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Published: June 29, 2012 12:15 am to Opinion Column

Parenthood, responsibility, and bodily autonomy

For pro-lifers, debating abortion is pretty simple: explain that the unborn are just as alive and human as the rest of us, assert that therefore they have the same basic rights we do, and challenge our opponents to articulate a coherent principle that makes them killable but not the rest of us. Personally, I’ve found that I almost instinctively respond to pro-aborts’ arguments by picking apart their proposed differences between the pre-born and post-birth people.

That’s all well and good – human equality is the heart of why abortion is unjust, after all – but I’m beginning to wonder if that focus is leading us to devote too little attention to another point: the unique relationship between parent and child, and the unique responsibilities it entails.

Abortion defenders looking to sidestep the facts of embryology and the question of personhood turn to a different argument: bodily autonomy. The theory is that the mother’s authority over her body entails her right to deny whomever she wants – even the baby growing within her – the use of her body parts. Sorry if you can’t survive on your own yet, sweetie, the argument goes, but I don’t owe you anything. That blood passing through your umbilical cord? Mine, not yours.

The argument’s strategic value is obvious: it doesn’t depend on any claims about fetal life or personhood, and it frames the issue as a matter of simple self-defense, inviting comparisons to a homeowner’s right to evict intruders with lethal force. But scratch the surface, and the holes become apparent. Among them are the mother’s role in creating that “intruder,” the fact that the baby’s mere existence isn’t an act for which he or she is culpable, the complete lack of proportionality between nine months of pregnancy and permanent death, and the fact that the baby’s death isn’t incidental to abortion; it’s the direct, intended result.

But perhaps most importantly, the bodily autonomy justification for abortion treats mother and child as if they were a random pairing of any two individuals, instead of, well, mother and child. Proponents callously speak of their own potential offspring as strangers to be disposed of and forgotten.

This logic strikes at the heart of our moral intuitions that recognize parenthood as a sacred trust, incomparable to any other human relationship, and contradicts the way American society has enshrined those intuitions in law for all children already born.

Generally speaking, the law holds parents responsible for both the well-being (PDF link) of their children and for the harm they do (PDF link), complete with legal penalties. These responsibilities are severable only through adoption or denial of custody. Virtually no Americans question the legitimacy of this arrangement.

We all accept parents’ responsibility for their children’s health and safety after birth; if a baby is the same child before birth, how can a parent’s duty be any less? We can be required to provide our children food and punished for letting them be harmed, but we can’t be prevented from intentionally killing them in the womb? Once they exist, we have no obligation to let them reach birth?

America’s long-held love of individualism is unquestionably one of the key blessings behind our nation’s incomparable freedom and prosperity. But we sometimes forget that, like any other good, individualism must be kept in perspective and balanced against other goods. Insisting that bodily autonomy stops at the abortionist’s door doesn’t make women slaves or take over women’s bodies; it merely affirms that no individual is the center of the universe, that not all our desires can come at the expense of others…especially not our own sons and daughters.

About Calvin Freiburger

Calvin Freiburger is a Wisconsin-based conservative writer and 2011 Hillsdale College graduate, dedicated to the principles of the American Founding—individual liberty, limited government, public virtue, and strong defense—though he believes no issue is more important to a free society’s survival than defending the unalienable rights of society’s most vulnerable members. Calvin was previously a regular contributor to NewsRealBlog.com and the Hillsdale Forum, and now also writes for PatriotUpdate.com. His work has also appeared on LifeNews.com, LifeSiteNews.com, RightWisconsin.com, AmericanThinker.com, and his personal blog (rightcal.blogspot.com). In high school and beyond, he aided the pro-life cause both as a volunteer for Pro-Life Wisconsin and as a member of HeartBeat Teens, a Fond du Lac County pro-life youth group.


View all posts by Calvin Freiburger

  • Stoneybrooke

    So, would you force a mother or father to donate a kidney to his or her ailing child? Of course, most of them would do so in a heartbeat, but if they didn’t want to, would you actively force them to do so? Their child would die, otherwise. The proportionality is even less than that with pregnancy–the recovery time is much shorter than nine months.

