Motherhood and Hard Cases

Motherhood and Hard Cases May 14, 2015

This Sunday (Mothers’ Day, coincidentally or not), a shocking juxtaposition appeared in my facebook feed, of the kind that somehow compels some response, even as I wonder how I can have the audacity to say anything at all.  I suppose it’s because violence always deeply disturbs me, despite, or maybe because of, being so often at a loss.

Almost the first thing I saw was this petition from Amnesty International demanding an abortion for a 10-year-old rape survivor in Paraguay (a more complete story is here). My heart immediately broke for this girl – for the violence that has been done to her, and for the additional violence being suggested as the answer to the first.

Immediately beneath that was a story written for Feminists for Life by an adoptive mother whose daughter was born to a 13-year-old girl who had also conceived in rape.  For this birthmother, too, abortion was presented as the self-evident solution, but in the end it was the attempted abortion that was painful and traumatizing and the birth of her daughter that brought “unplanned joy.”  And not long after that, a similar story crossed my path in which another survivor writes powerfully about mothering as a means of reclaiming the violence done to her, without glossing over the difficulties.

The more hopeful stories like these demonstrate concretely both that there is indeed a better way than adding violence to violence, and that this message rings much truer when the difficulties that remain are acknowledged honestly.

There is a danger, in speaking of situations in which one has no personal involvement, of making any victim of violence a mere character in a drama of one’s own imagining, or worse, a political weapon – reduced, as one Paraguayan senator was quoted in the Washington Post article linked above, to a uterus and a birth canal.  In recognition of this I cannot prescribe with any real precision what is best for everyone, except to say that that question ought to be the starting point whatever the situation.

This is especially so whenever disregarding anyone’s inherent human dignity would appear to simplify things.  It may be tempting, on one side, to resort to that sort of reductionism, not only of prenatal life, but of the physical and psychological impact (to borrow an Amnesty spokeswoman’s phrasing) of abortion itself, not to mention how easily it can mask ongoing abuse.  On the other, it may be tempting to play the same zero-sum game by suggesting, as certain politicians have infamously done, that a woman who conceives by rape has not really been raped – which ends up being as egregious as the opposite claim that a child conceived by rape is not really a child.  Both of these reductions ultimately prove harmful to both lives in question by legitimizing the same deadly dichotomy (which I’ve written about before in another context) that assumes two acts that contribute to the same cycle of violence – in this case, rape and abortion – can’t both be wrong.

There is a similar danger of assuming more facts than one knows for ideological reasons.  Outside of Amnesty’s petition, the accuracy of its urgent portrayal of that particular health situation is unclear, but I am also wary of the temptation to make the same mistake by assuming the opposite in order to simplify an unthinkably tragic situation.  But whatever the particulars, from the standpoint of human dignity the presumption at the outset must be that there are two intrinsically valuable lives at stake.  This is presumed with much less controversy when none of the lives involved are at a stage where their humanity, and thus their worth, is called into question.  Would it even be possible to so cavalierly presume one of those lives to be intrinsically expendable once that person has been met face to face?

Of course, it would be difficult to imagine another kind of situation analogous to pregnancy in the extent to which two lives are so intimately, physically intertwined; the closest possible example I can think of might be that of conjoined twins.  It may be more uncontroversially humanizing to consider what measures would be thinkable in a difficult case if the baby were already born, but that would remove the complication that makes it so wrenchingly tempting to dehumanize in the first place.  In any case, the recognition of two lives, however intricately bound together under however harrowing circumstances, demands as a starting point the consideration of what is best for them both.

This doesn’t mean there wouldn’t still be tough calls to make, as there are in many health-related situations.  But if the Hippocratic oath means anything at all, the deliberate taking of a human life cannot be assumed to be the humane solution.

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  • Melody

    I agree with you that “… if the Hippocratic oath means anything at all, the deliberate taking of a human life cannot be assumed to be the humane solution.” The answer to violence isn’t more violence. I have been reading about the horrific violence being visited upon women by Boko Haram and Isis, and how some of the women have become pregnant. One commenter said that it would be really hard for those women to love the babies under those circumstances, and that would seem to me to be true. I hope that adoptive parents will come forward; hopefully within those countries and cultures; but if not, then from overseas. That would be a concrete way to help those mothers who feel unable to love the children of their abusers; and to give the babies a start without the negative baggage.

