Rose Woodhouse wonders why the last resort pro-choice exceptions – rape and incest – get grouped together.
Why is it considered extremist to say, if one is generally anti-abortion, one should not have an abortion if the child is conceived incestuously? Why is it always coupled with rape?
Though, as Woodhouse acknowledges, incest in many cases will also include rape, she does not see why an anti-abortion position in general must logically fall to the incest taboo, and why the product of incest belongs on the same level as the product of rape. When she gets to the third common exception, “life of the mother,” she sees no difficulty at all.
As similarly with the public discussion of same sex marriage, the impoverishment of the liberal (or liberalist) discourse makes any shared understanding of the most basic terms of the debate hard to reach. From the perspective of philosophical liberalism (liberalism in the broad sense, enclosing the modern era since the 18th Century), traditional understandings are indistinguishable from traditional prejudices. Put starkly, family itself makes no sense to liberalism except as a form of social organization that free individuals fall into more or less out of historical habit and shifting economic incentive structures.
If you cannot make sense of family, you probably cannot understand attitudes toward abortion, choice, and exceptional or borderline conflicts between family-related imperatives. “Rape, incest, and life of the mother” each represents a different kind of violation of the social ethos of procreation – which is always more than mere childbearing, since it concerns the production of shared social meanings and the re-production of society as a whole. There is an implied, but merely whispered positive inducement to abortion in those instances, whispered because it is, of course, at war with competing value systems and social-cultural ideals such as the sanctity of life and the inalienable equality of all citizens (i.e., including the child of rape, incest, or trauma). The child produced by rape, incest, or at the cost of the life of the mother is implicitly – or, again, in whispers – presumed to be scarred, to be at a disadvantage, to be in constant denial of full participation, to live as a reminder of tragedy of some kind on the way to further tragedy.
These are not necessary or scientific conclusions, but they do function according to a distinct logic. They express a social generalization and a prejudice, not a perfect rule taking all conceivable circumstances of application into account. There are parallels and overlaps with the treatment of the out-of-wedlock child in previous eras, as with a presumable majority of abortions chosen for “personal” reasons. We can always come up with gray areas, exceptions, and alternatives – including cultures with dramatically different customs – but we can still discern a rationale for putting these three exceptions in their own class. Each is supported by a notion of the impossibility, rather than mere lesser likelihood, of formation of a “natural” family or familial relationship: Under rape, the father is a criminal, and the child is the crime to the mother and her family, as well as the basis of a permanent relationship with the rapist and his kin; under incest, the coupling is “unnatural” and cannot be validated; under death of the mother, one parent is gone. In each case we imagine the child under the shadow of his origins, somehow being reminded that they are thought to have justified his own pre-emptive erasure from existence. His own existence is pronounced self-invalidating, his origin an unspeakable shame.
The modern era is defined by, modernity in effect is, the displacement and demotion of inherited systems for comprehending and coping with such matters. Public reason does not know what to make of them. Their tragic complexities are typical of realms of morality that it wants to banish or pretend to banish to the private sphere, but which inevitably erupt right at the center of public life.
The difference between incest and the other two exceptions is instructive. Unlike rape and death of the mother, incest does not necessarily refer back to violence and suffering, but may, at least in theory, refer to a consensual or quasi-consensual act. Though, as noted, incest may in fact in most relevant cases fall equally under the category of rape, one might still ask why an unborn child should be made to pay for a violation of “mere” traditional morality, for what amounts to an abstract prejudice – if a very widely (if not quite universally) observed one.
One commenter under Ms. Woodhouse’s post raised the question in terms of the “split up, tacked together” nature of “so many of our modern families.” How do we sustain the incest taboo in such circumstances?
[Q]uite often what would appear to be incest is really between genetically unrelated individuals. As a society, should we care about that? Let’s say Greg and Marsha Brady decided to get it on. Should that be illegal? Allowed but morally icky? Why?
The “ickiness” of Greg and Marsha is an excellent illustration of the meaning of the incest taboo beyond medical contraindications, and of the family beyond strictly personal or individual and transactional interest. Again, viewing the question from the perspective of procreation as more than simple biological reproduction, the marriage of genetically non-related siblings fails to serve the social-ethical principles embodied in marriage (and family), which can be as difficult to explain as they are easy to intuit.
In short, the union of Greg and Marsha falsifies the Bunch. “Greg and Marsha” has been the naturally unnatural subject of numberless pornographic representations, examples of which are easy to find via internet image searches: They are not merely a reaction to repressed erotic impulses, but very graphically embody a rebellion against the complex of social norms embodied in the once popular TV series. To validate such a merely ideally (rather than genetically) incestuous union would be to say that that the “tacked-together” family was not a real family after all – that Greg and Marsha, rather than brother and sister, to be conceived as of the same union (the puns are telling and inescapable), were “conceptually other” to each other, to be conceived as of separate family lines, and therefore capable of authentically new, procreative union via marriage.
Pure liberalism, based on metaphysical individualism and the primacy of immediate selfish interest encoded in the transaction and the contract, has a very difficult time explaining why the incest taboo and other taboos or legal limitations on personal conduct, external restriction on the individual’s free choice to seek whatever satisfaction, should be minded. So liberal theorists who do not want to admit that they are importing socially conservative presumptions and content generally revert to weak consequentialism or a strained discussion of unequal power relationships. The terms of the latter especially could be and among certain theorists often are applied to conventionally approved of institutions and customs. Thus, traditional marriage has often been described as an inherently unequal patriarchal power relation that re-produces the patriarchal state. Sex itself, especially heterosexual intercourse, has been critiqued as inherently inequitable and oppressive. What could better capture the nihilistic impetus of philosophical liberalism – individualized instrumental reason – than its discovery of the moral impossibility of human reproduction itself?