Posted by: Chris Cole | March 6, 2009

Thou shalt not allow thyself to be raped?

The contortions the religious mind must go through in order to believe both demonstrably false and completely unsupported things about the universe must leave it in a unique position to deviate from acceptable standards when it comes to moral decisions as well. This is about as charitable as I can be in considering a recent statement by the catholic church in Brazil.

The facts of the case so far:

  • A 9 year old girl was taken to hospital with abdominal pain.
  • She was found to be ~16 weeks pregnant with twins.
  • She admitted her 23 year old stepfather had been sexually assaulting her since she was 6.
  • Abortion in Brazil is legal in cases of rape, and when the mother’s health would be endangered by proceeding to delivery.
  • Father Jose Cardoso Sobrinho, the local archbishop, is having the entire medical team and the girl’s mother ex-communicated for proceeding with a termination of the pregnancy.
  • The archbishop & church both say the abortion is a crime, and should not have been performed.
  • The archbishop went on TV and said: “God’s law is above any human law. So when a human law… is contrary to God’s law, this human law has no value.”

Though I have not conducted a formal survey, I find it difficult to believe that any significant proportion of the population not indoctrinated with religious dogma would ever agree with the statements or moral position of the church in this matter.

As others have pointed out, (Sam Harris is perhaps the most widely known recent proponent of the idea), the simplest way to evaluate the morality of an act (or omission of action) is by assessing the potential for suffering by the parties affected by that act or omission. In this case we have an abused 9 year old girl, of small stature even for her age, carrying twins. The probability of her and both foetuses surviving pregnancy and delivery are very very small. This situation alone makes the decision relatively easy for those of us not burdened by disproportionately revered bronze age morality.

We have the choice of severely endangering the life of a conscious 9 year old girl with a fully developed potential to feel pain, both physical and emotional, who has hopes and dreams, or ending the potential future life of what, at 16 weeks, are two unconscious, non-sentient masses of tissue that as yet know, feel and understand nothing. Giving them the chance to become people will endanger both of them, as well as their mother, who is already a fully self-aware human being. The morally correct course of action should be readily apparent.

From a slightly different perspective, presuming medical intervention were to allow her to safely carry both foetuses to term (say by having a caesarean section at 36 weeks or so), can a sensible case be made that putting a 9 year old girl through the latter stages of pregnancy, performing life-endangering surgery to deliver her twins, who will then need someone else to raise them, is the _lesser_ of the two evils? It is possible, but I have my doubts.

With regard to the archbishop’s comments about god’s law having absolute priority over human law, I would remind him that his version of god’s law is merely the poorly documented morality of barbaric bronze age desert tribes, invented, written down, misquoted, incorrectly copied & translated, handed down and regurgitated throughout the centuries by… humans. If god suddenly decides to unequivocally reveal himself and tells us all that actually yes, abortion is the granddaddy of all sins, then certainly I will stop and listen very carefully. But unless he can provide a sensible argument to support his assertion, I’m afraid my own moral compass shall remain unperturbed. Any god whose ability to articulate the basis of his moral directives is inferior to mine deserves neither to be obeyed nor worshipped, even if he can smite me rather nastily. I’m afraid I’m not in the habit of submitting to the irrational demands of bullies, be they mortal or otherwise.

On a more practical note, we live in a society governed by the rule of law. The perfection or otherwise of our laws is always open to debate, but I suspect most people would agree that the idea of the universal application of (for the most part) mutually agreed rules to every member in a society is the only fair and rational way to regulate a population. Such a system cannot tolerate the whimsical disregard of some laws by a subset of the population on the basis that an imaginary friend in the sky once told their remote ancestors to abide by a somewhat different set of rules.

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