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The video by Bill Nye, the former ‘Science Guy’ turned ‘Secular Activist Guy’, on abortion that recently made the rounds, begins with this title: “Can we stop telling women what to do with their bodies?” This reflects the most popular pro-choice argument. I say it’s high time we agree that women, like men, have basic rights over their bodies.
This article is the first of two that will examine the two primary arguments for the moral justification of abortion. They are the result of requests readers made after a previous article on the Planned Parenthood controversy that was in the news.
The two articles will involve more than explanation. They will involve critical analysis. This analysis will demonstrate that while the second argument (in the next article) gets credit for focusing on the primary moral issue in a way this first one does not, neither is ultimately satisfying as a moral basis for permitting abortion.
The Leading Argument in Defense of Abortion Rights
Here it is: A woman has a basic moral right over her own body. All sexual or medical decisions pertaining to her body are hers to make.
This is the league-leader when it comes to reasons offered in defense of abortion. Listen to any speech by a political candidate defending abortion or abortion-providers like Planned Parenthood, and this argument will be the one you hear. Take a poll asking everyday pro-choice voters to give a reason for their position, and you are sure to get this argument.
Different Expressions of the Argument
Here are a few of the recognizable ways this idea has been expressed:
- There is the old slogan “My body, my choice.”
- In recent years the term “reproductive rights” has become popular.
- The leader of the #ShoutYourAbortion movement asserted eloquently that “people with uteruses own their bodies unconditionally.”
- At rallies protesters chant things like, “Keep your politics out of my womb!”
- The signs that protesters carry offer more poetic versions of the argument. One of my favorites was likely aimed at Roman Catholics as it read “Keep the Eucharist out of my uterus.”
- The more measured approach of many politicians consists in saying, “Abortion is solely between a woman, her doctor, and her God.”
Clear Statement of the Argument
So what kind of argument is this essentially? Its focus is individual autonomy (the right of a person to make medical decisions for herself). Typically, it is described as either the right to make “reproductive” decisions (i.e. if, when, how many, etc.) or the right to make healthcare decisions pertaining to medical procedures.
To convert the implied argument into an official argument (premises and conclusion) we would frame it like this:
Premise 1: A woman has a right over her body when it comes to health care decisions and medical procedures, as well as when it comes to reproductive or family planning decisions.
Premise 2: During pregnancy a fetus is part of a woman’s body.
Conclusion: Therefore a pregnant woman has a right to decide whether to carry the fetus to term and give birth or whether to abort the fetus prior to birth.
Two Reasons This Argument Is Popular
First, we don’t want anyone telling us what we can and cannot do. Americans put a premium on individual liberty, personal rights, and entitlements. Nobody dare impede our happiness as we define it for ourselves.
Secondly and more specifically, this issue affects the the sex lives of a lot of people. In an age of promiscuity, we cannot ignore the clear link between sexual license and the accessibility of abortion. The prohibition of what is used by so many as post-reproductive birth control would cramp lifestyles.
But popularity is not a reliable indicator of the quality of an argument. The crucial question remains: Is this a good argument for the moral justifiability of abortion? To address that question, let us consider the premises from which the conclusion is drawn.
Analysis of Premise 1: A woman has a right over her body and a right to decide whether and when to have a child.
As the title of this article indicates, I grant this premise, generally speaking. We all recognize the right of adults to have the primary say regarding decisions that affect their health. None of us would want those decisions made for us. Each person possesses one body over which he or she has jurisdiction.
There are always exceptions. If, for some tragic and inexplicable reason, a man chose to mutilate his body excessively so as to threaten his own life, his right over his own body would be trumped by the moral obligation of others to protect him (in this case from himself). Still, such exceptions aside, each of us is free to make decisions regarding his own person.
Another exception, and one that strikes closer to this issue, would involve me doing something with my body that endangers, harms, or takes the life of someone else. If, in a mountain climbing accident, Billy suddenly found himself holding the rope from which Heidi is dangling over the cliff’s edge, Billy would not be morally free to do with his hand anything he wishes (i.e. let go of the rope) or with his feet anything he chooses (i.e. walk away). He is morally obligated in that instance to use his hands, feet, and any other part of him to save Heidi’s life–even if it injures his hand or otherwise inconveniences him.
