Iowa Representative Steve King is being pilloried in the press for pointing out that, were it not for rape and incest, none of us would be here. “Considering all the wars and all the rape and pillage that has taken place,” notes King, “I know I can’t certify that I was not a part of a product of that. [Nevertheless] I’d like to think that every one of the lives of us are as precious as any other life.”
In pointing this out, was King attempting to justify rape and incest? Certainly not. He was simply buttressing his insistence that if we’re to outlaw abortion – and he thinks we should – the products of rape or incest should be no exception.
In my view pro-Lifers like King are wrong to want to extend the protection of the law to the as-yet unborn. But if that protection is to be so extended, then how the fetus came to be strikes the two of us as irrelevant. If it were, then it should be equally relevant that the condom broke. Or that she thought she was having her period. Or that, finding herself pregnant, she simply changed her mind. But that’s just the pro-Choice position. If you’re going to be pro-Life, then, King is saying, be pro-Life.
Virtually no one, pro-Choice or pro-Life, thinks the fetus should be carried to term at the certain cost of the mother’s life. But what if that cost is uncertain? And if uncertain, how uncertain? Virtually no one, pro-Choice or pro-Life, thinks the fetus should be carried to term when it’s clear it won’t be viable. But how clear? And how unviable?
But what about the psychological health of the mother? On that neither side will abide any wiggle room. That the mother is too young to raise the child is one thing. In that case the state can be compelled, regardless of how the pregnancy came about, to relieve her of that burden, both for her wellbeing and that of the child. But that she’s too young psychologically to handle carrying and delivering the child, though that might well be true, is a burden of which she can’t be relieved without the state abrogating its duty, which we’re here supposing it has, to the child.
If this is right, then the case of rape should be even clearer. Carrying her rapist’s ‘seed’ to term might very well traumatize the mother. Well, suffering her rapist to live might traumatize her too, but that doesn’t entitle her to kill him. A fortiori, then, neither does her trauma entitle her to kill an innocent child.
A further difficulty for the pro-Lifer who wants to have it both ways is the variability of what counts as rape. For example, if we were to apply the age of consent retroactively, then Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliette is a story about rape. And if, to avoid that absurdity, we index the age of consent to time and place, then we’re acknowledging that rape is a political designation, in which case some jurisdiction might exclude from its protection a black fetus but not a white one, because, after all, “#black lives [don’t] matter”.
The most telling difficulty, however – the one King is on about – is this. None of us would have to go back too many generations to find that one of our ancestors came into being through rape, rape as standardly conceived. But if we were to adopt the new definition of rape being urged on us by a growing number of university and college sexual violence policies – and being legislated by a growing number of American states. – we need only go back to our own conception. That’s because neither your mother nor mine gave consent that was a) explicit, b) enthusiastic, c) ongoing, and d) unmotivated by any asymmetry of power. So we’re all the products of rape.
To be fair, King is not supposing that his interlocutors are supposing that every product of rape should be aborted. The view King is rejecting is that our mothers had the right to abort us, not a duty to. So King would not be entitled to conclude that if having been raped entitles one to an abortion, then none of us would be here. But he is entitled to conclude, as he has, that we have at least one rapist, and probably more than one, to thank for our being here.
Is this a defense of rape? It would be if King thought we have a right to be here. But so far as I can tell he’s claimed nothing of the sort. He could claim we have a right to be here if he thought our ancestors had a duty to “Go forth and multiply!” But most theologians interpret this as God giving us permission, not an obligation, to do so.
In case you missed it, let me repeat. I am not pro-Life. In fact I’m against life. I’d prefer a world consisting of nothing but inanimate objects. But if you’re going to be wrong, as I believe King is, at least be consistently wrong, as I believe King is. And it’s for that consistency that he has my begrudging respect.