Pro-Life with Exceptions

Representative Tom Akin of Missouri made the national news recently because of his comments about abortion in an interview with a local radio station. He stated, among other things, that he believed abortion is wrong even in cases of rape. He has since been criticized in the media by his opponents, the president, and women’s groups alike. Some of these criticisms are legitimate. No defense can be made for his comment that “legitimate rape” does not lead to pregnancy because “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” These remarks were just plain ignorant and uncaring. They are medically incorrect and imply that a woman who has conceived during rape has not really been raped. Despite this, Rep. Akin’s belief that abortion is wrong even in cases of rape is absolutely correct.

Although correct, he is certainly in the minority. Many people who are opposed to taking the life of an unborn child find Rep. Akin’s beliefs to be extreme. An adult friend once asked me, “What would you do if your daughter was raped and became pregnant? I know what I’d do!” This very good friend is a practicing Catholic who believes in Church teaching, but on this subject, she simply will not agree with the Magisterium. My teenage daughter, a cradle Catholic, is pro-life, “except in the case of rape, incest, or threat to the mother’s life.” She feels that the woman is the priority in these situations—if a victim feels she cannot carry the child, she cannot…she is understandably wounded.

The thought of carrying a child conceived of rape is a thought that every woman would struggle with. Rape is an inexcusable, violent evil and, as a woman, I cannot imagine a greater personal harm. That is why it has long been a struggle to explain Church teaching on the subject in a clear, caring, and correct way to the women in my life and indeed to myself.

It has taken me many years to understand and accept Church teaching, which is clear and decisive: “The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life” (Donum Vitae, 78-79).

It is not an easy thing to hear from your Church, the Church that is the representative of Christ on earth, that you should carry a child of rape to term. Christ is merciful and certainly he understands the pain of rape.  Fully human and innocent, he experienced the degradation, pain, and anguish of his Passion at the hands of others also. He, too, felt the isolation that is a result of violent crime when he cried, “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” (Mark 15:34)

God is merciful and kind.  He is a loving Father who feels our hurts, struggles, and anger. Surely Christ would understand if a woman feels she cannot continue a pregnancy begotten of violence. But understanding why a woman might consider abortion in the case of rape does not make it right; it is an evil that must not be carried out under any circumstance. The Christ that understands a woman’s heartache is at the very same time the Christ who is the Father of that innocent unborn child—the child of rape is still a child of God. God eternally loves every person, born and unborn, child of love or child of violence, as a vital and essential part of his Creation.

This way of thinking requires a change of perspective. It necessitates that we, without fail, put every person (as a child of God) ahead of ourselves. Every single life, from conception, is not ours but God’s. We cannot be the ones to determine who is of worth and who isn’t—we are not the Creator.

The minute we decide that an unborn baby conceived by rape is expendable, we take away some of the dignity of every human person. In essence we say that God creates things/persons that are unworthy of existence. Your worth, my worth, my teenage daughter’s worth, every child who is ever conceived, their worth as a person is called into question. Abortion is an injury to all of humanity. There can be no middle ground, no exceptions.

The Center for Disease Control estimates that there are 32,000 pregnancies (read children) per year as a result of rape.1 Which of these 32,000 children are worthless and which are not? They are all children of God; it is not our choice. If we, as Catholics, believe in the dignity of the human person as a creation of God, then that simply must apply to every unborn child without exception.

This is not, by any means, to say that having a child conceived by rape is easy. It is not meant to take away one ounce of worth from the mother. It is meant to give worth back where it belongs—to every human person, to the child. For the woman living this nightmare, carrying a child made in such a horrible act of violence requires an amazing strength. She deserves and needs the support of family, friends, and caregivers. Unfortunately, in many cases, she will not receive this support.

It is imperative that the Church, especially the laity, be willing to provide this help in a very real and concrete manner. Rape victims need extensive counseling, patience and so much more. We must be prepared to take these women in, care for them and care for these children where necessary. We must act upon our beliefs.

It is unfortunate that Rep. Akin is ignorant of female biological processes. It is shameful that he questioned the reality of rape for so many women. His remarks, however, are a gift in that they bring to the forefront an issue that so often plagues the minds of good Catholics everywhere. It is important that each of us realize the gravity involved in taking a life, any life. We, as Catholics, as Christians, as “pro-lifers,” do harm when we say things like, “I’m only for abortion in the case of rape, incest, etc.” We cannot expect people to believe that every child has a right to life if we do not believe it ourselves.

Michelle Sheehan Tholen lives in Bayou Vista, LA with her husband and two daughters.  She is a full-time student at the Catholic Distance University where she is studying for her Masters in Theology.
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