Mitigating circumstances

In my post yesterday, I neglected to discuss an important aspect of abortive considerations: mitigating circumstances. I cannot in good conscience leave out this subject since it plays a part in the premises of the previous argument.

A fundamental premise (not stated in the syllogism but still very relevant) was as follows:

In any scenario involving two human organisms, one of which is fundamentally dependent on the other, where there is a conflict of rights between the two, prudence demands that, ceteris paribus, the autonomous party allow her rights to be abrogated (especially when they are of lesser importance) in order that the dependent party’s rights are satisfied.

The ceteris paribus condition is important because I think it leaves room for some extenuating circumstances that might make the fulfillment of the stated obligation either unreasonably difficult or nearly impossible for the autonomous party. I am specifically thinking of three situations commonly raised in these debates: rape, incest, and imminent threat to the mother’s life.

Part of my argument is that the loss of a fundamental right on the part of the dependent (the fetus) is not justified to save rights that are not fundamental (e.g. bodily autonomy) on the part of the independent. But the circumstances of rape, incest, and maternal risk challenge this argument because they present situations where the detriment to the mother is great enough that the net gain or loss to either party is either negligible or inscrutable. In situations where there is no clear outcome, I think there is a case that can be made for placing the arduous decision in the hands of the party that can make it, i.e. the independent.

These to me are the most clear-cut cases of supererogatory action that I can think of: a woman who is raped but chooses not to abort the child who almost assuredly will remind her of that traumatic event does something truly admirable. The young girl who becomes pregnant by a father or uncle (as in this case) but keeps her child or gives it up for adoption is a hero. And the mother who chooses to give up her life rather than to sacrifice her baby does something that is hardly fathomable by any person – save, of course, for Christ.

The nature of these mitigating circumstances are such that I cannot justify the wholesale prohibition of abortion: there need to be conditions under which the action is legally permissible since they can be morally permissible. It may be that they are rare, but we cannot afford to take away the choice of an autonomous individual to do something that is not immoral and in fact may be more detrimental. It’s an unfortunate fact that such circumstances exist, but recognizing them as such is the only way to offer grace to individuals in situations where they need it the most.


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