Do you accept or dismiss information depending upon your emotional reaction to it? Brian D. Earp writes at Oxford’s Practical Ethics blog:
Should abortions be allowed in the case of rape? Republican Todd Akin—running for the U.S. Senate from the state of Missouri—thinks not. His reasoning is as follows:
From what I understand from doctors, [pregnancy resulting from rape is] really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something. I think there should be some punishment. But the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child.
There appears to be no scientific basis for the claim that the trauma of forced intercourse can interrupt ovulation or in any other way prevent a pregnancy; indeed pregnancy is just as likely after rape as after consensual sex, according to the evidence I have seen. This news article sums up the relevant data – though please note that one of my readers [see comments] takes issue with the standard interpretation of the most frequently-cited studies.
Let’s start, for now, then, with a bit of data that is not in question: thousands of pregnancies per year, in the U.S. alone, ensue from cases of reported rape or incest–either through the caveat of Akin’s theory that “maybe [the body’s defenses] didn’t work or something” or through the medically orthodox explanation that the body has no such defense. Assuming that falsely reporting rape is relatively rare, as seems to be the case; and acknowledging that many rapes are never reported in the first place, we should be able to agree that pregnancies resulting from rape are a life-changing reality for thousands of women on an annual basis. By “rape” I mean any penetrative act done without clear consent; and here I’m calling attention to the sub-set of such acts that result in conception. I won’t say much about the term “legitimate” — which I find troubling in a hundred ways — simply because other writers have gone to town on it, and I want to say something new.
Now, given everything I’ve just said, what could be going on with Todd Akin’s moral reasoning for him to casually downplay the relevance of rape and incest to the abortion debate while maintaining, as he does, that there should be no exceptions to anti-abortionism even in those cases? Psychologist Brittany Liu uses the notion of “moral coherence” to provide an explanation:
The misuse of scientific information in support of one’s moral position is not new. When it comes to controversial and morally-laden issues such as abortion, it is difficult for people to separate their moral intuitions from their factual beliefs. With Akin, for example, his stance that abortion is fundamentally immoral (even in cases of rape and incest) is tightly wrapped up in his beliefs about the consequences of abortion and the science of female reproduction.
According to Liu, “moral coherence” refers to:
… the power our moral intuitions have to shape beliefs about facts, evidence, and science. Often, our intuitions about right and wrong conflict with well-rehearsed economic intuitions based on a cost-benefit logic. That is, it is often the case that a particular act feels morally wrong even though doing it would maximize positive consequences.
So how do people resolve this kind of moral conflict? In a paper with her colleague Peter Ditto, Liu suggests that people’s desire for moral coherence “initiates a motivated cost-benefit analysis in which the act that feels the best morally becomes that act that also leads to the best consequences.” Applying this logic to the Akin case:
Strong opponents of abortion, like Akin, argue that abortion is fundamentally immoral and should be prohibited. But what if the pregnancy results from a rape? This creates a problem for a principled moral position on abortion. Isn’t abortion always wrong? But is it right to make a woman live with a baby conceived from a violent, traumatic act she did not consent to? One way to resolve the conflict is to convince oneself that pregnancies from “legitimate” rapes are exceedingly rare. If this is true, then prohibiting abortion even in the case of rape really has relatively few costs because it occurs so infrequently. Thus, it is easy to see Rep. Akin’s views about rape and pregnancy (views that are held by many other anti-abortion activists as well) as emerging from his struggle to construct a coherent moral position on abortion that refuses to make exceptions for rape and incest.
The idea of “moral coherence”— a clear cousin of Leon Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory—seems plausible enough, and Liu lays it out in a thoughtful, compelling manner. Unfortunately, this sort of fair-minded effort to understand how it is that an otherwise intelligent person could fall so far afield of reality is rare when it comes to political hot-topics involving moral disagreement.
Read more here.