    • Julia Smucker

      Another prime example of unimaginably trying circumstances, for sure. But I would be very hesitant to speculate about how that would affect a mother’s love for her child. I can just as easily imagine that love becoming a light in the darkness. I’ve known, indirectly, of both being the case in situations of conception resulting from rape, although even when the reminder is too painful for the birthmother to raise her children herself, I can’t imagine anyone close to the situation (at least the particular one I’m thinking of) suggesting it was because she couldn’t love them. In any case, I guess I’ve read too much from Feminists for Life to assume the inevitability of judging a child based on who the father is.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    What I find disturbing in this story is the repeated use of the meme “pregnancy=torture”. As someone who has cared deeply about US government torture in Afghanistan and elsewhere, I can only find this comparison overblown and not conducive to any kind of discussion of this tragic event.

    • Julia Smucker

      I had the same thought and was trying to find a place to mention it in the OP, so thank you for raising this point.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        This leads to the broader question of what is the correct language for discussing this event, or any pregnancy that is a consequence of a rape? The secular media has a field day with quotes from various (mostly Republican) politicians, and even if some of these are lifted out of context they are pretty awful.

        • Julia Smucker

          Yes, that’s exactly the kind of reductionism I was alluding to above, which is a consequence of accepting the “two wrongs” dichotomy that suggests we’re not allowed to experience moral repugnancy in response to both rape and abortion, so if we want to oppose abortion we have to downplay the gravity of rape, or vice-versa.

          As for what better language might be, that’s what I’m trying to provide here, or at least a starting point for it. This is also where I keep referring back to FFL, which has much better language for talking about hard situations, precisely because they speak from an axiomatic respect for both lives no matter what.

          Here is probably the best example I can find of the right language for talking about pregnancy from rape, Mary Meehan’s 2013 article responding to Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” debacle:

  • crystal

    The Feminists For Life are anything but feminists. Women and girls who are the victims of rape should have the option of abortion if that’s what their doctor advises (as in the case of the 10 year old mentioned) or if it is what they want. You can’t brand the decision to have an abortion as “secular” …. many Christian denominations believe this should be a choice left up to a woman, and most Catholics believe abortion should remain legal. An article on this issue from The Atlantic …

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      I am curious: why are they “anything but feminists”? They repudiate the maximalist notions of personal autonomy which underlie many (most?) arguments in favor of abortion, but unless you want to equate feminism with libertarianism, I do not see why they are disqualified from calling themselves feminists.

      • crystal

        I think of feminism as being about giving women options, opportunities, and I suppose then I *do* equate feminism with liberalism. Feminists For Life is a group of politically conservative pro-life women, mostly Republican (Sarah Palin is a member), who want to take away women’s ability to decide if they want to be parents or not. They want to take away choices for women, choices that in some cases may save a women’s life, or save her physical/mental health, or save her financial future (consider the example of the pregnant 10 year old whose doctors advise abortion). They are not feminists because they don’t support women.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        “Feminists For Life is a group of politically conservative pro-life women, mostly Republican (Sarah Palin is a member), who want to take away women’s ability to decide if they want to be parents or not.”

        I think this is a very narrow conception of the membership of FFL, when my wife and I joined FFL in Berkeley 25+ years ago, the membership was all over the political spectrum, from a few conservatives to a few leftist radicals. Many members of FFL have been active in the peace movement (the old Seamless Garment Network, now Consistent Life) and other progressive causes. I do not know if my friends in the Catholic Worker are members, but their position on abortion is remarkably similar to that of FFL. In other words, that Sarah Palin is a member is not determinative of their membership as a whole.

        As for their position on parenthood: you overstate the case against them, and in the process you are absolutizing the notion of choice. Not all choices are good ones, and some choices are so wrong that they are regulated or banned by the state. FFL wants women to have choices when it comes to parenthood, and wants to make sure that society takes a serious role in supporting these choices. What FFL rejects is that abortion is a legitimate choice. Its arguments on the “hard cases” need to be taken seriously, if only because they pro-abortion arguments in these cases case are both hegemonic and unreflective—they are simply accepted without question.

