However, I have found one newer argument for abortion to be relatively compelling – the argument from bodily autonomy. The argument basically says that as it stands, if we were to prevent abortions, a corpse would then have more rights than women. A corpse may legally donate or withhold organs – even to those in need – whereas under anti-abortion laws, a mother would have no choice in the case but to contribute her organs to sustaining the life of another. We would be requiring her to give up her bodily autonomy for the sake of another. While this “heroism” may be lauded as a great sacrifice if it was a willingly pursued course of action, it is not something we can require of another. Bodily autonomy supersedes the needs of another. Whereas most other arguments have some apparent loopholes, this particular argument initially seemed unassailable to me.
1. A baby’s attachment to a mother is natural. The child is being produced by the mother, is not an invader, and is growing in its natural environment. It seems absurd to say this decision can be all about the mother, and call the child an invader.
2. Abortion is not simply unhooking someone from life support, it is active murder. The way abortion is done now, through suction or chemical assault, a fetus is torn to pieces or made to die, it isn’t simply being removed from its life sustaining source.
3. A mother/child relationship carries inherent obligations. Whereas the violinist argument is stranger/stranger, a mother/child relationship carries with it inherent moral obligations.
4. Arguing the way the violinist argument does, it seems that we should be able to kill children long after they are born. Its logical ending leads us to the absurd.
Though I think Greg Kokul points out some important concepts, I don't think it undercuts the original argument as much as it should. For instance, for number one, it could be argued that cancer is natural, yet we destroy it. Two, one could just argue that if we aborted by severing the tie with the mother rather than dismembering or chemically dissolving the child, then that resolves this problem. Three, one may argue that the mother and child are strangers until their relationship is built well into the future, or that the mother doesn't actually take on the responsibility of motherhood unless she accepts it. And for four, the response is generally that bodily autonomy is a basic right that deals only with the body, and once the child is outside of the mother, they no longer impose on the mother's body. I find some of these rebuttals very far reaching, particularly responses to 3-4, but the point is that I don't think Kokul's argument digs deeply enough into the absurdity and assumption of the pro-abortionist's claims. That is what I would like to do in the rest of this write-up.
The first question that needs to be asked is "on what grounds is bodily autonomy the end all, be all of rights?" I can see how one would argue that this is the most basic right, since rights extend outward from a living human being, but why does that automatically mean this grounding of rights in a person means that the physical autonomy trumps all other rights? Let me provide some examples to illustrate.
First, we recognize that bodily autonomy is impinged upon in certain ways when we incarcerate individuals for a crime. While there are some aspects of bodily autonomy that remain in place, others are taken away (e.g. what you can use your body for, what access to items you have to put in your body and care for it, etc). Likewise, we restrain individual physical autonomy when there is the potential for an individual harming or potentially harming others. One might argue that this is the case because our bodily autonomy extends only to decisions about ourselves. Once we use our bodies to impinge on another's bodily autonomy, we are restrained with reasonable force. However, were this rebuttal to be made, then the rebutter would seem to be shooting themselves in the foot (which I suppose they have the right to do). For if our rights are rights until we seek to do harm to another, and only with reasonable force, that seems to negate a mother's right to kill her baby. "But," the rebutter may say, "the child should first lose their rights for impinging upon the mothers' rights. Therefore the mother should be free to kill the child." But note that in restraining an individual from their rights in cases of harming others, we only do so with reasonable force. Shooting someone in the face for attempting to pinch someone would be considered murder. We know the results of pregnancy. We know modern medicine. We fully know that in the vast majority of cases, the unborn do not pose a significant risk to a mother's life. Our society is livid when we see police officers using deadly force on individuals who do not pose a probable threat to their lives, so why aren't we livid when we play judge and jury with the unthreatening unborn?
The pro-abortionist may say that this is all well and good, yet dismiss the above on the grounds that we are talking about a wholly different relationship. When it comes to a mother and child, the child resides within the mother. Since that is the case, the fetus is often related to organs the mother has (kidney, liver, etc). Quite pithily, the pro-abortionists often argue that a corpse who is free to donate its organs has more rights than a mother prevented from choosing abortion, since the corpse can give or keep its organs, while the mother would be forced to pursue a particular route of action with a part of her - the child inside of her. But if the pro-abortionist wants to argue that a corpse would have more rights than a mother prevented her abortion, what they really have to say is that a corpse has more rights (at least in this one sense they are discussing - bodily autonomy and organ donation) than any who are currently living.
"Seven Pounds" is a great movie that highlights this aspect well. Individuals are not free to do with their organs as they wish while alive. The protagonist ends up selecting individuals to whom he will donate his organs, then kills himself so his organs can be used. Doctors can't legally donate organs from a living, healthy patient, unless it's an organ like a kidney, which is helpful to an individual, but unneeded if the other is functioning. A similar thing happens in "John Q," where the main character forces a doctor at gunpoint to start performing a heart transplant on him so his son can be saved. The pro-abortionist who uses the bodily autonomy argument and the corpse argument must recognize that a corpse has more rights than any of us who are alive!
Why is it the case that we have more rights as a corpse than as a living human being? Because we have recognized that our bodily autonomy is superseded by something more important than the use of our body - namely the preservation of our life. We are invaluable and irreplaceable. This same logic is also used in end of life issues. While the world is moving more towards the legalization of bodily autonomy in terms of assisted suicide, even in this, in places where it is legal it is almost always restricted to circumstances where death is almost certainly imminent due to physical issues (most only allow it if one is terminally ill, above a particular age, mentally stable and free of depression, etc). We recognize that the preservation of a life supersedes the right to bodily autonomy. If that is the case, why is it absurd to think that the value of another's life would supersede one's bodily autonomy? In the case of the mother/child, the pro-abortionist will likely argue that this is a special case due to the child's life impinging upon the mother's rights. That leads me into the second stage of the discussion.
