion, Absolution

Alabama has passed a law, which the state’s governor nevertheless imagines will be unenforceable for the time being, making it a felony to perform an abortion in that state, with the only exception being cases in which the life of the mother is threatened. I am pleased to see this law passed, not merely because I believe abortion is indefensible in a modern, rights-based civilization, but more specifically because inconsistencies of principle annoy me.

Most abortion restrictions leave exceptions not only for the survival of the mother, but also for cases of rape or incest. In fact, this tendency is so ubiquitous that we generally hear them in our mind’s ear as a set phrase: “rape, incest, and the life of the mother.” This, for example, was the list of exceptions even in Korea’s relatively old-fashioned (i.e., non-progressive) abortion law, which was overturned last month in a politicized ruling by the country’s so-called constitutional court. (I wrote about that case here in Limbo at the time.)

I have always felt that these three exceptions, taken as a set, indicate careless or weak reasoning, a lack of clear principles, and therefore suggest that those who support them, in this form, will likely cave in under popular opinion eventually, and concede the “abortion rights” argument to the progressives. (And this in fact seems to be the historical trajectory.)

For the issue at stake in the abortion question is essentially whether ending another’s life on the basis of convenience or personal preference can ever be justified in a civil society. The “life of the mother” exemption makes sense, because in such cases something more than mere preference or convenience is on the table. In other words, it really is an exception, in the sense of falling outside the principle altogether, for here we are talking about a matter of self-preservation, and the implicit premise of this exemption is that no one can be socially obligated to sacrifice her very survival for the sake of the survival of another. (The question of whether there may be nobility in such a direct sacrifice is another matter; but from a legal and political point of view, it seems to be more than a society may justly demand of anyone.)

The cases of rape and incest, on the other hand, appear to be of a fundamentally different order. For now the issue (for the mother) is not one of life or death, but rather quality of life: The victim of rape or incest is fated to undergo terrible emotional struggles — psychological suffering — but the pregnancy itself presents no threat to her physical survival.

Such a hardship is pitiable to be sure, and one should certainly feel compassion for a woman who, in one of these two circumstances, chooses not to raise the resulting child herself, but instead to give it away, such as by putting it up for adoption. She may be so emotionally damaged by the events that she feels she could never overcome the horrible memories in order to experience joy in the child’s existence. To kill the child, however, would seem to be no different, in principle, from killing any ten-year-old, twenty-year-old, or eighty-year-old human being who, through no fault of his own, happened to represent a serious inconvenience to one’s hopes and aspirations, or caused one to feel a severe emotional burden. The hardship, in other words, is very real, but to punish the child in such instances is merely to take out one’s vengeance on the wrong party, which is inherently unjust. That is to say, to punish one who is without blame is to assume the position of wrongdoer, regardless of how deeply wronged one may legitimately feel in the situation.

An analogy: Yesterday was Teachers Day in Korea, on which, by tradition, students are to pay respect to those teachers, past and present, who have played a significant role in their lives. One twenty-three-year-old student, who graduated last winter, visited the university to bring me a small gift, and we chatted for a short time about her life and plans. As it happens, she has an autistic brother, two years younger, who is able to respond to simple questions and instructions, but will never be able to live or function independently. When I asked about her long-term intentions — jobs, living arrangements, marriage and family — she explained her future very straightforwardly: She will get a job near her family home, and later, when she has her own home and her parents are no longer able to manage, she will take her brother in and look after him. That is her life’s prospect as she now sees it: permanent caregiver for a mentally disabled brother.

She was not complaining about it, and she clearly feels affection for her brother. But it goes without saying that all things being equal, she would not have chosen this lot in life — would not have chosen, that is, to have a burden of this challenging and unrelenting sort thrust upon her. She does not describe her future with particular cheerfulness or optimism; but neither does she describe it with bitterness or despair. It is her life, the hand she has been dealt, and she is preparing to make the best of it, for the sake of the brother she has, and loves.

What else can she do? What else can anyone do with the hand he or she is dealt? Where there is no one to blame, there is no one to punish. So one does not punish; one copes, one finds a way, one overcomes. That is, one lives as a human, in the fullest, most worthy sense of the word.

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