    • Julia Smucker

      I see a couple of distinct claims being made here.

      First of all, leaving aside your sweeping generalizations about what “most Catholics” and other Christians believe, I actually agree that pro-life and pro-choice positions do not line up as neatly along a religious/secular divide as is often assumed. In fact, I have enormous respect for the organization Secular Pro-Life, not only for defying that stereotype by its very existence but for being one of the most intelligent and respectful pro-life voices out there. Frankly, they could teach many of us Christians a lesson in speaking truth in charity.

      As for Feminists for Life, I credit them with making me rethink feminism in certain ways, especially with their emphasis on its history by which they demonstrate that it hasn’t always had all the same connotations it is associated with today. They have compiled extensive historical research showing that early American feminists (regardless of religion) were unanimously pro-life, and their president Serrin Foster has described in her famous “Feminist Case Against Abortion” how it was actually men who persuaded later feminists such as Betty Friedan to make abortion access a primary issue for women’s rights activism. The point here is that “pro-life” and “feminist” have not always been assumed to be contradictory.

      Where we diverge at a more fundamental level has to do with your other, more prescriptive claim: that abortion should be an option. The example you bring up of rape as a weapon of war is exactly the kind of hard case I was originally addressing. The “should” comes down to a question of starting points. Presuming the expendability of either a woman in that unjust situation or a child conceived as a result of it will lead to very different conclusions (perhaps more easily reached) on how to respond than the contrary premise that both lives are equally and innately worthy of respect.

  • crystal

    I may have over stated the case for Catholics wanting abortion to be legal – I think actually it’s about half of Catholics, but the Pew Forum has a page on religions and Christian denominations on abortion, and many allow women to make this choice for themselves …

    But I don’t understand in what way Feminists For Life can be considered feminists, aside from the fact that they are females. They want to criminalize abortion, and will not allow abortions even for incest or rape or when a woman’s life is in danger …. that mindset is not in the best interests of women ….

    Their historical research is questionable too …. they’ve really spun it. Here’s an article in The New York Times about the Feminists For Life and Susan B Anthony …

  • Julia Smucker

    Crystal, you seem to have already decided what to believe about FFL, but as a current member I know that you are misrepresenting it badly. I don’t know anything about Palin being a member, if that even matters, but the organization itself is conscientiously nonpartisan, and the self-descriptions of its contributors and speakers definitely span the political spectrum.

    As for organizational positions, its leadership has certainly been critical of Roe v. Wade (particularly Sara Weddington’s argument which implicitly accepted discrimination against pregnant women as inevitable), but its primary focus is on eliminating the root causes of abortion by giving women better options. One of their major arguments is that when abortion seems like the only solution for lack of support, it’s not much of a choice. That’s what they mean when they call abortion a reflection that society has failed to meet the needs of women, as it does nothing to prevent unjust and/or unsupportive situations from continuing.

    I realize that all of this can easily fall on deaf ears when the idea that abortion is necessary to supporting women has become so heavily ingrained in our political discourse. But I wonder if you might at least recognize that FFL has done a lot to make certain forms of feminism more palatable to some of us by bringing out its more holistic and nonviolent strains. In a way it becomes a question of mission: do you want allies in the fight against the gender-related injustices that lead you to see abortion as necessary in the first place, or are you more concerned with keeping feminism pure?

    • crystal


      Given that you are a member of FFL, I can understand why you are in favor of it as an organization. I’m not purposefully misrepresenting it – all that I have mentioned about it here, including that it aims at criminalizing abortion, is discoverable online … the NYT’s article I linked to is about their misrepresenting of Susan B Anthony. One could at least read the Wikipedia page for FFL to find out more – the page has footnotes and related news articles.

      I don’t have an agenda. I don’t think abortion is necessary. I don’t think I would ever get one myself. But I think women should be able to get one if they need it or want it. I don’t need feminism to be pure, but the description “feminist” should correspond to reality …. when I write the word “feminism” in Google, the definition that comes up is “the advocacy of women’s rights …”. Feminists For Life does the opposite.

      • Julia Smucker

        Feminists For Life does the opposite.

