For a second time during this seemingly endless election cycle, a Republican politician is being criticized for his remarks on rape and its aftermath. Richard Mourdock, a US Senate candidate from Indiana, opposes abortion after rape, and in explaining his position, he said:
I’ve struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is that gift from God. And even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.
We should note two things that Mourdock did not say. First, his comments do not approach the breathtaking scientific ignorance that characterized Todd Akin’s claims that the bodies of women who experience so-called "legitimate" rape have ways to "shut that whole thing down" so as to avoid pregnancy. Indeed, Mourdock's comments only make sense given the assumption that pregnancy as a result of rape does occur.
Second, Mourdock in no way implied that the rape was something that God intended. His remarks apply only to the conception, and, as we will see, there is no need to suppose that God intended the circumstances that led to that conception, even if God intended the conception itself.
There may have been some political imprudence in Mourdock's remarks; perhaps it is not the business of politicians to opine on theological matters. Yet, he was asked a question about a controversial issue, and he gave an honest answer; that is surely admirable. So perhaps the imprudence was his failure to predict how maliciously his comments would be distorted.
The New York Daily News offered the low mark:“Pregnancy by rape holy: GOPer.” A CBS news story spoke of "Mourdock's remark that rape is something 'God intended.'" And the Obama campaign predictably described the remarks as "outrageous and demeaning to women," and called for an apology from the Romney campaign.
Perhaps even more egregious was a Washington Post column by theologian Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, former president of the Chicago Theological Seminary, who wrote: "No, God does not ‘cause’ either rape or conception following rape, nor is this ‘God’s intention.’ Rape is a crime."
To repeat: Mourdock nowhere suggested that God intended the crime of rape, nor did he deny that rape is "horrible." On this he and Thistlethwaite, as well as virtually everyone else, are in clear agreement. Nor is there any theological disagreement as to the "cause" of the rape: traditional Christian thought is in virtually universal agreement that, as Aquinas puts it, God neither wills moral evil to be done, nor wills that it not be done, but rather He “wills to permit evil to be done.”
In other words, God does not intend the moral evil of rape, but he does foresee that such evils will result from human free choice, a great good that God does intend us to have. But that good would not exist if God made it impossible for us to do wrong, even great wrong, and so God permits such evils to occur.
Conception, Science, and Evil
But Thistlethwaite is quite wrong, and Mourdock entirely right, as to God's intentions in the conception of the child.
We should first note that Mourdock's remarks presuppose that there is a child, that is, a living human being, when there is conception after rape. This presupposition is straightforwardly a matter of science: contemporary embryology teaches us that the result of the penetration of ovum by sperm is a new living organism, a distinct member of the species Homo sapiens. No one, clearly, would assert that rape changes the science of the matter; to do so would be a mirror image of Akin's scientific grotesquery.
But the admission that the conceptus in rape is a human being is fatal for remarks like the following, again from Thistlethwaite: "When you make God the author of conception following rape, you make God the author of sin. This is a huge theological error, and one that Christian theologians have rejected since the first centuries of the faith."
The great error here, however, is Thistlethwaite's, for human life, considered in itself, is no sin, no wrong, no evil. As another theologian John Paul II put it, "life is always a good," a "priceless gift," to its possessor.
Does this mean that every human life is a gift considered from the standpoint of others? In one sense, no, for the victim of rape can, and often will, see the child as a constant reminder of the evil that was inflicted upon her.
Yet this evil—as also with the "evil" of an inconvenient, untimely, or unprepared-for pregnancy—is not an evil pertaining to the child's life as such. For that child, from the standpoint of human reason and also from God's standpoint, life is a good, to be protected and promoted, and never to be intentionally damaged or destroyed. This truth can be recognized by all, even the victim of rape, who can choose not to abort the child precisely out of recognition that the child’s life has priceless value.
If human life is a good, though, then it is not something that God merely permits, for God, again in traditional theistic thought, is the author of all good things. But the case for a more specific divine intention and even intervention in the case of human conception, whatever its origins, is even stronger.
Conception, Science, and God
As William Carroll suggested recently on Public Discourse, "Scientific and philosophical theories that rely only on the conclusions of the empirical sciences cannot, in principle, provide an explanation of a natural order that has consciousness and mind as fundamental features."
Just as entirely material principles cannot explain their own nature and existence, thus pointing to a transcendent form of causality, so also they cannot explain human mindedness: our capacity to abstract from material particulars so as to know universal principles, and our capacity to choose freely, without being determined by the prior state of the physical universe. Our minds, in short, cannot be entirely composed of material particulars, but must have some immaterial principle that makes possible their unique capacities.
This is not to deny what I have said here and elsewhere on many occasions, that science can tell us when a human being comes into existence as a distinct living animal. But science tells us neither everything about the nature of that human animal, nor about everything that must be the case for a being like us to come into existence on each occasion when a human being is conceived. For the material principles that science studies cannot provide such a complete explanation.
A traditional view among many theists, and asserted explicitly by some faith traditions, is that a special act of divine intervention is necessary for the creation of a human being. For there to be a human being, with the rational capacities possessed by members of our species, then that being must be endowed with an immaterial principle; and that endowment is understood to be the personal act of a divine being who wills the human being to exist as such: who gifts that being with his or her partly immaterial life.
The language of "gift" brings out what is the nature of that divine willing, and returns us to the Mourdock controversy. For the willing involved in the divine creation of the human being is understood by traditional theists to be a form of love: in any traditional conception of God, the divine being has no need of what he creates. Creation is carried out for the good of the one created, and such action for the sake of another is the paradigm of love. So, as I have heard Jennifer Roback Morse put it, each human being is "loved into existence."
How could such an act not be a matter of divine intention? If a human being comes into existence by a special act of the divine, an act that has as its purpose the existence of this distinct and loved person, how could it not be the case that that was, though in a way only analogous to the human case, divinely intended?
A traditional theist must, therefore, hold that while God intends neither the evil of rape, nor the many and significant evils that are consequent upon that rape, God nevertheless wills and intends a great good in the coming to be of the child of that rape. This is hardly far from common sense: though other, and in some ways crueler, times and cultures have stigmatized the child of rape (or adultery, another evil not willed by God), we would hardly be so cold-hearted. But that itself simply confirms that the child's life, considered in itself, is good.
Deep reflections on the origins of human life and on God's providence in the face of evil are hardly to be expected on the campaign trail. But Mourdock's claims, rather than evincing yet another front in the "war on women," approach a significant truth: human life is profoundly and even transcendently special, even when, as is too often the case, it is the result of wicked and wrongful acts. Its inviolability rests in that specialness, its sanctity, or dignity, and is not obviated by the distorted choices of men.
Christopher O. Tollefsen is Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina. He is the editor of Bioethics with Liberty and Justice: Themes in the Work of Joseph M. Boyle.