Not only do I grant the part of the premise declaring a right over one’s body, I also grant the freedom of parents to make family planning decisions. What is often called “reproductive freedom” has always been afforded to couples in the free world. I don’t agree with one-child policies a la China or any other sort of state mandate dictating when to procreate and how many children to have.
Note that decisions about procreation should involve the two persons who are procreating, not just one of them. Note also that while the state should not dictate when to procreate, not all decisions to procreate are morally equal. From a Christian point of view, marriage is the only legitimate context for planning, making, and birthing a new human being. Decisions to procreate that are more random or non-traditional, such as between two friends (“with benefits”) are not morally sound, even though I don’t advocate state involvement or criminal prosecution of such decisions.
Analysis of Premise 2: A fetus is part of a pregnant woman’s body.
This premise is always assumed but rarely stated. Mention of the baby is conspicuous for its absence. The womb’s resident is the invisible person in the discussion precisely because this second premise is assumed. But is the fetus nothing more than a body part? Is this premise true?
This leads us to the fundamental moral question of abortion: What exactly is in the womb? Is it a being all its own? Is it possible that it possesses a right to life as the most essential of basic human rights?
I granted the first premise, so far as it goes, agreeing that women have rights over medical decisions pertaining to their bodies. But I contend that a reasonable person must deny the second premise. This premise is not just using a particular manner of speaking in referring to the baby as part of the woman’s body. It is not just a figure of speech. This is a reductive assertion that the baby at the fetal stage is merely a body part of the mother–nothing more. It denies that the baby is a distinct being.
Since the moral status of the developing baby is the fundamental issue, ignoring it in favor of the issue of “choice” is a mistake. It is a mistake that is common in other debates as well. Some, for example, debate the death penalty by discussing taxpayer costs while ignoring the moral concerns of retributive justice and the taking of a life. Those are weightier concerns than financial costs. As with abortion, the first question must be “Are we permitted to take a human life in this case?”
Consider it in this way: Let us grant both (a) that human beings have a basic right to life and (b) that adults have a right over their medical decisions and family planning. Now ask yourself, does the right to life of a human being supersede the right of a person to make a medical decision for herself if the two are in conflict? Which carries more weight? Which right is more fundamental —the right to choose for oneself whether to undergo a non-life-threatening medical procedure or the right not to be killed?
Premise 2 is simply false. The fetus inside the mother is a distinct human being. It is not a new organ or body part. It is certainly not of a different species. The word “fetus” should not be a hang-up. It’s simply a Latin term we have chosen to apply to a particular stage of development. And that which is developing is a human being possessing his or her own body. The fetus is a body within a body. A new body has come to exist for a new human being. And this creation of a new human being in such a brief time is part of the miracle of life itself.
Thus to prohibit an abortion is not to tell the woman what to do with her body, but rather to tell her what she may not do to her baby’s body–namely, destroy it. The woman seeking an abortion is not making a decision to do something to her body, but to do something to the new body that is within her. It would not be her body, after all, that is dismembered or discarded, nor any of her parts or organs harvested or sold.
Criminal law gives us a glimpse into the moral confusion created by the insistence that a fetus is merely a body part of the mother. If, through violence, a man causes the death of an unborn child, the crime will not be the destruction of a body part. Most U.S. states have “fetal homicide laws” under which people have been charged with murder. In 2004 a federal law was enacted known as the Unborn Victims of Violence Act. The law recognizes a child en utero as a separate and distinct victim in crimes against pregnant women.
Compare these laws with legal right of a woman to pay a professional to kill her fetus, and the only result can be moral schizophrenia enshrined into law. Like polar opposites in the same legal code, the two sides imply a flatly contradictory set of moral truths in which (a) a developing fetus is a distinct human being with a legal right not to be killed, and (b) a developing fetus is a body part of the mother that she is free to have destroyed and discarded. Wherever you stand on the issue of abortion, you realize that these two cannot both be true.
