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Why Liberals are Misreading Mourdock

Let’s get one thing straight from the start. I am not defending Richard Mourdock’s position on abortion, including his opposition to a rape exception. So take that twitchy finger off the “send” button. However, I do want to examine some of the outrage surrounding the latest comments of a Republican politician regarding abortion and rape. 

On Tuesday night, during an Indiana debate between candidates for the U.S. Senate, Republican Richard Mourdock said the following to explain his position on abortion: “I came to realize that life is that gift from God. And, I think, even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”

Immediately, Twitter lit up with incensed and indignant comments characterizing Mourdock’s words as saying that God makes rape happen or that God intends for rape to result in pregnancy, along with all manner of dark humor about other things God intends. Liberals seemed shocked by Mourdock’s statement and his beliefs. 

I was just shocked that anyone was shocked. Lots of Republican politicians oppose rape exceptions. Paul Ryan, for one, opposes abortion in the case of rape. Rarely does anyone bother to offer an explanation for why he holds that position. (Todd Akin famously did earlier this year, and that didn’t go so well for him.) I’m not sure what justifications people had imagined for opposing a rape exception that would be more acceptable than Mourdock’s. 

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Despite the assertions of many liberal writers I read and otherwise admire, I don’t think that politicians like Mourdock oppose rape exceptions because they hate women or want to control women. I think they’re totally oblivious and insensitive and can’t for a moment place themselves in the shoes of a woman who becomes pregnant from a rape. I think most don’t particularly care that their policy decisions can impact what control a woman does or doesn’t have over her own body. But if Mourdock believes that God creates all life and that to end a life created by God is murder, then all abortion is murder, regardless of the circumstances in which a pregnancy came about. 

Take a look again at Mourdock’s words: “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.” The key word here is “it.” I think it’s pretty clear that Mourdock is referring to a life that is conceived by a rape. He is not arguing that rape is the something that God intended to happen. 

This is a fairly common theological belief, the understanding of God as an active, interventionist deity. It’s also not limited to conservative Christians. There are liberal Christians who also argue that things work out the way they’re supposed to. Some of them are in my own family, and I disagree with them. But it is one way of grappling with the problem of theodicy, trying to understand why God would allow bad things to happen.

When it comes to new life, this need to believe that everything happens for a reason gets a supporting turbo-boost from several biblical teachings, including the idea that God can bring goodness out of evil. There’s also Jeremiah 1:5, a powerful and comforting verse for many Christians, which says, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” In context, the verse is God declaring that He had set aside a special role for Jeremiah as a prophet before Jeremiah was conceived. But it has been interpreted to imply that God knows and cares about each one of us, and has since before we even existed. 

Are there problems with this theology? Heck, yeah. There’s obviously some selective interpretation at work. Most Christians wouldn’t oppose, for instance, vaccinations for disease on the grounds that if God doesn’t want you to get sick, it won’t happen. And it is hard to square this interpretation of Jeremiah 1:5 with miscarriages or stillbirths or fatal birth defects. I also believe this theological orientation sets up individuals to feel besieged like Job when bad things do happen. Sometimes a test of faith is not a test of faith—it’s just a crummy turn of events.

Ultimately, if someone wants to believe that God is in control and everything works out as it’s meant to, that is fine by me. For that matter, I know plenty of people on the opposite end of the political spectrum from Mourdock who have referred to a pregnancy after long stretches of infertility as a blessing from God. But if it’s Mourdock’s choice to believe that all human life is intentionally created by God, then he needs to understand that a rape victim may not see her pregnancy in quite the same light. And if she should decide that the pregnancy is a constant reminder of her rapist that she just cannot bear, that's her choice, too.