    • http://twitter.com/CalFreiburger Calvin Freiburger

      No, I wouldn’t be comfortable forcing a parent into an organ transplant. But just because she doesn’t have to go the extra mile to *save* her child, it doesn’t follow that we must allow her to *intentionally kill* her child. Your example would be more akin to saying that, because we wouldn’t prosecute parents who choose not to rush into burning buildings to find their kids, therefore we can’t place *any* obligations on them for their children’s care. 

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=57508266 Beth Presswood

        If she doesn’t have to donate blood or an organ, then she should be able to remove the fetus that is trying to use that organ.

        • http://twitter.com/CalFreiburger Calvin Freiburger

          Why?

      • Stoneybrooke

        That doesn’t make any sense. Not donating an organ will kill the child as surely as removing the fetus will kill the fetus. Abortion removes a fetus and it dies because it can’t survive without use of the woman’s body, protecting bodily autonomy at the expense of a fetus. Refusing to donate a kidney protects bodily autonomy at the expense of an actual child that the parent presumably knows and cares for, and who knows what’s happening, is suffering, and wants to live. I think that’s far worse, actually. Forcing a woman to carry a fetus to term is absolutely forcing her to “go the extra mile” to “save” the fetus. Do you know what pregnancy can do to a woman? http://www.thelizlibrary.org/liz/004.htm

        Not running into a burning building is a different thing, since there’s a much shorter period of time in which to make a decision and the risk to the parent’s body would be much greater. Although according to what you’ve said above, the parent should be willing to give up control of their body and risk permanent harm in order to save their offspring. 

        • http://twitter.com/CalFreiburger Calvin Freiburger

          That seems to me a rather convoluted understanding of cause-efffect relationships. And I think your attempt to contrast the fetus with “an actual child” gets to the real heart of the issue: You’re comfortable saying bodily autonomy is a license to kill because you consider preborn people unequal to post-birth people. If you truly accepted they were the same, would you be so comfortable saying mothers have the option to kill them?

          • Stoneybrooke

            I say they’re different because they are, especially at the point when most abortions occur. I also like to use correct terminology, like “fetus” versus “infant” or “child”. But I don’t want to get into that, because you’re obviously only bringing it up because you want to deflect the actual argument. 

            I’m saying that a pregnant woman should have the same rights to her body as the parent of a born child, even if it means the child dies. It’s not pretty, and I’d like to believe that most parents would give both kidneys to save their child if it came down to that, but you’re actually making quite a big distinction of your own here: fetuses have unlimited rights to their mothers’ bodies, but once babies are born, they’re cut off. Why do you think fetuses have the right to use their parents’ bodies despite their objections, but not babies or children?

          • http://twitter.com/CalFreiburger Calvin Freiburger

            They’re different in some respects, but not in any respect that changes their essential nature or their basic human rights. And I’m not deflecting anything; you’re the one who introduced the belief that there’s a difference into your argument. So I repeat the question: if you accepted that mother and fetus were equally living people, would you be so comfortable asserting that the former should be able to kill the latter?

            Dolce has a good explanation above of the problem with the rest of your argument. And I’m scratching my head trying to figure out how *one* right – not to be intentionally killed while developing – constitutes *unlimited* rights.

          • Stoneybrooke

            You’re still not answering my question. If you say that abortion (denying offspring the use of one’s body) is intentionally killing a fetus, then refusing to donate a kidney (denying offspring the use of one’s body) is intentional killing as well. 

            And during pregnancy, the fetus does have unlimited rights to the woman’s body, often making her sick and sometimes leaving her with permanent health problems. What part about that is difficult to understand?

          • http://twitter.com/CalFreiburger Calvin Freiburger

            I think your insistence that declining to risk one’s self to save someone is morally identical to intentionally acting to kill someone is something that many would take issue with.

            And hey! Speaking of unanswered questions … if you accepted that mother and fetus were equally living people, would you be so comfortable asserting that the former should be able to kill the latter?

