Human Rights

The false strength of the “bodily autonomy” argument for abortion

Human RightsMost arguments for abortion take relatively little effort to dismantle. “It’s not alive and not a human being” are empirically false, which also makes appealing to church-state separation a non-starter. “Embryos don’t have souls” is an assertion the claimant can’t possibly know or prove. Claiming that human rights depend on awareness or viability raises uncomfortable questions about all sorts of afflictions that befall people at every age. The hardships of pregnancy are countered by the ease with which pregnancy can be avoided. And appeals to popularity or emotion are so vapid as to be barely worth mentioning.

The only argument that gives even the appearance of intellectual heft is the argument from bodily autonomy – that whatever an unborn baby may be, he or she has no right to draw protection and sustenance from a woman’s body, and therefore the mother is justified in expelling the “intruder” via abortion.

Pro-lifers often have a visceral reaction to this argument. It rightly strikes our deepest moral intuitions as unbelievably heartless to show such a complete lack of compassion for someone one concedes to be a live human baby. But intellectually, it has an internal consistency that can seem daunting to the uninitiated. There aren’t any scientific facts to be corrected, and it sounds like it’s appealing to the same individual-rights framework we are.

This apparent strength, however, is deceptive. In fact, it can be completely unraveled with two little words: “why not?”

“The baby has no right to live in that womb” is presented like a self-evident point, but it’s actually another eminently questionable premise. And dissecting it is the easiest way to turn the tables on its fans.

Any claim about individual rights necessarily presupposes there is some kind of source for those rights, a philosophical starting point from which all justice is derived. Before going any farther in discussion with a bodily-autonomy absolutist, challenge him to explain what starting point he’s using.

Assuming he doesn’t respond by sputtering something inane about it being obvious to everybody but you Christian Taliban nutjobs (at which point you’ve essentially won the argument), these are the most common philosophical foundations for individual rights:

Rights come from government or societal consensus. This is just a thinly-veiled “might makes right,” and all but an admission that your opponent is just making it up as he goes along. These are both much too subjective and arbitrary to take seriously. Government’s purpose is to safeguard our rights, and the point of having a constitution is that there are things the majority shouldn’t be able to do to a minority. Not only would adopting this view imperil all of our rights by making them entirely dependent upon the whims of our politicians and our neighbors, but it can’t even be a reliable defense of abortion – there’s no reason abortion rights should be exempt from society’s ability to change its mind about what rights it grants.

Rights are given by God. Despite being the basis for the Declaration of Independence and therefore the entirety of American law, it’s a pretty safe bet this won’t be a popular explanation for those trying to explain why it’s just to lethally evict God’s children from the womb.

Rights are derived from rationally examining nature. This is the most sophisticated theory, its foundations dating back to the Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke, who shaped much of our Founding Fathers’ ideas about liberty. Basically, the ideas is that we own our bodies because nature has given them to us upon our creation, and nobody else has a natural claim to them. Therefore, we may not be killed, harmed, or forced into servitude without our consent.

Pro-aborts equate pregnancy with forced servitude, claiming a woman has no obligation to let her children develop within her because she never gave express consent for them to do so, and even if she did, she reserves the right to reassert ownership of her bodily resources and revoke the unborn baby’s right to use them. Superficially, that sounds like it could be a reasonable inference from Lockean natural law theory…until you start to think about it.

For one thing, there are numerous problems with the analogy. Even without explicit permission, in the vast majority of pregnancies, the mother gave tacit permission by agreeing to risk creating the baby, meaning she does indeed have a certain level of responsibility for his or her well being. And even if she did have a right to evict her son or daughter, it wouldn’t automatically follow that the methods by which she may do so are unlimited – if I find some drunk has broken into my house and is passed out on my couch, I have the right to kick him out and have him arrested, but I don’t have the right to put a shotgun to his head and blow him away while he’s sleeping. Similarly, there’s no reason a general right to remove an unwanted baby from one’s womb would entail a right to have him or her intentionally killed by abortion.

But most importantly, if we’re trying to derive rights from nature, we have to look at what they baby is endowed with, too. Simply put, nature places that baby in that uterus. He or she isn’t some fluke or foreign entity, but a natural result of the reproductive process working correctly. Sustaining developing offspring is the uterus’s biological function. So from a natural-law perspective, the unborn baby most certainly does have the right to his or her mother’s bodily resources.

As Canadian Center for Bio-Ethical Reform executive director Stephanie Gray puts it:

The role of woman as mother means that she (like the father) [emphasis added to preempt trolls crying sexism – CF] has a responsibility to her offspring that she does not have to strangers. And while that responsibility does not obligate her to do extraordinary things, such as taking trips to Disneyland or donating kidneys, it does obligate her to do ordinary things, such as feeding, clothing, and sheltering her offspring.

To do otherwise would be parental neglect. In fact, Western countries have made it illegal for parents to neglect their children. And so, maintaining pregnancy is simply doing for the unborn what parents must do f or the born—providing the shelter and nourishment a child needs. It is what is required in the normal course of the reproduction of our species.

From there, pro-aborts have few remaining escape hatches, none of which impress. So there’s no need to fear. Just force them to show their work, and the steps they’ve skipped become readily apparent.

  • You fail, your fired!

    Well said! Without the right right to life, what good are any other rights? That unborn baby girl should have “rights” to her body too. thanks

  • Mary Lee

    Thank you for writing this, Calvin. This seems to be the “bottom line” argument for abortion supporters. The other day I started formulating this very rebuttal in my head, after a conversation with a friend.