        That’s only if you’re assuming a definition of women’s rights that requires women to become like men in order to be successful. It’s also a violently individualistic ideal that demands such violent choices. Women deserve the right to education, meaningful work, and healthy and dignified lives without being required to choose between those things and the vulnerable lives our bodies may support.

        It’s a stretch to claim that FFL misrepresents Anthony: the author you cite openly admits that she opposed abortion, and the thrust of the article is basically speculation on what she would think about current legislation.

        For the record, I am not in favor of FFL because I am a member, but vice-versa: I finally decided to become a member when my wholehearted resonance with everything I’ve seen and heard from them became undeniably stronger than the little hump (for totally different reasons) of “can I really call myself a feminist?” Again the question of purism, which is a question of priorities: if someone can expand her understanding of feminism enough to find a place for herself in it, can you welcome that sort of conversion? Or are you more concerned with who gets to define the terms?

        • crystal

          I’ve already made one last comment and I don’t want to hog the thread, but to answer your questions …

          I think we have a fundamental difference of opinion about what feminism is. I think (?) your idea of feminism is what might be termed “new feminism” or “difference feminism” ( – it’s a conservative religious idea from JPII, has its roots in the theology of the body, complementarianism, Edith Stein-ish theology. For me, and I think the general public, feminism is about the effort “to define, establish, and achieve equal political, economic, cultural, personal, and social rights for women” ( And the right to choose legal abortion or to choose *not* to have one would fall under that description.

  • Melody

    I am not a member of Feminists for Life. However I disagree with the notion that support for abortion is a litmus test for calling oneself a feminist. I define feminism more broadly to mean that one is supportive of equal pay for equal work; and equality of opportunity for education and in the workplace.

  • crystal

    Sorry – just one last comment to kind of summarize, because it seems clear that neither of us is going to change our minds on this subject.

    1) I define feminism as the support of women’s rights …. it’s not only about pro-choice but of course about equal pay and equal opportunity (in the church as well – women’s ordination). One reason I don’t think FFL is truly feminist is because they do not support women’s reproductive rights but instead seek to criminalize abortion. The right for women to choose what to do about pregnancy (with certain limitations) is the law of the land. FFL wants to change that …
    “The problem is that FFL doesn’t just oppose abortion. FFL wants abortion to be illegal. All abortions, period, including those for rape, incest, health, major fetal defects and, although Foster resisted admitting this, even some abortions most doctors would say were necessary to save the woman’s life. (Although FFL is not a Catholic organization, its rejection of therapeutic abortion follows Catholic doctrine.) FFL wants doctors who perform abortions to be punished, possibly with prison terms. ” … (

    2) The other reason I don’t think FFL is feminist is that they have misrepresented historical feminists like Susan B Anthony ( and Elizabeth Cady Stanton ( as being ‘on their side’ on the question of reproductive rights. The articles explain why this is likely not true.

  • Julia Smucker

    Crystal, we can definitely agree that neither of us is about to change the other’s mind. Even as I’ve felt it necessary to respond to your comments, I’ve done so with growing concerns about falling into the trap of talking past each other, and maybe we are. If nothing else, you’ve reminded me how tossing up links with the thought, “If everyone who disagrees with me would only read this article, then they would be convinced,” tends not to be nearly as effective as I’m tempted to think (and I admit I’ve succumbed to this temptation many times).

    That said, I am wondering whether Katha Pollitt’s full interview of Serrin Foster is available somewhere. That may actually be more helpful to the conversation, at least by allowing those of us on either “side” to determine for ourselves how well she answers the questions.

    • crystal

      My views about all this were formed when I was a teen, before I became a Christian/Catholic, and it’s very hard for me to see the other side, but that’s not to say I don’t have some qualms about the abortion thing. I’ll look for the interview. Thanks for the discussion 🙂

  • trellis smith

    Interesting discussion not that I have any horse in this race as I am not a feminist and given the current climate may even be anti-feminist. Just see how Title 9 is playing out on college campuses these days, with kangaroo courts and mattresses in tow , feminism has finally reached the heights of the absurd.

  • Tanco

    I am sorry I am late to this discussion. I do not know if the girl has given birth or died (or both; perhaps she gave birth and then died). I am certain that this girl will not be the first or last to be raped. I am also certain that some of these girls will give their lives in labor. The abominations that have been visited on these children is truly evil. And yet, to say that the girl in question, through a refusal of abortion on her behalf, has in some way redeemed evil is in itself also disturbing.