          • Guest

            You’re comfortable saying bodily autonomy is a license to kill because you consider preborn people unequal to post-birth people.  If you truly accepted they were the same, would you be so comfortable saying mothers have the option to kill them?

            In the first two paragraphs of your post, you said that the point of this column is to not engage in the question of whether the “pre- and post-born” have the same rights, but rather, to focus on the “unique responsibilities” of parenthood. No one has the right to kill a “post-birth person,” and so asking ad
            nauseam whether a mother has the right to kill a child does nothing to attain your stated goals for this discussion.

            My thoughts:

            We are all agreed that parents have a unique obligation to use the fruit of their bodily labors to obtain food and shelter for their children, and to dedicate their bodily energies towards protecting their children from harm.  But when we discuss “bodily autonomy” and pregnancy, we are talking about the literal use of one’s flesh and blood.  The only valid postpartum analogy to pregnancy is organ and tissue donation.  So, let’s do a simple analogy: a bone marrow donation.  It’s painful and invasive, but safer than pregnancy, and unlike a kidney, bone marrow replenishes itself.  Donating marrow is not “going the extra mile” for a child; it’s running a painful 100-yard dash.  A court has ruled (McFall v. Shimp) that an individual cannot be compelled to donate bone marrow against his will, but that case involved cousins, not a parent and child.

            I’m assuming that you would argue a judge can order that a man’s wages be garnished for child support if he refuses to pay it voluntarily.  Do you believe a judge should also be able to order that the man’s bone marrow be harvested for his terminally ill child if he refuses to do it voluntarily? 

            If you believe that yes, the father’s bone marrow can be harvested against his will, then I guess you need to sort out in your own mind what is the difference between a kidney and marrow donation, and then explain why pregnancy is closer to the latter than the former.  If you believe that no, the father’s marrow cannot be harvested against his will, then you’ll know that you “instinctively” debate abortion from the fetal-rights perspective because you don’t believe that the “unique parental responsibility” argument is a compelling one. 

          • http://twitter.com/CalFreiburger Calvin Freiburger

            First, your accusation is simply untrue. I didn’t call for making one argument to the exclusion of the other. I’m pretty upfront about the fact that all my arguments and opinions are contingent upon the fetus’s full moral equality to any other human being, and if that proposition isn’t true, then everything else needs to be reevaluated.

            The reason why I returned to it here is obviously because Stoneybrooke introduced that question into the conversation, with no prodding from me. The reason it’s appropriate to consider here is equally obvious: how can we assess our obligations to something in certain situations if we can’t first agree on how to weigh that something in the first place? Indeed, that “No one has the right to kill a ‘post-birth person’” is
            exactly the point: we recognize that the beginning of all our obligations to others is not intentionally killing the innocent, regardless of how much hardship they cause us (and lots of mothers would tell you the hardship of parenthood isn’t necessarily lessened by the physical link to their kids no longer being there). Bodily autonomy may or may not outweigh that judgment, but before comparing the two judgments, we need to know whether we’re weighing each correctly.

            Second, it’s telling that you have to spend most of the rest of your comment talking about an extreme example like bone marrow harvesting instead of pregnancy. The latter isn’t some unforeseen emergency circumstance; it’s the natural result of the body functioning correctly, and THE prerequisite for all our existences. Though disease can be associated with it, it itself is not a disease, and should not be thought of as one.

            Just because parents don’t have to go to extremes to save someone, it doesn’t follow that they therefore have the right to intentionally kill him or her , even if that person is mooching off your bodily resources. The line we draw is quite simple and clear, and I’ve yet to hear an argument as to why it’s unreasonable or unjust: the duty of parenthood begins with not intentionally killing your child. We’re prohibiting the mother from taking action dangerous to the baby, but we’re not compelling her to take any action dangerous to herself.

