Life Chat Recap: Abortion in Hard Cases

by Oxford Students for Life

One of the most common arguments pro-life advocates are confronted with when debating on abortion is the “hard cases” argument. Surely, pro-choice advocates argue, abortion must be allowed in cases of rape, disability, and danger to the life of the mother. While it’s never easy to confront such tough cases, abortion is not, and can never be justified as, a compassionate or just response to a crisis pregnancy. It’s incredibly important for pro-life advocates to be able to respond to these challenges, and be well-educated both on the philosophical and the medical grounds for the pro-life position. As such, last Tuesday, members of OSFL gathered for an evening of discussion and debate on abortion in extreme cases, examining hypothetical situations and pro-life responses to them.

Stressing the need to find constructive methods of healing for the mother, participants agreed that abortion cannot be justified in cases of rape. Children conceived in rape have the right to live, and cannot be punished for the rapist’s crime. The circumstances of one’s conception do not determine one’s worth. Furthermore, abortion is not a remedy for the abuse suffered; rape cannot be undone, and abortion compounds violence, rather than assuaging its effects. It’s just as wrong to condemn a child conceived in rape as it is to blame a woman for her rape. A truly compassionate response must address the needs of both the mother and of her child, instead of pitting one against the other. Neither can abortion be justified in cases of fetal disability, no matter how severe. Discrimination against the disabled cannot be tolerated, either for the born or for the unborn. Life must not be valued based on its meeting certain standards of ability, comfort, longevity, or any other criterion; being pro-life means defending life not only at all stages, but also defending life for all people, in all circumstances. Imperfection and suffering do not make life worthless.

Perhaps the most difficult cases to address are those in which the life of the mother is at risk. However, abortion (direct, intentional killing) remains impermissible. In cases in which the mother is diagnosed with a disease not directly related to the pregnancy – for example, uterine cancer – she may pursue treatment which will result in the death of her unborn child, but deliberate abortion is never acceptable (and does not in fact treat the problem). Treating the cancer is absolutely right and important, and if doing so may result in the death of the child – for example, as would be the case with chemotherapy – the child’s death is a tragedy, but it is not an intentional killing. In the case of ectopic pregnancy, pro-lifers often differ. While there is no way to save the life of the child, there are strong arguments in favor of salpingectomy over salpingostomy. Many argue that a salpingectomy (removal of the portion of the fallopian tube containing the implanted embryo) is the ethical treatment to pursue, as a salpingostomy (removal of the implanted embryo from the tube) is tantamount to an abortion. Others argue that as the end result is the same, there ought to be no moral difference between the two treatments. This provoked a long debate, as participants in Tuesday’s discussion sought the best possible answers to unthinkably painful problems.

The truth is, the “hard cases” are hard for a reason. While we can, and should, seek as precise an ethical response to them as possible, it will never be easy to tell a woman that her child will be severely or fatally disabled; it will never be easy to help a victim of rape heal; it will never be easy to know that no matter what happens, either a mother or her child will lose her life. What pro-life advocates must do is pursue responses to these situations that protect the life and dignity of mothers and children, and that address the root causes of problems, rather than compounding suffering by accepting abortion. Women, men, and children suffering in such extreme cases need and deserve love, respect, and practical help, not misguided and immoral “quick-fixes”.