John Finnis, rape and the Nazis

Among the conservatives who desire a wide prohibition against abortion there is a case that has always merited special attention: rape. While some conservatives accept as morally uncontroversial the idea of abortion following rape, others want a blanket prohibition against such practice. This means that the latter group, if permitted, would outlaw abortion even for cases of rape. For example the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in their Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services states that:

“Compassionate and understanding care should be given to a person who is the victim of sexual assault. Health care providers should cooperate with law enforcement officials and offer the person psychological and spiritual support as well as accurate medical information. A female who has been raped should be able to defend herself against a potential conception from the sexual assault. If, after appropriate testing, there is no evidence that conception has occurred already, she may be treated with medications that would prevent ovulation, sperm capacitation, or fertilization. It is not permissible, however, to initiate or to recommend treatments that have as their purpose or direct effect the removal, destruction, or interference with the implantation of a fertilized ovum [emphasis added].”

 and the Guidelines for Catholic Hospitals Treating Victims of Sexual Assault by the Board of Governors of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference states:

“The deliberate destruction of an innocent living human fetus — no matter how conceived [emphasis added] — is unjustified. Sexual intercourse involved in the act of rape, on the other hand, is an unjust assault and a non-consensual act. Therefore, appropriate means may be used in treating the rape victim to prevent conception. These means, as used, may not have the effect of an abortifacient.”

The legal fight against abortion (even in rape and incest cases) stems from the (perceived) intrinsic value, or ‘sacredness’, of all human life. The standard argument is that the value of the life of the unborn trumps any other possible considerations, including how she was conceived.

It should be clear that the political outcome of this line of argument does not leave many at ease. Getting pregnant due to rape and having to bear the child because there are laws enacted that prohibit abortion is not something that draws many votes. However some conservatives (maybe trying to ease the mind of the voters?) have claimed that women should not be worried about this because the rate of rape related pregnancies is very low. For example, all the following US Republican political figures have said something along such lines when debating abortion laws:

Trent Franks has claimed that “Before, when my friends on the left side of the aisle here tried to make rape and incest the subject — because, you know, the incidence of rape resulting in pregnancy are very low,”

Todd Akin said “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

James Leon Holmes in co-authorship with his wife wrote “concern for rape victims is a red herring because conceptions from rape occur with approximately the same frequency as snowfall in Miami.”

Henry Aldridge stated “The facts show that people who are raped — who are truly raped — the juices don’t flow, the body functions don’t work and they don’t get pregnant,” “Medical authorities agree that this is a rarity, if ever.”

And finally Stephen Freind also claimed “Rape, obviously, is a traumatic experience. When that traumatic experience is undergone, a woman secretes a certain secretion, which has a tendency to kill sperm.”

To this list of US conservative politicians we must add that of legal scholar and philosopher John Finnis (and, as far as I am aware, Finnis’ claim has passed unnoticed among scholars).

There are two papers in which Finnis has asserted that “conception is much less likely to result from rape [emphasis added]” the first is in in The Good of Marriage and the Morality of Sexual Relations: Some Philosophical and Historical Observations (p. 43 of this pdf) and the second is in Law, Morality, and “Sexual Orientation” (p. 18 of this pdf). This claim also appears in the reprinted versions of these articles in Human Rights and Common Good Collected Essays Volume III. In the collected essays we can find his claim in chapter 21. Law, Morality, and ‘Sexual Orientation’, and in chapter 22. Sex and Marriage: Some Myths and Reasons (this version changed the name from the above original).

Contrary to those discussing abortion Finnis (who, by the way, is also against abortion) makes this claim while discussing his idea of marital intercourse as a two-in-one-flesh reality. He asserts:

“For a husband and wife who unite their reproductive organs in an act of sexual intercourse which, so far as they then can make it, is of a kind suitable for generation, do function as a biological (and thus personal) unit and thus can be actualising and experiencing the two-in-one-flesh common good and reality of marriage, even when some biological condition happens to prevent that unity resulting in generation of a child.”

Some pages ahead he adds:

“But it would be more realistic to acknowledge that the whole process of copulation, involving as it does the brains of the man and woman, their nerves, blood, vaginal and other secretions, and coordinated activity (such that conception is much less likely to result from rape) is biological through and through.”