    Father Oscar Romero died while offering Mass. He was in the process of re-presenting Christ’s saving work on the Cross. It is entirely right to call Romero a martyr not merely because he was assassinated while saying Mass, but more so because he lived the Mass with an intellectual and personal intimacy possessed by few. His work to empower the impoverished was the Mass in motion.

    Romero had many years to understand the nature of martyrdom. He recognized that, in the turbulent political environment of El Salvador, he might well be called to the task. Can this said for a young girl who, through an act of evil violence, might well die for the sin of another? Is she a martyr, a person who gives witness to the faith through death for its sacred tenets? Though many might wish to say that she is a martyr because she refused abortion by proxy, a girl is not old enough to give her placet. She is not old enough to give her unequivocal intellectual assent to possibly die for her faith.

    Then, there are the Holy Innocents. In this light, the self-sacrifice of a pregnant girl through the refusal of an abortion and subsequent death is merely a necessary witness to the truth of the Church, regardless of the girl’s comprehension. It is terrible to think that someone would die without a greater understanding of why he or she should die, but ostensibly this is necessary to protect the integrity of the faith.

    • Julia Smucker

      Maybe this is partly wishful thinking on my part, but reading the WashPo article did cast a bit of doubt on the certain death portrayed by the Amnesty petition. In any case, the reason my wishful thinking would even go that direction is that I’m taking the intrinsic value of both lives as axiomatic, which is really the point. After such an evil has happened (much better of course that it be prevented in the first place), the question should always be how both of these innocents can be cared for. Naming that question does not at all make it an easy one, and none of us here, being so far removed from the particular situation, can really answer it. But that must be the question to start with if human dignity is universal.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        Here is a report from the Guardian with the latest news, which is not much:

        In summary, the girl is five months pregnant; there are allegations that she is/was in poor health from malnutrition and that she faces a mortality/morbidity rate 4 times higher than normal. There is no evidence cited that she is currently in poor health (i.e. suffering pre-eclampsia or other adverse consequences).

        • Julia Smucker

          Thank you, David.

          The wording used both in the headline and throughout the body of the Guardian article is disturbingly telling: they are “under pressure to ensure [her] health.” I would certainly hope nobody is arguing that that’s unimportant. The controversy is over whether this can and should be done with or without further violence.

          • crystal

            Just for another point of view, I think most people would see abortion in this instance not as “violence” but as a medical procedure. The little girl is the patient, the person whose health the doctors are concerned about, not the fetus.

          • Julia Smucker

            True, some do see it that way. So the question is whether there is one person to be concerned about or two. And your qualifying wording raises a related question: can abortion be considered a mere medical procedure “in this instance” specifically, and violence under less difficult circumstances?

  • crystal

    That is the big question – how many “persons” are involved in this situation: one or two? For those who are pro-life, it seems to be ‘two’ but I think that for the average person (and the law) there is one person – the girl/woman – though as the fetus gets older, I think more people would start to shift towards the ‘two’ position. But even then, if there’s a late pregnancy where the mother’s life is in danger, probably nearly 100% of people would accept abortion as a reasonable choice. There’s no perception of violence because the procedure is for the benefit of the woman.

    I think this is about something most pro-life people don’t believe but that most people do … embryos, zygotes, fetuses are not persons in the same way already existing people are persons, and that affects how we treat them.

    • Julia Smucker

      That is the big question indeed, and you are still making some very hasty dismissals. Who gets to be called average, or for that matter, existing? When does a fetal life shift into valid existence? Let’s be honest: if it’s past that point where you would agree that there are two lives involved, then abortion would necessarily entail violence to one of those lives, even if you conclude that this act of violence is necessary or reasonable.

      You’re hitting on why I believe absolutely in a consistent ethic of life: all people who are inconvenient enough and/or disempowered enough to have the legitimacy of their existence dismissed or questioned are in a particularly vulnerable position, and thus particularly in need for the legitimacy of their existence to be recognized. And there are certainly other categories of persons who have not always been considered full persons under the law. I could go down a list, but I don’t think I need to – examples spring readily enough to mind.