            (And before you respond by invoking pregnancies that really do threaten their mothers, consider that pro-lifers are actually quite reasonable/consistent/accommodating on that front: even the “no exceptions” wing of the movement usually allows women to be saved from truly life-threatening pregnancies at the unintended expense of the baby’s life:
            http://liveactionnews.org/human-rights/a-student-interviews-josh-brahm-on-fetal-pain-the-inhumanity-of-abortion-in-what-scenario-would-he-perform-an-abortion/)

          • Guest

            First, your accusation is simply untrue.

            When people are engaged in a debate about ideas, Calvin, parsing someone’s logic is not an “accusation.”  It is an intellectual exercise.  When you posted an argument different from that which you usually make, I thought that you wanted to discuss rather than declaim, and I responded accordingly.  That was stupid of me, and I apologize for misreading your intentions.

          • http://twitter.com/CalFreiburger Calvin Freiburger

            I meant no connotation to go along with “accusation”; I was using it interchangeably with assertion, claim, etc. Take your pick.

    • Dolce

      This argument seems flawed to me in one obvious way – once the child is conceived through a consensual act of sex, the so-called “donation” has already been completed (i.e.: the child is already growing within its mother, through no fault of its own). If you want to draw a better comparison between pregnancy and organ donation, the mother or father would have already donated a kidney to their ailing child, but then would have decided that they didn’t want to donate after all. The child would then have to undergo another surgery to remove the kidney that is already within him. Would you support a person who donates an organ, but then demands to have his organ returned to him after the donation has already been completed?

      • Microbiologychick

        No, pregnancy is not a completed donation. It is a continuous drain. It is analogous to deciding to stop giving ongoing blood transfusions to your hemophiliac child or something.

  • http://twitter.com/CalFreiburger Calvin Freiburger

    I can see a potential area of confusion, so I’ll clarify it right away: by “their own potential offspring,” I’m referring to whatever babies debaters might have in the future. I do NOT mean to suggest that debaters who are *already* pregnant are merely carrying “potential” lives. Preborn human life is actual, not potential.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=57508266 Beth Presswood

    Wrong! We do not invalidate parents’ bodily rights to care for born children. It is illegal to force them to donate kidneys or blood.

  • Heicart

    > the bodily autonomy justification for abortion treats mother and child as if they were a random pairing of any two individuals, instead of, well, mother and child…

    This is actually how the law defines it, not some trick pro-choice debaters use to subvert anything. But even so, body donations from a parent would also require consent, which can also be withdrawn. If a person who can’t survive autonomously–even your own born child–needs your body to survive, then you don’t have to donate it. Or you can agree to, and withdraw consent. Additionally, the point about being responsible for creating the child fails, as all parents–even those of born children–have created their children, and if their child has a genetic defect (that they would also be “responsible” for in the same way), the law does not compel them to make body/tissue donations to save the child’s life.

    • http://twitter.com/CalFreiburger Calvin Freiburger

      First, you can’t just say an argument fails simply because the law doesn’t currently reflect it. That’s like saying abortion should be legal because it is legal – it’s entirely circular.

      Second, my point is that even as we recognize that their are limits to a parents’ legal obligations to a child, we also recognize that the other direction isn’t unlimited, either – there are things that parents must do, too. Why should bodily autonomy be immune from drawing distinctions between helping at great risk on one end of the spectrum and intentionally harming at the other end? Just because there are extremes we won’t go to doesn’t mean there aren’t minimums we can set.

      • Guest

        Following up on my earlier comment:

        Why should bodily autonomy be immune from drawing distinctions between helping at great risk on one end of the spectrum and intentionally harming at the other end?

        Personally, I believe that the essence of freedom is the legal protection of your right to not have your body used against your will.  I could be convinced that there are circumstances under which that right can be superseded, as is the case with all rights, but that’s a binary conceptualization of rights: the only spectrum that exists are the spectra of the circumstances under and the degree to which the right to bodily autonomy can be overridden.  (Hypothetical examples would be concluding that a rape victim may have an abortion post-viability but another woman cannot, or that a parent may be compelled to donate a pint of blood but not a kidney).  I think my general conceptualization of the issue is probably comparable to that of others who support abortion rights on the grounds of bodily autonomy, though everyone’s spectra of degrees and circumstances will be different.

