Pro-life blogs has two recent posts about the common position among those who call themselves pro-life that there should be some exceptions to laws against abortion. Jill Stanek wonders if it's just an inconsistent position, and the commenters seem by and large to think it is. Then Tim complains about President Bush's apparent endorsement of such exceptions. Those arguing against the exceptions point out that the moral status of a fetus isn't any different because of the circumstance of the conception, and this is of course true. But I'm not sure they've grasped the reason many people who are pro-life think there should be exceptions for these kinds of cases.
I don't think the justification for the rape exception is that the child is less innocent or that it's less wrong of an action if rape is the cause of the pregnancy. The justification of the exception is supposed to be that someone who has been through such an experience needs to be given some moral deference by those who haven't been through such a situation. I don't think it's supposed to justify the action or even excuse it. It's that blaming and punishing may be less morally justified in such cases, and thus the law is going to reflect a less severe attitude toward the crime in those circumstances (given an abortion ban). I'm not saying I agree with this position (see below the fold for why). I'm just trying to make sure it's presented fairly. I really don't think most people who are pro-life but want this exception are seeing it the way the critics commenting on those posts are treating it.
I do think there's still a good argument against this view. The point seems to be that you shouldn't hold women who have been raped responsible for wanting an abortion. Even granting the moral deference point, I don't see how it can justify making abortion legal in rape cases, however. After all, the government has a responsibility to protect the fetus from those who would seek to harm it, even if the ones doing it have to be given moral deference and thus not be held responsible for what they seek to do. So there are two considerations at work, and the best laws on the matter would then need to account for both. Can that be done? Absolutely. You can make the action illegal with severe criminal penalties for anyone willing to perform an abortion in these circumstances while not holding the women responsible if it occurs (or perhaps having some criminal penalty but not a severe one). That seems to me to satisfy the moral deference claim while also allowing the government to protect its people.
The incest exception is very different. I don't think anything justifies that, unless the pro-life view is just wrong to begin with. If it's rape within a family, then it falls under the category of rape. Those who already have an exception for rape do not need to add incest to the list of exceptions if the only cases of incest they care about also happen to be cases of rape. So why is incest added as a separate exception? It must be that these pro-life people wnt abortion exceptions for cases of adult, consensual incest, e.g. two cousins both over 18 or a brother or sister both over 18. I can't really see why there should be an abortion exception for that, though, even if we have one for rape. If we're going to allow abortion for severe genetic defects, then maybe we could allow it here too, because incest in immediate family relations tends to produce such defects, but we're talking about pro-life people here who don't think we should allow abortion just because your child is likely to have Down's Syndrome or something. If you don't allow that, then why allow an incest exception? So I think those complaining about incest exceptions have something really worrisome to complain about. As far as I can tell, the standard pro-life view does not allow an exception for incest, and those who want one seem to me to be just confused.
What about the life of the mother? That seems to me to be the exception with the most going for it. There are real moral considerations that come into play when you have a pregnant woman who knows she will die unless she has an abortion, particularly if the child won't survive either way. It seems to many pro-life people that an abortion will allow at least one of them to live when otherwise both will die. This is akin to separating conjoined twins who will both die without the separation, when the separation will almost certainly cause one to die. People disagree on what moral principles come into play here, but it seems to me to be consistent with a pro-life view that it's ok to kill a fetus in these cases. This is particularly poignant in cases of a single mother without any nearby family to care for her other children who gets into a life-or-death situation in a pregnancy. She might think it's important enough to seek to remain alive for the sake of her other children, even if it means doing something (e.g. removing the fetus) that risks or even guarantees the death of the fetus. But Thomas Aquinas would argue that in a case where the death of the fetus isn't the goal (it's survival of the mother) and isn't the means to the end (the means is the removal of the fetus, not its death), then it's ok to do it. This is his Law of Double Effect, which is endorsed as far as I can tell by most Catholics today.
That doesn't mean pro-life people should necessarily hold such a view, because different moral theories will answer the question in different ways, and the right answer depends on which theory is correct. Aquinas' view may not be the right one (and it doesn't allow abortion in every life-or-death case for the mother, just ones where removal of the fetus is possiible and would save the mother's life). Different moral theories that allow more deliberate harm to an innocent to save a life would be required for cases of earlier abortion. But a pro-life theory isn't an absolutist claim that it's always wrong to kill. It's a claim that it's generally wrong to kill and thus generally wrong to have or perform an abortion. A number of different theories might be consistent with the general pro-life position. The question here is not what the correct moral theory to justify a pro-life position is. It's merely whether it's consistent to hold to a pro-life position and allow exceptions such as these. So I want to leave it open for the sake of this post which moral theory might be correct. One might oppose abortion in general on the ground that it's generally wrong to take an innocent life, all the while thinking some cases of taking an innocent life to save another innocent life might sometimes be ok. I imagine that any objection to this will depend on a particular moral theory that not all pro-lifers will grant.
So I can't wholeheartedly join the commenters opposing the exceptions whole hog. I think the rape exception is faulty, but I don't think it's as easy as to explain why as the commenters on the posts I linked to above want it to be. I do think the incest exception is untenable, and I think it's obviously so once you think about it. I don't understand why anyone holds to that exception. But the life of the mother exception is a serious moral issue, and I think it's patently unfair to accuse someone of not being pro-life simply because they hold such a view. You might accuse them of not being absolutists against doing something knowingly that will result in the death of an innocent, but I think they would admit that they're not absolutists if they admit that there are exceptions. But not being absolutists doesn't mean you're not pro-life. Being pro-life is being generally opposed to abortion, not being absolutely opposed to it, and moral considerations might lead someone to be generally opposed to it while allowing some exceptions, particularly in these life-or-death cases. I'm sure a good number of pro-life people would think it's ok to perform an abortion if the survival of the child would lead to a massive infection from a new virus that would very quickly wipe out the world's population. I don't think that means being pro-life, since it's life that motivates the view to begin with. It's just not being absolutist about abortion, and that's perfectly consistent with being pro-life.