    What I find most interesting is that pro-lifers are often called “misogynist” and “anti-woman” and “woman-haters” and all kinds of things. Pro-life women are called “self-loathing” and “not actual women” or “men with breasts.” The irony here is that it’s quite the opposite. Pro-life women embrace everything about women, AND their babies, and do not denigrate their womanhood, but celebrate it and honor it.

    Pregnancy is treated as a disease–as an STD, if you will–when it is, in fact, a healthy and normal function. Along this line of thinking, our prenatal babies are seen as invaders and enemies….the very people who deserve our love and care…at the very least, the right to not be brutally killed. Abortion isn’t about “making reproductive choices” and “freedom,” it’s about desperation and power and control. Consent to sex IS consent to pregnancy, just by the very nature of sex. Pro-aborts really fight to keep the illusion that this claim is valid, when it is ludicrous, and backwards, beyond all comprehension.

    Not only is this really a “might makes right” argument, but this turns women from “oppressed” into “oppressors.” There is this weird thing going on, since BHO took office, that women are somehow supreme beings with no fallibility whatsoever. Women are able to kill their own children and call it a right. We made a grave and colossal error when we, as a country, legalized abortion. But we didn’t have the technology and information that we do now. To be faced with logic, reason, science, and STILL maintain that “I want to do what I want to do, and you can’t stop me” is chaos. Our babies do not need to fill out applications or ask for mommy’s consent to exist. Our babies exist because of our choices.They are not punishments, they are not “consequences,” they don’t ruin lives, they don’t ruin futures, they are our CHILDREN. They are our babies. It doesn’t matter if they look like toddlers or they look like beans. These are our babies, deserving of our care and love. And pregnancy is to be honored, and women are resourceful, and strong. I find that the one thing missing in the pro-abortion community–and this does not surprise me–is LOVE.

    • DianaG2


      Love “does not compute.”

      I wouldn’t blame it all on BHO, though. That mentality has been round for decades.

  • Ms. Spider

    “… if I find some drunk has broken into my house and is passed out on my couch, I have the right to kick him out and have him arrested, but I don’t have the right to put a shotgun to his head and blow him away while he’s sleeping.”

    That is, of course, unless you live in a state with a “castle doctrine” or a “stand your ground” law. This Wisconsin case exonerating a murderous homeowner is eerily similar to your hypothetical:

    Now, you and I might agree that no one really should have a “natural right” to blow away people on the basis of a paranoiac whim. But the states that have “castle doctrines” put those laws in place to mollify zealous property rights advocates, not John Locke readers. And, not incidentally, some of those states are the most pro-life on the union. So while you’ve “impressed” with a an interesting take on the fetus’s rights granted by nature, I’d hate you to lose sight of how public policy is crafted. Despite your desire to see government’s role devolved down to that of a nightwatchman, it’s got a much broader charge to represent us in all of our messy, contradictory glory. That’s something a debate workflow can’t always chart us through.

    • Basset_Hound

      If you blow away the neighbor’s 8 year old son with a shotgun in broad daylight because he’s on your door trying to sell popcorn for his scout troop, castle doctrine or no castle doctrine, you’ll have some explaining to do. The police will think your show of force was somewhat excessive, given that an unarmed boy doesn’t pose much of a threat to your life or property.

      Us puny minded bitter clingers get the point Calvin was making in his article. You in all your enlightenment and sagacity, seem to be missing it.

      • Calvin Freiburger

        Thanks for slapping this banality down. I find Spider’s endless recycling of non-arguments to be increasingly tiresome :)

        • Mary Lee

          Yes…I was going to post *YAWN* but decided against it. Whoops I just did it now.

        • Ms. Spider

          Hey it’s a good piece, Calvin, you really don’t have to feign such weariness or contempt. I was just making two very small points (that you are wrong about the drunk metaphor and that charting out a Socratic debate workflow won’t make people like Trent Franks, who are actually charged with representing us, any smarter or wiser or capable).

          • Calvin Freiburger

            Oh, it’s not feigned.

            Your complaint about the drunk metaphor is another manifestation of your addiction to the is-ought fallacy.

            Your complaint about Franks is not only a complete non-sequitur to the merits of this piece, it’s also seems to be the latest case of your partisanship leading you to thoughtlessly regurgitate the latest manufactured controversy The Narrative demands you freak out about:

            So I stand by my initial assessment. Tiresome, banal non-arguments.

      • Ms. Spider

        Oh, I get it too, and if you read closely enough, you’d see I complemented his take on natural rights. I was just making one very small point (that his drunk metaphor was a little careless given many states’ new propensity for allowing home owners to shoot anyone who doesn’t belong there) and one very broad point (that charting out a Socratic debate workflow won’t change the heterogeneous impulses that want to keep abortion legal; nor will it make Congressmen like Trent Franks any smarter or capable).

  • Autonomy–really?

    Thanks very much for this. There is also another argument that can be made against “bodily autonomy”: If a woman can choose to end a pregnancy because the unborn baby is in her body, then the choice *not* to have an abortion (i.e. to have the baby) is also a choice for the woman alone. If this is the woman’s choice alone, then it would follow that she alone bears the responsibilities for the consequences of that choice (i.e. having a baby or not).

    This raises another question: If a woman chooses to have a child that the father does not want, then should the woman be legally and financially responsible for raising that child? Not many pro-choicers would answer ‘yes’ to that question–but, in doing so, they weaken their own autonomy argument (it ISN’T just about a woman’s body, but something spanning multiple lives).