        The way that you’re framing the issue indicates that you are conceptualizing “bodily autonomy” along a different spectrum, and that spectrum includes “The right to bodily autonomy is not relevant in this circumstance” at the far end.  That may or may not be what you believe, but it is how your beliefs are coming across.  I’m certainly not trying to convince you to accept my beliefs about freedom: I’m just saying that if you genuinely wanted to have an honest debate with a pro-choicer about “bodily autonomy,” you should know that you probably are not speaking the same language.

        • http://twitter.com/CalFreiburger Calvin Freiburger

          “I could be convinced that there are circumstances under which that right can be superseded, as is the case with all rights.”

          Yeah, that’s the same standard I hold all rights to: it’s superseded the minute your exercise of that right infringes on the rights of another. if exercising bodily autonomy consists of intentionally killing someone else, then it’s unjust in that circumstance.

          This is where pro-choicers usually respond with “but the fetus infringed first.” But that doesn’t work either, because of my aforementioned points about existence vs. volition, proportionality of the response, and (in most cases) the mother’s role in creating that child to begin with.

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  • Colleen

    I remember once discussing abortion and the concept of viability with my teenage son.  He had never heard the pro-choice argument of viability before, and he couldn’t wrap his head around it.  The idea that a fetus merits no protection because it can’t survive on its own made no sense to him. “Shouldn’t it be the opposite?” he asked innocently. Actually, yes, it should be. Some might think, since I am pro-life, that I had brainwashed him into that mindset. But we had not discussed abortion more than once or twice before that.  I was struck by his candid reaction to the issue.  

  • BLAH

    Found this article: http://www.cracked.com/article_19893_the-6-weirdest-things-that-statistically-lower-crime_p2.html

    I know its going to make some people angry but its a valid point in my opinion.

    • http://twitter.com/CalFreiburger Calvin Freiburger

      1.) It’s completely off-topic.

      2.) It’s a *highly* suspect theory:  http://www.isteve.com/freakonomics_fiasco.htm

      3.) It no more determines the rightness of abortion than the rightness of racial genocide would be determined by a study suggesting “getting rid of minority group X would reduce crime.”

      • BLAH

        1) You talk about parental responsibility in your article. A lot of women have abortions because they feel they are not in the best situation in which to bring a child into the world, such as poverty.

        2) Way to find a website that supports your point of view.

        3)  Abortion was legalized in the 70′s and peaked in the 80′s. Crime has dropped significantly through the 90′s and 2000′s. Most women who had abortions were impoverished women. There has to be some kind of connection there.

        People who are born into poverty turn to crime out of desperation and poverty is extremely hard to work out of which means the cycle just continues.

        Like the article says, it’s not about eugenics, it’s about circumstances. Your race doesn’t make you a criminal, it’s the situtation you’re put in and the people who influence you.

        • Dolce

           So basically, what you are saying here is that by killing those who are likely to be born into poverty and grow into criminals, we have eliminated crime.

          Replace “likely to be born into” with “growing up in” and you can see how awful that argument sounds to someone who is pro-life, since we consider ALL humans to have equal value and deserving of respect. Killing poor people is NOT an acceptable solution to poverty. And the idea of eliminating poor people is what eugenics was born out of.

          Never mind that linking abortion to crime rates is not exactly the easiest thing to do. There are many other factors that likely influenced crime reduction.

          • BLAH

            1) See my previous point #1

            2) No pro-choicer would ever suggest to a poor pregnant woman that the only solution is to have an abortion. By supporting abortion it just means that pro-choicers believe it is an option that a woman should have whether she is rich or poor and for whatever reason she feels is appropriate.

          • grdawg

            Why should we suggest to women that they have the option to kill an innocent baby – for a “good” reason, bad reason, or no reason at all? We certainly wouldn’t apply this standard to any other human being.

          • BLAH

            If it’s before the fetus is viable then I am fine with a woman making her own choice to terminate a pregnancy.