What should be said about the claim that the rate of rape related pregnancies is very low? This assertion is utterly false. In point of fact, and as one instance of the research done on the subject concludes: “Rape-related pregnancy occurs with significant frequency [emphasis added]. After Todd Akin’s claim, The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists issued a statement on rape and pregnancy in which they asserted thatThere is absolutely no veracity to the claim that ‘If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to shut that whole thing down.’ A woman who is raped has no control over ovulation, fertilization, or implantation of a fertilized egg (ie, pregnancy). To suggest otherwise contradicts basic biological truths.” For other proper scientific evidence, you can click here, here or here. 

From where did such idea come about; and what role do the Nazis play? The answer can be found in an excellent article in Slate (The Nazi Anatomists) by Emily Bazelon who reports that the false idea about the low pregnancy rate resulting from rape can be traced back to the work of Nazi anatomist Hermann Stieve who worked with bodies that came from the executions taking place in the Plötzensee Prison during the Third Reich.Bazelon writes

“Stieve published 230 anatomical papers. With the data he gathered pre-execution, as well as the tissues and organs he harvested and studied, he could chart the effect of an impending execution on ovulation. Stieve found that women living with a looming death sentence ovulated less predictably and sometimes experienced what he called ‘shock bleedings.’ In a book published after the war, Stieve included an illustration of the left ovary of a 22-year-old woman, noting that she ‘had not menstruated for 157 days due to nervous agitation.” Stieve drew two conclusions that continue to be cited (for the most part, uncritically). He figured out that the rhythm method doesn’t effectively prevent pregnancy. (He got the physiological details wrong but the conclusion right.) And he discovered that chronic stress—awaiting execution—affects the female reproductive system [emphasis added].”

We might conclude that as ever, and perhaps this is a futile aspiration, we might ask that any commentary on empirical cases should be grounded in adequate evidence.

by César Palacios-González






What is wrong with artistically tattooing a dog?

So the story goes like this.

Zion (a pit-bull mix)’s spleen needs to be removed. While she is under the effect of the anaesthetic his guardian, a tattoo artist (Alex), tattooed her with “a red heart impaled with an arrow, Cupid-style, with the first name of the inker and his wife”. Afterwards he uploaded a picture of his dog’s new tattoo to Instagram and, as you may suppose, all hell broke loose.


The New York Post reports that a lot of people on Twitter got mad (nothing unusual there); that the owner of the tattoo parole where Alex used to work stated that the tattoo was not done in his shop and that he is an animal lover (implying that what Alex did was wrong?); that animal-rights advocates criticised Alex (as you might expect); and that someone from the ASPCA said that such actions were not something that the ASPCA supported. A spokeswoman from that association said: “The tattooing of an animal for the selfish joy and entertainment of its owner, without any regard for the well-being of the animal, is not something the ASPCA supports”.

There was a lot of clamour and anger (death threats included) around the story, so I thought it would be a good idea to explore and explain quite why cosmetically tattooing a dog is wrong.

Let’s start by saying that tattooing a dog is not inherently wrong. According to the RSCPA identification tattoos are an adequate form of animal identification. They mention that some the reasons for encouraging them are that:

  • Identification is the key mechanism for reuniting ‘lost’ dogs and cats with their owners.
  • Identification helps ensure that responsibility for an animal’s behaviour can be correctly attributed, for example in the event of a dog attack.
  • Visible identification discourages cruelty, theft and fraud, thus helping safeguard the welfare of the animal.
  • By clearly connecting owner and pet, identification can reduce the likelihood of abandonment and encourage owners to take responsibility for their animal’s behaviour.
  • Identification can be an essential component of legislative systems that seek to ensure owners take adequate responsibility for their animals.


This being the case, some could claim that there is no difference between Zion’s tattoo and other types of dog’s identification tattoos. This would mean that if the people that perform identification tattoos on dogs do not do anything morally wrong, then Alex also did not do anything wrong when he tattooed Zion.

Even when some could find this exculpatory reason compelling I think that there are two problems with it: a problem about how identification tattoos function, and a problem about tattooing itself.