Four Challenges to My Denial that Freedom over One’s Body Justifies Abortion
Naturally, there exist challenges to the argument that I have presented. Below are four of them and my responses to them.
Challenge 1: This is a women’s issue. Men cannot and should not presume to instruct women on it.
While I suspect it is shared knowledge that females rather than males carry babies in their bodies, we have to ask if that biological feature of mammalian procreation is morally relevant to this debate. Because the primary issue one of life and death rather than personal choice, there are two problems with this challenge. First, this is not just a “women’s issue.” And second, even if it were, it would not follow that men cannot and should not discuss the ethics of abortion.
Procreation Is a Two-Person Endeavor
By nature and design one person of each gender is required. While the woman alone carries the new life during gestation, that life has sprung from both persons and carries the genes of both equally. A decision to kill the offspring of two persons at a particular stage of life cannot rest solely in the hands of only one of them simply because it is the one whose body biology has assigned to be the nine month incubator.
Not only is every new human creation the necessary genetic product of a man, most of the doctors consulting women regarding their decision to abort are men. If males ought not have any say whatsoever, it would be more honest to adopt the amended slogan that abortion is a decision that is solely between a woman, her female doctor, and her Goddess. Of course nobody holds this view very strictly. It is selective. Men who support the argument of women’s rights to abortion will be welcomed by such women to speak their minds on the issue.
This Encourages Male Irresponsibility
Furthermore, this idea plays right into the hands of the socially destructive disconnect between men and the babies they make. To rule men out of procreative court gives the worst of men a pass. It justifies deadbeat dads. Why should a man worry about sexual responsibility if reproductive decisions are the woman’s problem?
At any rate, there is no sensible reason to suppose that men in general cannot discuss and debate something as important as abortion. It is a life and death question. Does it follow that males cannot speak to the issue simply because they do not have the direct physiological experience of pregnancy? Are you disqualified from presenting an argument against slavery unless you are black or against the holocaust unless you are Jewish? If direct experience is a prerequisite for participation in a discussion, we will all find that we are henceforth forbidden from expressing opinions on a long list of issues we think are important in the world. It is a non-sequitur.
Challenge 2: What about cases of rape and/or incest?
The mention of this circumstance is nearly as frequent as the argument itself. It is presented as the ultimate unjust case of forcing a woman who has endured something traumatic to experience more ongoing trauma. Forcible procreation (rape) is tantamount to implanting a fetus into a woman’s body. Hence the analogy of the renowned violinist in the famous argument you may have heard.
The violinist is deathly ill, so desperate music lovers attach him to a woman while she sleeps so that he can share the use of her organs until he recovers. Upon waking the woman decides she is not morally obligated to let the sick man use her organs, even though disconnecting from him means he will die. In the same way, goes the argument, a women need not have her body used to support a fetus against her wishes.
As in the aforementioned case of the two hikers, I said that Billy has a moral obligation to use his body to save the life of Heidi until she can be rescued and is no longer hanging over the cliff’s edge. Presumably, in this scenario, Heidi is a friend or relative. In the other scenario the violinist is an unknown party. But what if instead of a friend or neutral party, an enemy has used abusive force to bully you into a situation like that of the violinist?
Even in that situation the violinist himself (the one you would be killing) is an innocent party. And in a case of rape, the baby is an innocent party. It isn’t a foreign invader or parasite who abusively usurped the woman’s body. Is the baby not still the biological son or daughter of the mother? This is not a case of a woman and a fetus existing in some cold, distant relation to one another. This is a mother and her baby. The deep and intrinsic nature of that relationship cannot be brushed aside. The baby is not a hostile occupant somehow aligned with the rapist. The baby is a distinct and innocent third party.
While rape and incest add an obviously negative circumstance to the nature of the pregnancy, the primary moral question is the same: does the being growing in the womb have any basic human rights (such as the right not to be killed)? In a case of rape, the woman had not planned the pregnancy nor been given a choice. But once a human being exists, this fact is its own moral issue. The moral injustice of rape has no bearing on the distinct moral question of abortion. Rape is clearly immoral, but if killing the unborn is also immoral, does the taint of the first act give license to commit the second? Is it a case in which “two wrongs make a right”?
