The trouble with "exceptions" on abortion—whether one is pro-life "with exceptions" or pro-choice "with exceptions"—is that exceptions make doling out abortions seem as capricious as Seinfeld's Soup Nazi: "No abortion for you. Next!"
With the recent blunder of a pro-life politician hedging on the rape and abortion question, the "hard cases" in the abortion debate have gotten the pro-life movement in trouble again.
While well-intended (and politically prudent), the attempt to demonstrate compassion in cases of rape and incest by taking a "pro-life with exceptions" position commits the fatal errors of ignorance and inconsistency.
Consider the mental gymnastics exercised by pro-lifers uncomfortable with prohibiting abortion in cases of rape and incest: on one hand, you have those who make exceptions in such cases (thereby putting the lie to the sanctity of life claim); on the other you have those who try to make the case that pregnancies don't even occur in such cases, not the "legitimate" ones, anyway. (Note: Medically necessary abortions done to save the life of the mother are not in the same category as "elective abortions," which were made constitutional by Roe v. Wade and now constitute the vast majority of abortions.) Whether the "exception" is a victim of rape or incest, pregnant with a child who has an abnormality, or simply not too far along to trouble the pro-choice conscience, the result is essentially the same: a choice permitted by virtue of an arbitrary line rather than a clear, consistent principle, a la the capricious Soup Nazi. Once begun, such parsing—of abortion, of human life—can go on ad infinitum.
Such capriciousness, even if motivated by compassion, is inherently cruel. It generates an air of judgmentalism in deeming some situations appropriate for abortion (rape or incest) and some not (consensual sex). The implied judgment spills over like boiling soup onto all cases, even the "exceptional" ones. When even more parsing occurs to determine which cases of rape are "legitimate" and which are not, justifiable outrage only grows.
Indeed, pro-choice advocates have long charged that opposing abortion is rooted more in punishing women for sexual behavior deemed immoral than in protecting human life. It's hard to argue otherwise when some claim to be pro-life but favor exceptions based not on the sanctity of life but on the sexual situation surrounding the pregnancy. Such positions, ironically, are based on choice—namely, the role that choice plays in the circumstances leading to the pregnancy.
The recent remark about "legitimate rape" may be rooted in ignorance, but such thinking did not come out of nowhere, as is widely assumed. For many years, the pro-life "Bible" was a thick little paperback by Jack Willke and his wife, Barbara, called Abortion: Questions and Answers. Full of factoids culled from medical journals presented in a question and answer format, the book was the go-to source for pro-life activists, myself included. It includes ten pages on the rape and incest question. The first question is, "Is pregnancy from rape common?" The answer provided is, "No. It is very rare." Several pages follow that cite dated medical research to back up this claim about what the book calls "true assault rape." So the red herring of "legitimate rape" has a long history within the pro-life movement, partly because so many Americans have supported legalized abortion based on the perception that the "hard cases" are more common than they really are.
Granted, it was the pro-choice crowd that cried "rape" first, bringing before the Supreme Court a watershed abortion case falsely portrayed by its attorneys (not the woman at the center of it, Norma McCorvey, who has since become a pro-life Christian) as a rape case. Nevertheless, pro-life leaders chose to take the bait, engaging the abortion debate on those terms and spending inordinate time and energy chasing the pregnancy-as-a-result-of-rape rabbit down the hole.
To my way of thinking, there is one compelling reason to be pro-life, and it has nothing to do with sexual morality: the inherent value of human life. This principle remains unchanged through all stages of pregnancy (and holds true in petri dishes, too). Additionally, there is one compelling reason to be pro-choice, and it has nothing to do with sexual morality: the integrity of a woman's moral will. This principle remains unchanged through all stages of pregnancy.
I see both of these principles as paramount. But with elective abortion, the two principles come into direct conflict. When moral will is executed at the expense of innocent human life, I side with life—no exceptions—life both in the abstract and in the particular lives of those who were conceived in rape. Because without life, by which I mean life in and of itself, not quality of life which, although also important, is lower on the hierarchy of needs—there cannot be a moral will. But if I weren't pro-life, I would support the integrity of a woman's moral will where it concerns her body with no exceptions as well.
Certainly, incremental pro-life legislation, rather than outright bans on abortion, may be the only approach agreeable to the massive middle, and therefore politically and practically necessary, but it doesn't fool the true believers on either side.
Not even the other side: a Christian friend of mine was once talking with a hardline feminist professor in college about the way Christians were being stereotyped throughout the class. The professor acknowledged the problem. When the conversation turned to the subject of abortion, the professor said she'd have a lot more respect for the pro-life argument without the "rape and incest" exceptions, because if human life is the principle by which one opposes abortion, then the only exceptions can be when the life of the mother is endangered.
What a pure and principled pro-life position can and should offer women with unwanted pregnancies—regardless of the circumstances of conception—is not judgment but affirmation, not the niggardly ministerings of a Soup Nazi, but rather generous and abundant servings of the Bread of Life.