            Pregnancy is difficult and life changing and I happen to believe that women should have an option whether or not to have one. If the woman has the baby and then decides she doesn’t want it then there is always adoption or foster care. We don’t yet have the technology to transplant pregnancies into other people.

          • grdawg

            The problem is that the woman’s “option” occurs when she chooses to have sex. (And no, I am not a pro-lifer who only believes in procreative sex FYI. I happen to believe there are more purposes and reasons for sex than procreation.) But, my point is that she is choosing to engage in an activity that may create a new human being. You can’t help create a new person and then decide they’re inconvenient and kill them. That’s plain out wrong.

            Viability is a bad standard because it is always changing. Plus, again, if we applied that standard to humans outside the womb, we’d be killing plenty of people who can’t “live on their own.” Including, by the way, newborn babies. The standard has to be the moment a human being begins to exist…that’s the only unmovable one.

          • BLAH

            So I guess if a woman wants to have sex consequence-free she should either have her tubes tied or wait until menopause. =/ Remember, most women who have abortions do use contraception.
            Also, many pro-lifers (like the ones on the site) believe a woman should have her rapist’s baby so there is no “option” there.

          • Kristiburtonbrown

            I’d like to see your statistic if you’re going to claim “most” do use contraception. (And it really doesn’t count if they use it incorrectly.)

            Also, while rape is absolutely horrible, there is no reason that the baby should be killed for a crime that her father isn’t even sentenced to death for. No child should be killed for the crimes of his or her parent. That’s not justice for the woman or for anyone.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000428435669 Roo Forlife

          KILLING someone because they will grow up in poverty in ridiculous I grew up in poverty and was even physically and mentally abused. Im glad my parent’s didn’t murder me or my brothers and sisters! Millions of people live in poverty because of all the job losses should they MURDER their born children since they are unable to afford
          them now? NO! When I was pregnant with my first child a clinic worker tried to pressure me into getting an abortion even after I refused. Abortion was the first option the clinic worker brought up, I told the lady I wasnt there for option counseling only there for the pregnancy test confirmation to get on the TANF program. Poverty can be a temporary situation abortion is permanent and
          does NOT solve her poverty problem! My daughter is almost 18 and her life has value just like a rich person’s kid does! She is not a drain on society she works and makes pretty good grades, hasn’t broken any laws.

          • BLAH

            I am sorry for what you went through. I can’t begin to imagine how difficult it was for you. That clinic worker was out of line and clealry didn’t know how to do her job.
            Like I said, I don’t believe abortion is a solution to poverty. I just believe it is an option a woman should have whatever her socioeconomic class is. I never said that a rich person is more valuable than a poor person. Poverty can be a permenant situation for many people since it is extremely hard to work out of. That is why some impoverished people turn to crime because they see no solution otherwise. The majority of impoverished people are law abiding citizens and there are plenty of middle class and rich criminals as well.

  • Stoneybrooke

    Continuing Conversation with Calvin:

    First of all, I don’t accept that fetuses and pregnant women are equal. That, however, isn’t the topic of debate here per your above editorial, so I’m not sure why you keep bringing it up. I’m trying to discuss this on your terms: that one’s fetus is equal to one’s living child.

    What you said was this: “I think your insistence that declining to risk one’s self to save someone is morally identical to intentionally acting to kill someone is something that many would take issue with.”  Here’s the problem with that statement: women don’t have abortions in order to kill their fetuses; they have them to reclaim their own bodies. They know the killing happens, but that isn’t the primary motive or the reason why so many do believe that it’s acceptable. Thus, the unintentional death of a fetus due to an abortion is equal to the unintentional death of a child due to refusing to donate either blood, bone marrow, or an organ. Either way, the parent is exerting his or her bodily autonomy with the full knowledge that doing so will lead to the death of his or her offspring. 

    It’s also worth noting that pregnancy IS risking one’s life, a risk that is slightly lower than with kidney donation but higher than with bone marrow donation, to take two examples. In fact, if the marrow donation is done through apheresis, there is virtually no risk. So how can you say that forcing someone to be pregnant is okay, but forcing them to donate an organ or tissue to their living child is not?

