A version of the following article first appeared in the November-December 2016 issue of MCCL News.
Abortion is justified, many of its defenders argue, because women have a right to control their own bodies. "My body, my choice," signs and bumper stickers proclaim. The bodily autonomy argument takes a few different forms. None, however, are successful.
Some people think that the unborn (the human embryo or fetus) is a mere part of the woman's body. But science, of course, has established that the unborn—though physically dependent on and inside of the mother—is a distinct, self-developing individual with his or her own DNA, brain, arms and legs, etc. Abortion attacks and kills the body of someone else.
Other people believe that even though the unborn is a distinct human organism, a pregnant woman should be able to decide what happens in or to her body. Whereas many arguments for abortion contend that the human being in utero is not a "person" with intrinsic value and rights, this argument holds that abortion is permissible regardless of whether or not the child is a valuable person.
The Sovereign Zone argument
Trent Horn helpfully distinguishes between two variations of this approach. The first version, which he calls the "Sovereign Zone" argument, claims that a woman has an absolute right to do whatever she wants with anything that is inside her body. And the unborn child—even if she is a human person—is currently within that sovereign zone.
But sovereignty cannot be absolute. Consider an analogy: May we do whatever we want with anything that is on our private property? May we attack or kill innocent people who are passing through or seeking refuge? No, we must respect the rights of other people. "Mere ownership," acknowledges pro-choice philosopher Mary Anne Warren, "does not give me the right to kill innocent people whom I find on my property." And so it is with pregnancy.
May a pregnant woman ingest drugs that she knows will cause her child to be deformed or disabled? Clearly not. And if knowingly harming the child is wrong, killing her (through abortion) is even worse. Bodily autonomy is important, but there are obvious limits to that autonomy when someone else's body is also involved.
The Right to Refuse argument
The second, more sophisticated version, which Horn calls the "Right to Refuse" argument, was first introduced by moral philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson in 1971. It contends that a woman has a right to refuse to let the unborn child use her body to survive. Just as a person is not obligated to donate an organ to save the life of someone else, the pregnant woman is not obligated to provide her uterus (and the sustenance and protection it affords) to her child.
This argument has enormous problems. Abortion, in the vast majority of cases, is not merely the withholding or withdrawing of "life support" from the unborn child—it is the intentional and active killing of that child, often by dismemberment. This killing violates the child's right to life (the right not to be intentionally killed) and right to bodily integrity. Indeed, "if people have a right to bodily integrity and so do not have a duty to donate a kidney," writes philosopher Christopher Kaczor, "then people in utero have a right not to have their bodily integrity fatally violated through abortion."
Moreover, even if abortion were not intentional killing (i.e., if it were simply a refusal to aid the child by removing her from the womb), abortion would still be wrong because a pregnant woman does have an obligation to allow her baby to live and grow in the womb. Here's why.
First, the father and mother, except in cases of rape, willingly engaged in an activity that caused (and is biologically ordered to) the creation of a new, dependent human being. So they bear responsibility for the resulting child.
Second, parents have special obligations to their dependent offspring that they do not have to others. Fathers, for example, must pay child support even if they did not intend or desire to become fathers. Parents may not abandon their children or refuse to provide for their needs (though they may relinquish those obligations through adoption).
Indeed, more generally, "we are by nature members of communities," explains ethicist Patrick Lee. "[O]ur flourishing involves being in communion with others. And communion with others of itself—even if we find ourselves united with others because of a physical or social relationship which precedes our consent—entails duties or responsibilities."
Parental obligation may not require extraordinary acts (like donating a kidney), but it does require basic, ordinary care, such as the nourishment and shelter provided during pregnancy. If unborn children are valuable members of the human family, like born children, then the same parental duties that apply after birth are present beforehand as well.
Third, the purpose of the uterus is to gestate the unborn child—it is where that child belongs. All human beings, during their prenatal stages of development, rely on it for care and protection. "The uterus exists for the unborn child rather than for the mother," notes Stephanie Gray. It is reasonable to think that a child has a right to live in her natural environment.
Finally, even apart from the other reasons, a moral obligation seems to arise when we alone are in a position to provide ordinary care (food and shelter) to someone who needs it to survive. "Suppose you live in a cabin far out in the wilderness, cut off from civilization by extreme distance and weather for much of the year, say, nine months," writes Mathew Lu, a philosophy professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. "One day you return to the cabin to discover that an infant has been left at the door without explanation. … Do you have an obligation to care for the infant, who will surely die if you do not take it in?"
Most people would say yes. "[W]e have a general obligation to protect the vulnerable, and a special obligation towards those we contingently encounter," Lu concludes.
Bodily rights do not justify abortion
The right to control one's body does not justify the intentional killing of others. Nor does it nullify our obligations to the youngest and most vulnerable members of the human family.
Indeed, the autonomy argument turns common sense and justice upside down. The unique nature of pregnancy—the bodily dynamic between an unborn child and her mother—is not, as the argument supposes, a reason to think that killing or neglect is permissible. It is, instead, a reminder that human beings are connected to and dependent on each other.
"The so-called right to abortion has … sown violence and discord at the heart of the most intimate human relationships," observed Mother Teresa of Calcutta. "It has portrayed the greatest of gifts—a child—as a competitor, an intrusion, and an inconvenience. It has nominally accorded mothers unfettered dominion over the independent lives of their physically dependent sons and daughters."
This "unconscionable power," Mother Teresa said, must be rejected. Both mother and child deserve respect, protection, and care.