My Body, My Choice? How to Defeat Bodily Autonomy Claims
By Scott Klusendorf
Does a mother have no more duty to her own child than she does a total stranger who is unnaturally hooked up to her?
Most arguments for elective abortion simply assume the unborn are not human beings. The bodily rights argument is an exception. Its central claim is that pregnant mothers have an absolute right to do whatever they want with their bodies regardless of what it does to the children they carry.
Judith Jarvis Thomson first raised the bodily rights issue in a 1971 essay titled, “A Defense of Abortion.”1 In her essay, Thomson bites the bullet: She concedes for the sake of argument the humanity of the unborn. However, she contends that no woman should be forced to use her body to sustain the life of another human being. Just as you may refuse to support a neighbor with the use of your kidney should his fail, so too a woman may refuse the use of her body to support the developing human. Thomson then presents a thought experiment:
You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist, a famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, ‘Look, we’re sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you—we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist now is plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it’s only for nine months. By then, he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.’ Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it?
There’s no mistaking Thomson’s claim: Just as one may withhold support and detach himself from the violinist, so too the mother may withhold support and detach herself from the child. Abortion is such a detachment.
Do the Parallels Work?
Thomson wants us to believe that pregnancy is similar to the mother being hooked up to the violinist. But are they truly similar in morally relevant ways? If so, Thomson’s case seems virtually unassailable. If not, the analogy fails and her argument crumbles. There are good reasons to reject Thomson’s alleged parallels.
First, we may not have the obligation to sustain strangers who are unnaturally plugged into us, but we do have a duty to sustain our own offspring. “The very thing that makes it possible to say that the person in bed with the violinist has no duty to sustain him; namely, that he is a stranger unnaturally hooked up to him, is precisely what is absent in the case of the mother and her child,” writes Stephen Schwarz.2 Gregory Koukl asks, “What if the mother woke to find herself surgically connected to her own child? “What kind of mother would willingly cut the life-support system to her two-year-old in a situation like that? And what would we think of her if she did?”3 In short, Thomson assumes a mother has no more duty to her own offspring than she does a total stranger.
Second, the child is not an intruder. He is precisely where he naturally belongs at that point in his development. If the child doesn’t belong in the mother’s womb, where does he belong? “That a woman looks upon her child as a burglar or an intruder is already an evil, even if she refrains from killing her,” writes Schwarz.4
Third, Thomson tries to justify abortion as merely the withholding of support. But it’s more—the killing of a child through dismemberment, poison or crushing. Thomson may (we assume) withhold support from the violinist; she may not actively kill him. “Assume that the woman has no duty to sustain the child,” writes Schwarz. “This means only that she has the right to withhold her support from him. It does not give her the right to kill the child—which is what abortion is. Thomson seizes on the withholding of support aspect of abortion, suppressing the deliberate killing aspect.”5
Consider the following example provided by Schwarz. I return home to find a stranger in my house who will die unless I take care of him. Assume that I have no duty to give my support. May I then throw him out even if it means tossing him off a high cliff or into a deep lake where he will drown? That I throw him out in the name of withholding support does not mean that I don’t do something else – kill him. That the woman throws the child out in the name of withholding support does not mean that she does not also do something else – kill the child.
As Francis J. Beckwith points out, “Euphemistically calling abortion the ‘withholding of support’ makes about as much sense as calling suffocating someone with a pillow the withdrawing of oxygen.”6 If the only way I can exercise my right to withhold support is to kill another human being, I may not do it.
Fourth, barring cases of rape, a woman cannot claim that she bears no responsibility for the pregnancy in the same way she bears no responsibility for the violinist. Merely going to bed at night does not naturally cause anyone to wake up attached to a total stranger. However, when a couple engages in sexual intercourse, they engage in the only possible activity that naturally leads to the formation of a child. Hence, she is not like the woman who finds herself plugged into the violinist against her own will.
No Limits Allowed
During our debate at U.C. Davis in June 2006, Dr. Meredith Williams, who performs some abortions, more or less claimed that women have an absolute right to bodily autonomy. However, during the cross-examination, she backed off that claim when I pressed her with this thought experiment from Dr. Rich Poupard:
Let’s say a woman has intractable nausea and vomiting and insists on taking thalidomide to help her symptoms. After having explained the horrific risks of birth defects that have arisen due to this medication, she still insists on taking it based on the fact that the fetus has no right to her body anyway. After being refused thalidomide from her physician, she acquires some and takes it, resulting in her child developing no arms. Do you believe that she did anything wrong? Would you excuse her actions based on her right to bodily autonomy? The fetus after all is an uninvited guest, and has no right even to life,let alone an environment free from pathogens.7
When Dr. Williams said the woman was wrong to do that, I replied: “So if the mother harms her unborn child with thalidomide that’s wrong, but if she kills it with elective abortion that’s fine? But who are you to say that? If the mother’s right to bodily autonomy is absolute, it’s none of our business what she does with the fetus, right? Like it or not, abortion-choice advocates must live with the consequences of their view. If bodily autonomy reigns supreme, no limits on abortion are acceptable. Period. Dr. Williams can’t have it both ways.
Consider a final example. In 2004, Melissa Rowland was prosecuted for refusing an emergency caesarian section to save the lives of her unborn twins. According to the hospital staff, Rowland refused the C-section because of the scar it would leave on her body. She stated she preferred to “lose one of the babies than be cut like that.” Nevertheless, emergency room doctors and nurses repeatedly tried to persuade Rowland to have the C-section, but she insisted on going outside for a smoke instead. She finally yielded to their demands, but by then it was too late: One baby died and the other required intense medical intervention to survive. The surviving twin, like his mother, tested positive for cocaine. The medical examiner’s report stated that had Rowland consented to the surgery when doctors originally urged her to, the baby would have survived.8 Rowland was subsequently charged with murder. Kim Gandy of the National Organization for Women said she was “aghast” that Rowland was criminally charged. She’s got a point. If unborn humans have no legitimate claims on their mothers’ bodies, why not let a drug addict mom avoid the scar?
1. Judith Jarvis Thomson, “A Defense of Abortion,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 1, 1971
2. Stephen Schwarz, The Moral Question of Abortion, (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1990), p. 118.
3. Gregory Koukl, “Unstringing the Violinist,” http://www.str.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5689
4. Schwarz, p. 122.
5. Schwarz, p. 116.
6. Francis J. Beckwith, Politically Correct Death: Answering Arguments for Abortion Rights (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993) p. 133.
7. Rich Poupard, “Do No Harm (Except for the Killing Thing),” http://lti-blog.blogspot.com/2007/01/do-no-harm-except-for-that-killing.html.
8. Jonathan Turley, “When Choice Becomes Tyranny: Abortion Rights Lobby Steps Over the Line in Utah,” Jewish world Review, March 23, 2004.