Very often when pro-lifers engage in conversation on the issue of abortion, it doesn’t take long before some variation of the following argument is heard: It ultimately doesn’t matter if abortion kills a valuable member of the human family, because you cannot force anyone to use their body to sustain the life of another person, even if said person possesses a right to live.
While we here at LTI have written previously on the issue, it’s worth visiting several points that should be made in response by pro-life advocates.
First, when confronted with the assertion “You can’t force me to use my body to sustain someone else” or “You can’t make me keep it in my body” a simple two-word response will be appropriate here:
What reasons has our critic given us for accepting their claim? The answer is none whatsoever. Our critic just asserted an idea in hopes that it will be accepted without question. They haven’t provided a reason for why their claim should be accepted as true. After all, what if pregnancy is the exception to the rule, and the only time we can justly require someone to use their body to sustain the life of another person, namely their own child? More on this in a moment.
When it comes to bodily rights arguments, most will often rely on examples of forced donation of one’s bodily tissues or organs, or being required to remain connected to another person for a duration of time while they recover from an ailment.
These arguments have been addressed by pro-life scholars for years in both popular and scholarly level works. However, there is one issue that we will focus on here.(1)
For many people, including pro-life advocates, it makes sense to say that it is unjust to require someone to either donate an organ or use their body itself on behalf of another person. This is the principle underlying many appeals based on bodily autonomy, including Judith Jarvis Thomson’s Violinist thought experiment or David Boonin’s more recent argument looking at McFall v. Shimp.
While others have responded to these arguments in depth, it might be helpful to take a step back and see why they have an appeal. Take Thomson’s argument. You wake up in bed connected to a famous violinist who is suffering from a kidney ailment and needs to remain connected to you otherwise he will die. Are you obligated to remain connected to him, even if you don’t want to? Most people would say no, you do not, and Thomson(among others) would agree. It would be unjust, which means conversely that abortion, the unplugging from another human being, is unjust to restrict if a woman doesn’t want to remain pregnant.
There is a problem lurking beneath the surface that deserves to be fleshed out. Thought experiments regarding bodily autonomy tend to treat pregnancy as a unique, singular event in the realm of human experiment. In Thomson’s Violinist example(among others), the woman who finds herself connected to the Violinist is likely the only person who has ever found herself in this situation. Same goes for most other examples.
What if we changed the scenario slightly? Suppose in Thomson’s fictional world, people find themselves connected to miniature violinists on a regular basis. Furthermore, every single human being who has ever lived(including Thomson, Boonin, and other Bodily Autonomy proponents) has spent a portion of their lives as a “Violinist”. Suppose human beings were physiologically oriented in such a way that, during the course of human development, at two years of age children re-connected to their parents for a nine month period before naturally disconnected and going about their lives. This has happened billions of times throughout recorded history to every human being(in this fictional world) who has ever existed and shows no signs of changing on it’s own.
Now, would the Bodily Rights appeal of the Violinist scenario seem as intuitive when seen in this broader context? It’s doubtful. It’s likely people in this fictional setting would demand a greater justification to kill a Violinist through disconnecting, especially given because the woman in this scenario was herself a violinist who received care earlier in life.
This brings us back to the issue of abortion. Most Bodily Autonomy appeals fail to take into account that pregnancy is a natural, normal event, perhaps one of the most common of all human experiences. While not every person has or will be pregnant(men, for instance) every person who has ever thought about abortion(including proponents of bodily rights arguments) has been an unborn human.
Which brings us to the point: Most bodily autonomy arguments rely on our intuitions when applied to extreme, uncommon scenarios to describe something very normal and common. Provided, pregnancy brings with it a whole host of challenges that can vary from person to person, but nevertheless, it is a common human experience. Every society in recorded history has acknowledged the uniqueness of fertility and childbearing in the realm of human experience; it is the framing of childbearing as something so unnatural that raises problems for the bodily rights analogies, problems that shouldn’t be overlooked. After all, human bodies do tend to be physiologically oriented towards creating and sustaining the lives of our own children.
One last thought on the matter, suppose you wake up and find yourself in the Violinist position, relying on someone else for your survival. They never agreed to the arrangement, nor did you.
Do you have an obligation to die in order to free this other person from the burden you had no say in causing? It seems odd to say that you would. In addition, if you have no obligation to use your body to sustain the life of another person, it seems even more extreme to say you do have an obligation to die in situations where their life is not in jeopardy.
However, if you have no obligation to die in this scenario, it seems obvious that you have no right to force someone else to die so you may free yourself from the burden of caring for them for a period of time. Applied to abortion, this would mean that people have no right to require another human being to die so as to be free from the burden of caring for them.
1. A few helpful works include The Ethics of Abortion by Christopher Kaczor, The Ethics of Pregnancy, Abortion and Childbearing by Helen Watt, Defending Life by Francis Beckwith, and Agency, Pregnancy, and Persons edited by Nicholas Colgrove and Daniel Rodger