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Bodily Autonomy and Abortion: A Strong Argument that Falls Short

Ultrasound, First Trimester

Ultrasound, First Trimester


There has been a subject that has been heavy on my heart for a long time. It was something that I’ve always wanted to talk to people about, and one of my vague goals for this blog was that it could be an outlet for that. Yet somehow, after almost two years of blogging, I’ve never devoted a post to it. I’m not sure why this is the case; it just never felt like the right time. I know what I want to say, but I never got around to saying it.

Part of the problem is that the subject in question is highly controversial, and not easily settled. But another part of it is that this subject causes me some grief to talk about. I rarely feel less powerful or less capable then when it comes to this issue. The current state of affairs is so troubling and my own inability to change it is so undeniable that I prefer not to think about it. Naturally this adds a sense of guilt to the whole subject whenever something does remind me of it.

However yesterday I saw a random post by a stranger (on a funny pictures website of all places) that got me thinking about it again. And the more I thought about it the more I wish I could talk to the person who wrote it. And the more I thought about what I would say to them the more I realized that I should share it here, on the only platform I have.

The subject is abortion. Part of the reason I feel so incapable of talking about it is the simple fact that I’m a man. I think about abortion in philosophical and ethical terms, but I will never be faced with having to bear a child that I do not want. Not to say that abortion does not affect men, because it does: but how many women would be willing to listen to what a man has to say about the rightness or wrongness of abortion? And honestly, how much right do I have to ask something of women that I’ll never have to deal with myself? Yet I feel that I can’t keep my thoughts inside for much longer. If you are a woman, please understand that I am aware of my privilege as a man in this area. I’m just going to say what I believe is true, but I understand my position.

I also understand my strengths and my fields of interest, which are logic, rhetoric, and ethics. An argument prompted me to write this, one that I hadn’t heard fully articulated before, and it is this argument that I want to discuss today. The post I saw began by giving a hypothetical scenario: your brother has a certain medical condition that requires a blood transfusion in order to save his life. As it turns out, your blood is the only blood that will work (for the sake of this scenario lets ignore whether or not this could actually happen but take it at face value). Now in this situation, even though your brother will die if he doesn’t get that transfusion, the fact is that nobody can force you to donate the blood needed to save him. That’s because you have the right of bodily autonomy: you get to choose how your body is used. Nobody can make you give your blood to another person.

The poster went on to point out that the same is true of organs. Nobody can force you to donate an organ: even after you are dead nobody can take your organs without your prior permission. Bodily autonomy is that powerful.

The argument ended by pointing out that if this is the case then nobody should be able to force someone to carry a child to term. They pointed out that this is especially the case since the ethical status of human fetuses are debatable.

The reason this argument caught my attention is because it is both a very strong argument, and at the same time an argument that seems to miss the point. What this comes down to is an argument about what is legal. As far as that goes the argument is fairly solid: it is true that nobody can legally force you to give blood to your dying brother or to carry your child to term. However I think just about everyone can agree that someone in the hypothetical situation as outlined would be wrong to not save his brother. In this case we have a situation where someone’s brother is dying, they have the power to save them through a very simple operation that will cause no permanent damage to themselves, and they refuse to do so. It’s true that I can’t force you to, but I will tell you that to refrain from giving blood in this case is unambiguously evil. To let your own brother die when it is easily in your power to save them is wrong. Imagine if the brother was not sick but instead was dangling from the edge of a cliff. Wouldn’t it be wrong to just stand there and let your brother fall to his death? I can’t make you take his hand and pull him to safety, any more than I can make you do any number of good things. That doesn’t change a fact that refusing to act in this case is wrong.

Now in this case the hypothetical person doesn’t do anything to cause his brother’s death. Letting his brother die is an evil act, but it is an act of omission and not commission. It would be another thing entirely if he was actively trying to kill his brother. If he came at his brother with a knife and tried to stab him to death, or attempted to inject him with a highly toxic substance, we wouldn’t say that we can’t force him not to. In actual fact we would be encouraged and often legally required to stop him if we were capable of doing so. Yet isn’t this the case with abortion? A hypothetical mother who does not want their child cannot simply stop providing sustenance to him or her. In order to stop sharing her body with her child she must take actions to kill that child. The child must be cut out, dismembered, injected with toxic solutions, or forced out of the body to die of exposure. Isn’t this sufficiently different than simply refusing to donate blood or organs?

Let’s look at a less ambiguous case to get perspective, a situation where the mother doesn’t have to actively pursue their child’s death but instead can simply refuse to offer aid, just as the individual in the hypothetical situation that was offered. A mother of a newborn child is in just such a situation. If she, or another individual, does not care for that child then the child will die. The child is dependent on others and that point and for many years to come. If the mother did not want to raise the child she could simply abandon it under a bush, or in a trash can, and walk away. Time will do the rest. However what’s notable is that when a mother abandons a child it is not legal. Our society understands that a mother has a responsibility to their child, to either care for it herself or give it to others who will care for it in her place. If no-one else is willing or capable of raising the child (which would not be the case in reality, but this is a hypothetical) then the mother would be forced to raise her child. This would be both legal and ethical: who among us doesn’t recognize the wrongness of a mother who abandons her child to certain death?

Finally, the post did make the claim that the ethical status of the fetus is in doubt. I have many things to say about that doubt, but I’ll save that for a later post. Instead I’d like to point out that doubt should not encourage us to act but discourage us from acting rashly. In any other situation if there is doubt whether our actions might put a human in danger the proper thing to do is refrain from acting. If a hunter hears something rustling in the bushes and has reason to believe that it might, just might, be a human and not an animal then he must not shoot until he can confirm either way. If a junkyard worker believes that there is any chance that there might be a human in the trash compacter instead of scrap metal then he must check before starting the machine. If a logger believes that there might be a person standing where he is planning on felling a tree then he must check before he cuts the tree down. If we are unsure whether or not the fetus has the same rights or ethical status as other human beings then shouldn’t we refrain from killing them as long as that remains in doubt? And we’re not talking about a 1% doubt here: there is significant doubt as far as the rights of fetuses are concerned. The country is split on the issue.

All of this boils down to the following: yes, the right of bodily autonomy is powerful, but that does not excuse us from our ethical responsibilities to other humans, especially where our close relatives are concerned. You cannot force me to save my brother, or even my child, from falling off a cliff: but how does that make the fact that I let them fall to their deaths okay?