Even as we pose such questions, we have to keep in mind that the great majority of abortions do not involve rape. Rape is invoked far out of proportion to the statistical facts.
Challenge 3: Even if the fetus is not part of the woman’s body, the woman can do what she wants with her body, including doing something that causes abortion.
What if we admit that the fetus is a distinct being within the mother’s body rather than part of it? You might assert that she is still free to do with her body what she wishes, including even the withdrawing of life support that the baby needs from her body. Technically she is making a decision about her body, but the result is the termination of her pregnancy (i.e. the murder of her baby).
But, as in the mountain climbing scenario, a human being’s life is temporarily dependent upon what you decide to do with your body. Is not your moral obligation to do that which saves that person’s life rather than that which kills the person?
Let’s be honest. In this particular case, how a woman might go about causing the death of her baby is not terribly relevant to the ethics of the situation. To find an indirect way to kill a baby is still to kill a baby. Negligent homicide is still homicide. It is still taking action (or not taking it) in order to cause the death of the being with intention and forethought. The semantics of the description may involve things done to her body and not the baby specifically. But isn’t this just sophistry?
Let’s take it further. What if a new mother chose not to use her body to nurse her newborn or provide it with formula? Could she persuade a jury that she was technically not guilty of killing him? After all, she might claim, the child’s death resulted from a lack of milk. She never laid a hand on him. By not feeding the baby, she was merely making a choice about what to do with her own body, which she decided to take to the beach for the weekend. Her body couldn’t be both at the beach and back at her house in a room, nursing or bottle-feeding a newborn several times during the day and night hours.
Challenge 4: What about cases where abortion is required to save the mother’s life?
If there is a situation in which carrying the baby will cause the death of the mother and, most likely as a result, of the baby too, a moral case for abortion can be made. If the second premise were true (a fetus is just a body part), then aborting the baby in a life-threatening situation would be akin to removing a deadly tumor. It would be an easy and obvious decision without moral complexity. Since the second premise is not true, such a circumstance requires very difficult moral deliberation if and when it ever arises.
The “if and when” is the key. A little internet reading on the subject will reveal that some experts claim that a situation like the one described here is strictly hypothetical. It never actually takes place. Others disagree and claim that, though rare, such scenarios occur at times. This latter group, however, appears to refer prominently to what are called “ectopic” pregnancies, in which the egg implants in the wrong location, and the fetus cannot develop so as to survive. The abortion performed in such cases is not the killing of a healthy fetus but the removal of an already deceased or hopelessly maldeveloped and doomed fetus. In most of these cases, the fetus dies naturally and the remains must be removed to avoid serious risk to the mother.
We should note that while the life and health of the mother are often linked, there exists a chasm of difference between the two issues, primarily because of the elasticity of the word “health.” It has been interpreted so broadly as to permit abortion because of the slightest physical discomfort or emotional distress on the part of the mother. Such a loose interpretation puts every child at every age in serious jeopardy since, at birth, a parent’s inconvenience, sacrifice, and mental/emotional exhaustion have only begun.
We should value and preserve individual rights of adults to be self-governing within the bounds of the law, to have the primary say when it comes to medical decisions, and to partner with their spouses as co-planners of their own families.
But what do these wonderful liberties have to do with taking an innocent life? Is it morally possible to justify the killing of a human being on the basis of these other rights (self-governance, medical choice, family planning)? If I feel that my toddler is jeopardizing my mental or psychological health, may I make the personal healthcare choice to be toddler-free by terminating his or her life? Likewise, if the parents of three small children determine that the family they planned and desired consisted of one son and one daughter, can they choose to terminate the “third wheel” on the basis of their reproductive rights?
The most glaring problem with this ever-popular argument for abortion rights is that it prioritizes a secondary moral issue while ignoring the primary one. The question of when, if ever, it is morally justifiable to take a human life is the number one question in this and every other potential moral debate. It is the chief ethical concern in debates about war, capital punishment, suicide, euthanasia, etc. Other moral concerns certainly exist (freedom of movement, thought, speech, and religion among so many others), but life and death trumps everything else.