    • http://twitter.com/CalFreiburger Calvin Freiburger

      “That, however, isn’t the topic of debate here per your above editorial, so I’m not sure why you keep bringing it up.”

      Really? I’ve explained why a couple of times now….

      “women don’t have abortions in order to kill their fetuses; they have them to reclaim their own bodies.”

      You’re describing motive, not action. Motive leads us to vary how we punish various acts, but it doesn’t necessarily the permissibility of the act itself. Any number of killings could be described the same way: “I didn’t kill Bob because I wanted his life ended; I just wanted to end negative impact X or obtain benefit Y.”

      “They know the killing happens”

      No, it doesn’t just “happen.” They’re taking direct action to make it happen.

      “the unintentional death of a fetus due to an abortion is equal to the
      unintentional death of a child due to refusing to donate either blood,
      bone marrow, or an organ.”

      That’s preposterous. With all due respect, it sounds like denial to me.

      “It’s also worth noting that pregnancy IS risking one’s life…”

      See below for my reply to someone else on that point.

      • Stoneybrooke

        Well, I was trying to logically explain my point, but all you have done is deny the logic by calling it “preposterous” without saying why. I’ve explained my logic multiple times: a woman is taking direct action to stop someone else from using their body without their permission. The “person” dies because of that refusal to allow it to use their body when they don’t want it to, just like when someone dies for lack of an organ or tissue donation. 

        Your primary objection appears to be taking action vs not taking action. While the equality of the two scenarios seems simple enough to me–in both situations one person’s exercise of bodily autonomy knowingly but indirectly leads to the death of the other–let me ask you this: say an Rh-negative woman is married to an Rh-positive man, and she’s pregnant with their second Rh-positive child. She doesn’t particularly want another child because they’re having financial (or other) problems, so she decides not to take the Rh immunoglobulin that would allow the pregnancy to continue smoothly. She miscarries (or gives birth to a newborn that dies shortly after birth), as a result of her knowingly refusing to take RhIg. That was inaction, not action. Is that acceptable to you?

        • Stoneybrooke

          So…are you just not going to give me an answer because you don’t have one? I’m honestly curious about your thought process and your views on the situation I described above.

        • Emily

          I realize I’m kind of coming late to
          this party, but I wanted to make a couple of points. Your argument, as I’m
          interpreting it, is “Even if the fetus is a person, the mother’s right to bodily
          autonomy means that she can choose to abort him/her.” I think that Calvin’s
          point about believing or not believing in the personhood of the preborn is-in
          this context-not so much about proving that they are people, but that you would
          be less likely to make the “even if” argument if you truly did consider them
          people, which you clearly don’t. I can’t presume to know what your thoughts
          would be without your voicing them of course, but I’ve never met a pro-choice
          person who honestly, truly believed that the preborn were fully and uniquely
          human persons, or that their death was equivalent to the death of an infant.
          Similarly, I’ve never met a pro-life person who didn’t believe that. I’m not
          exactly a big fan of Roe vs. Wade, but here is a quote you might find
          interesting: “If this
          suggestion of personhood is established, the appellant’s case, of course,
          collapses, for the fetus’ right
          to life would then be guaranteed specifically by the [Fourteenth] Amendment.
          The appellant [Jane Roe] conceded as much on re-argument.” –Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, in
          the majority opinion from Roe vs. Wade