Identification tattoos

First, if what morally justifies dogs suffering the experience of getting an identification tattoo (that involves a painful procedure, discomfort, the risk of infections, and where the site of the tattoo can take up to three weeks to heal) is that such branding will help them be reunited with their owners, then it is not clear that Zion’s tattoo could be defended on this grounds. Why? Because Zion’s tattoo cannot be considered as an identification tattoo- it does not fulfil two necessary characteristics that an identifying tattoo should possess: i) lasting visibility and ii) adequacy to the norms of a unified registry.

Zion’s tattoo is not located in a place that fulfils the lasting visibility requirement. It should be obvious that her shoulder hair will grow back to its original length and will make the tattoo less visible or not visible at all (although only time will tell). Having this in mind the RSPCA recommends that identification tattoos are done either in the inside surface of the ear pinna or the inside thigh of a rear leg.

Second, and more importantly, Zion’s tattoo is arbitrary in the sense that there is no way in which someone could use it to go to a register and find who is Zion’s owner and how to contact him. It is true that Zion’s case is popularly known but this is not a warranty that someone could actually find Zion’s owner in the case that she gets lost (there is no full name, address and telephone that can be retrieved by only searching her tattoo in a registry). In point of fact the RSPCA warns that: “Owned companion animal tattoos can often be arbitrary or illegible marks, with no useful function for identification.” Identification tattoos only work because there is a standardized numeric or alphanumeric system and a centralised registry that keeps the information associated with each number. Being this the case we can conclude that the lack of lasting visibility and the tattoo arbitrariness means that Alex cannot justify his actions by suggesting that Zion’s tattoo is an extravagant type of identification tattoo.


Artistically (or cosmetically) tattooing a dog is wrong because it is an unnecessary procedure that causes discomfort and pain for no other reason than the joy and entertainment of a person. It is unnecessary in the sense that the tattoo does not promote the dog’s interests but only brings harm to it.  It should be obvious that it is morally wrong to wantonly cause suffering to sentient beings.

Someone could defend Alex’s actions by saying two things: first that actually Zion was under the effects of the anaesthetic while being tattooed and therefore she did not suffer and second that people that perform identification tattoos also cause pain to those who are being tattooed and we do not think that they are doing something morally wrong.

Let’s grant, for sake of argument, that Zion did not suffer while being tattooed. I think that even if we grant this Alex’s actions are still wrong because the pain caused by being tattooed is not limited to the tattooing process, but it extends to the healing period (as anyone with a tattoo knows). This means that while Zion’s new tattoo was healing (over up to three weeks) she was enduring unnecessary pain and discomfort (additional to the pain and discomfort caused by the surgery).

In order to address the second point it is important to remember that we have said that the moral justification for tattooing a dog (considering all the welfare implications that we have mentioned) is that the pain to which it is subjected while being tattooed is outweighed by the benefits that an identification tattoo brings about. It is a really good trade-off for a dog to suffer the whole tattoo process in exchange of easy identification and reunion with his owner; instead of being locked in a shelter and afterwards euthanized (if not rehoused rapidly). Alex’s actions cannot be justified on the previous terms because Zion’s tattoo would not help her be reunited with him.

What was wrong with Alex’s action is that Zion was subject to a lengthy, painful and discomforting recovery (that involves risk of infections) only for the joy and entertainment of its owner, and this is clearly a terrible trade-off for the dog. As Zion’s guardian Alex should have known better that putting his joy and entertainment before Zion’s interests. If Alex wanted to express his creativity using Zion as canvas then he could have used something that did not harm the dog as a tattoo does. For example, he could have used a washable colour spray for painting dogs like the one that PetPaint, offers.


Finally it is important to realise and bear in mind that I am not saying or suggesting that Alex is a really bad person who does not care for Zion. For example compare Zion’s history with Petey’s, who apart from being tattooed was neglected and abused. I think that someone who spends thousands of dollars to keep his dog alive and well is commendable. What happened in Alex’s case is that he made a bad decision, that in fact is morally reprehensible, but that does not say that in general he is a bad guardian.


by @CPalaciosG