Does a fetus’s right to life override their mother’s right to bodily autonomy?
A good problem to have
In a society that values human life and human dignity, the topic of abortion will forever be contencious.
The mere existence of abortion rights debate signifies two things:
1: (At least some) people hold women’s bodily autonomy to be sacred.
2: (At least some) people hold human lives to be sacred, including that of an unborn person.
If you find yourself living in a society where people argue about abortion rights, count yourself lucky, this is a luxury a lot of people don’t have in many parts of the world.
Pro-life and pro-choice activists have a lot in common: they are both passionately committed to their beliefs; they are both convinced that they are doing the right thing; they both hold good intentions (the word “good” is used here with its “generally accepted” meaning).
Sure, there appear to be some bad actors on both sides, but those are mostly just people who want to abuse other people under the guise of morality. They shall be excluded from this honest conversation. Talking about them only distracts from the real issues and can be quite counter-productive: “Which side has inspired more extremists” is not exactly a helpful topic in this particular case. There are laws on the books to deal with unlawful acts, and that’s all we’ll say about those extremists of all stripes.
Pro-choice and pro-life activists obviously differ greatly in their perspectives. Here’s a grossly simplified overview of each side’s perspective:
The pro-life perspective:
- Human life is sacred and must be protected by the power of the state
- The above statement also applies to human fetuses.
The pro-choice perspective
- Women’s bodily autonomy is sacred.
- The above statement does not change during pregnancy.
They are both right
Both sides are right given their respective perspectives: no one in a truly civilized society will seriously argue against the sanctity of human life or bodily autonomy. What differs between them is what each side chooses to emphasize and downplay, either willfully or inadvertently. Each side’s perspective is incomplete, each missing an important piece. This is reflected in their communications. A few examples:
The pro-life side often uses the disturbing imagery from abortion clinics to prove that the act of abortion is indeed ending a human life. They are definitely right about this particular fact, and the disturbing imagery they present makes that point highly poignant. There lies the problem: by making one fact highly poignant emotionally, other relevant facts are effectively diminished. What is diminished here is the pregnant women’s right to choose what to do with their own bodies. True, you can cogently argue that a fetus, regardless of developmental stage, is a human life and thus should be cherished. And cherished it is, by many if not most pregnant women. What is much less convincing, however, is that one can somehow arbitrarily assign different values to two sacred things and then deem one to be higher than the other. In this case, the pro-life position is to deem a fetus’s life to be higher than a woman’s bodily autonomy, and their proof is to make the loss of a human life highly poignant in their videos. This is akin to proving that one product is much better than other similar products by running a lot of ads, thus making the promoted product highly poignant in your mind, making you FEEL that it is indeed better.
This strategy works very well on humans. Even if you are an ardent pro-choicer, if you watched those disturbing imagery presented by the pro-lifers, part of you will shudder, at least a little bit. This is not to say you will give up your pro-choice position because of it, it simply means part of you is naturally acknowledging the sanctity of life.
The pro-life side also frequently present heart warming stories of women who chose life, such as those of brave women who chose to give birth to the babies conceived during rape, who then grew up to be up-standing positively-contributing members of society. What they fail to emphasize, is that these women CHOSE to do so. Upholding some women’s choices as examples for other women to follow, either through legislature or social pressure, undoubtedly amounts to coercion. One MAY be able to justify this coercion in very late stages of pregnancy, but it is still undignifying coercion.
On the pro-choice side, their slogan “my body my choice” says it all. It means bodily autonomy is sacred and shall not be infringed upon, which hopefully is a universal value held by everyone (or at least almost everyone) in a civilized society. Who would want to live in a society without bodily autonomy? Missing from their slogan, naturally, is the acknowledgement that abortion, at least in some cases, is indeed ending a human life. This is not to say that the pro-choice position is necesarity wrong, it is just saying their slogan is an incomplete one, as slogans usually are. Slogans, like ads, are good for mobilizing the mass, not so good for an honest discussion.
Diminished Sanctities and Murky Boundaries
Fetuses don’t suddenly transform from clumps of cells, devoid of form or consciousness, into sentient humans at some magical instant with millisecond precision. Formation of life, human or otherwise, is a gradual process with murky boundaries at best between development stages.
So exactly at which point should a fetus be considered a human life? This is a wrong question to ask! The mere asking of this question means assuming that such a point exists, which is a VERY wrong assumption. So the answer to this question is not a numerical standard, such as “20 weeks after the last menstrual period”. Instead, the answer is: such a point does not exist. But let’s TRY to find that point anyway:
Is a fertilized egg a human life? It would be quite a stretch to call a fertilized egg a sentient human. It does have the potential to grow into a human, but it’s not there yet.
Is a newborn a human? I believe (and hope) most people would think so.
So perhaps, a fetus changes from a clump of cells to a human life somewhere between fertilization and birth. Hence, perhaps, the sanctity of the fetus’s life is diminished towards the early phases of pregnancy. Perhaps, one can cogently argue that we have no moral contraversy regarding abortion in the very early phases of pregnancy due to the diminished sanctity of the life of the fetus.
On the other side of this issue, one can also argue that the sanctity of bodily autonomy is diminished, at least somewhat, towards the end of the pregnancy due to the simple fact that the bodily burden, or at least part of that burden, is now a “sunk cost”. But before you declare late-term abortions to be immoral and hence illegal, please ask yourself if the government should have the right to coerce a woman to give birth in very late phases of pregnancy. If so, what exceptions, if any, should there be?
Obviously this discussion is not finished, hopefully this has been a good start.
The whole discussion is based on the premise that human life and bodily autonomy are both sacred and shall not be questioned or infringed upon. This premise is obviously artificial: it is a conscious choice. Where one will land regarding the issue of abortion will largely depend on how one assigns value to these things: human life and bodily autonomy. Regardless of where YOU land on this issue, it is a result of YOUR CHOICE, a choice that will have an arbitrary component to it, and that is the point of this article.