        • Emily

          And I know you weren’t asking me, but I think
          not taking the RH immunoglobulin could be considered neglect, just like not giving
          your born child food. (I don’t know what Calvin would say.) Also, you pointed
          out an economic motive in this case, rather than one of wanting to reclaim one’s
          right to one’s organs. And of course if the baby were to be born normally, as
          you allowed for in your argument, and die shortly after (when already outside
          the womb), then the idea of having autonomy over one’s own reproductive organs
          wouldn’t really be applicable.
          Regardless, the fact that allowing death or harm
          through inaction is sometimes considered criminal doesn’t detract from the fact
          that actively doing something may be considered criminal when another similar
          act is not. To put it in another context, you can choose to say or not say
          almost whatever you want, because of free speech, but you cannot actively slander.
          But if you hear slander, you are not required to speak up with the truth and
          set the record straight. Action vs. inaction. Whether or not that’s a legitimate
          legal distinction will vary from case to case.
          It’s also worth pointing out
          that there are more differences between continuing pregnancy and donating a
          kidney than just action/inaction. Pregnancy, unlike major surgery, is a natural
          process. Continuation of pregnancy and birth are simply the natural result of
          two healthy bodies functioning normally. The mother’s body naturally sustains
          the baby, and the baby’s body-according to some research-may naturally send
          cells such as stem cells into the mother’s body that actually help to heal her
          and keep her healthy. Also, if you look at it not in terms of how the mother
          sustains her baby, but of how much effort is involved, a born child generally takes
          a lot more work than one in the womb, and the mother’s activities are probably
          restricted more, and for longer. (Plus, in regards to the kidney donation
          analogy, you’re looking at 18 years or so vs. a few months recovery time.) The
          point is, all in all, I think that the mother’s freedoms in general are more limited after birth than before, but
          clearly taking direct action to kill the child at that point is impermissible,
          because the baby is a person.
          To me, it seems pretty evident that, if the fetus
          is a person, the act of directly causing his or her death should be impermissible,
          and from the Roe vs. Wade quote it seems that even those most responsible for
          legalized abortion in the US thought so, too.
          Okay. I’m done with my spiel now.
          Sorry to be so long-winded.

        • Emily

          My two comments are out of order, sorry. Also sorry that the text looks weird…

  • http://twitter.com/Astraspider Astraspider

    Calvin I think this is one of your most clear-headed pieces. I particularly like the framing of moral intuitions as the basis for how we view parenthood and how some might view that as a basis to project that intuition out into legal frameworks. If our culture were more of a hegemony, that intuition might carry the day. But in a pluralistic society we have to protect the people who might not buy into your particular moral intuitions; intuitions that, in some cases, might not actually be intuitions at all, but dogma handed down from organized religions.

    I also agree that most women intuitively know the momentousness of what it means to carry the unborn. And that puts the lie to the talking point, repeated hear over and over again, that women engage in abortion willy-nilly. The fact that it is such a momentous decision should be respected on both sides: protected from both the casualness you sometimes find on the left and the misinformation and nano-management that some on the right would inject into the doctor-patient relationship.

    • http://twitter.com/CalFreiburger Calvin Freiburger

      Moral intuition, regardless of whether it comes from dogma or reflection, should only rejected as a legit criteria for moral action in matters of personal liberty and conscience. Whenever it has something to say about the legitimate ends of secular government – the protection of natural rights – all bets are off. Let it loose in the electoral arena and let the chips fall where they may.

      Some women are willy-nilly about abortion and some aren’t, but that’s already adequately acknowledged in pro-life rhetoric. All the pro-lifers I see and read are very honest about the difficult circumstances unplanned mothers can find themselves in; when they talk about people casualizing the decision, usually they’re referring to the Planned Parenthood/Democrat party line, or to some particular argument, which *has* casualized it.

      And that some women carefully consider the decision before aborting is no argument for “respecting” the decision itself, or against “nano-management” of it. How deeply you thought about something before doing it doesn’t change the rightness of the act itself, and if regulations like ultrasound requirements are the only option the law will give us for protecting the unborn, we’ll take it. Ensuring that women receive *accurate* information about their babies before killing them doesn’t insult the women who know better – it’s merely to catch the ones who don’t.

    • grdawg

      Just a question, Astraspider…because someone gives great thought to their decision, it should be respected? There’s plenty of murderers, rapists, robbers, etc. who spend plenty of time planning out their particular decision. They might even have a “good reason” for their actions, in their opinion. So, if we’re not allowed to judge a woman’s reason for abortion (if the fact that it’s a good reason in her opinion is good enough for us), why do we “judge” these other violations of human rights? The abortion debate involves so many contradictions and so much hypocrisy, that it’s not even funny.

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