Rights Superseded by Obligation to Others
I have shown above how the right to bodily autonomy is certainly not the most fundamental right. We recognized that the value of life is more important than one's right to their own body. In fact, it's only when the quality of life (or value of the life that is lived) diminishes to a level we deem more equal with the right of bodily autonomy that we allow for things like assisted suicide - and even then, only in scant locales around the world. But now, it is vital that I show how the superseding of one's personal rights is influenced by an obligation to others.
Imagine, for instance, that one purchases a property for the intent of dwelling on it or using it for a business, and finds that a Native American burial ground lies beneath. All due diligence had been done to ensure the land is in good shape, yet it is only discovered later that the land rests on top of this sacred ground. The land owner's property rights become superseded by the value of the burial grounds. The value of the burial grounds, especially in consideration of the limited cost to an individual (one can purchase another property, though it may be extremely inconvenient), means that an irreplaceable object's imposition of a finite cost (some financial, some emotional, and some inconvenience) must be borne by the individual, and some of their personal rights tossed to the side- not arbitrarily or lightly - but in light of the greater value of loss that would be incurred if the rights were honored. However, were lives to be at stake (think WWII and some of the decisions made to risk destroying historical landmarks to save lives), that decision may be different (possible future e.g. the building of a bunker over burial grounds in light of an imminent nuclear threat).
When looking at the bodily autonomy argument, it seems very similar. The mother's life is not usually at stake, but rather inconvenience and limited bodily irritation. However, the mother raising an active hand to kill her child would destroy an irreplaceable object - a human life. Her rights seem to be superseded by that which is more valuable and irreplaceable. One may argue, however, that this then implies we should have to donate our organs upon death, since the sustaining of our lives is no longer in play, yet the life of another is at stake. That life is irreplaceable and invaluable. Maybe that does mean we should be forced to donate our organs. I'd be willing to hear out that argument. I myself am an organ donor and can't fathom why one would take their organs to the grave rather than give life. However, one may also argue that obligation is attached in the first example, to the property OWNER, and in the child bearer, to the MOTHER. The one who enters into the direct relationship of property acquisition or motherhood bears the legal burden due to their direct tie to property or person. Just as I am not obligated to give up my house or property for the burial ground, house the people put out by excavation of the grounds, etc - so I am not required to give of myself through organ transplant to one in which I am not in direct relation. It may be the moral thing for me to do to give my organs upon death, but I have no obligatory ties which would demand that of me.
I think this analogy is also powerful in cutting off the point that pro-abortionists make in that they say the mother never intended for a child when having sex, so she shouldn't have to suffer the consequences of that action. Just as property acquisition comes with some risks, it doesn't mean that a property owner's acceptance of those risks in a purchase is negated by his or her intent to not incur said consequences, should they befall him. The bearing of the burden and superseding of rights is directly tied to the value of the object, not the intent of the property owner. Likewise, a mother's intent in coitus is irrelevant when determining the value of an unborn child.
What Is Bodily Autonomy Anyway?
So here's the million dollar question: what is bodily autonomy? In the bodily autonomy argument, a fetus is said to impinge upon the mothers' rights because they use her organs or cause her to have certain side effects. But if that's the case, then any dependent does the same thing. As Greg Kokul argues, on pro-abortion logic, I fail to see how a minor who relies on parents shouldn't be legally destroyed if the parents so desire. If effects on what the body goes through and bodily reactions are a loss of autonomy (e.g. morning sickness), then actions such as smelling repugnant diapers which cause a parent to vomit are likewise impinging upon their bodily autonomy. However, a parent who refuses to change smelly diapers, despite their physiological response to such aversion, is guilty of neglect and able to be punished by law.
If the pro-abortionist wants to argue that it's not the effect on the body, but rather the use of the organs, they still find themselves in a bind. To provide for the child, one has to go to work and incur expressed effects (stress, increased blood pressure, loss of sleep, etc) as well as the damage to the mind and body these things bring. The parents must work, as negligence is illegal. A child must be carried a lot, which may negatively impact a parent's back. Care must be given until handed over to the state or adopted out to another, or consequences will be enforced. Yet we recognize that a born child's impinging on bodily autonomy doesn't warrant killing them.
The final retort may be that a mother is not merely imposing her rights upon her child here, but that she is acting out of self-defense, as the child maliciously accosts her body. But in cases where bodily autonomy is subverted, actions against the one doing the impinging are based upon the amount of harm done. If someone keeps putting Exlax in your drink to cause you to poop or something to make you feel nauseous (akin to the level of morning sickness), you don't have a right to kill them. If someone likes to stroke your hand without your permission, you don't have the right to kill them. The measure of self-defense is not merely based on your rights, but on you not exacting a bigger consequence on another being that has the same rights as you. Killing in self-defense is not warranted when you're not in fear of your life, as we recognize a temporary impinging upon your rights gives you no right to permanently impinge upon another who carries the same rights and value.
It is also interesting to see many of the same pro-abortionists condemning women for not breast feeding or performing skin to skin after birth. Isn't the mother's use of her body her choice? Why should she be condemned for such an honorable choice - to use her body as she wants? Bodily autonomy is used very conveniently in an extremely strict sense by pro-abortionists, yet they fail to acknowledge that everything we do and experience ultimately comes down to bodily autonomy, as it has an effect on either our body, or how we use it. Yet we all recognize that rights and values are not all the same all the time. When we weigh a life that is directly tied by a natural relationship to another individual versus what usually amounts to a temporary (but substantial) inconvenience in most cases, how can we say that a mother has the right to kill another human being? We don't say such a thing in any other similar circumstance, so it seems preposterous to do so here.