As rumors swirl surrounding the potential retirement of Justice Kennedy from the Supreme Court next summer, the abortion debate is once again set to take center stage. But just how should we think through the debate over abortion? Sadly, this is an issue all-too often obscured by venom and vitriol, where both sides attempt to demonize the other at the expense of carefully considering the arguments for either position.
In this post, I want to chart a different course. I want to consider, as charitably as possible, a common argument on behalf of the pro-choice position. This argument is often stated as a simple slogan: “My body, my right.” You have the right to do as you wish with your own body. So, if you’d like to get an abortion with your own body, you have the right to do so. Or so the argument contends.
But is it true that we have the right to do absolutely anything we want with our own bodies? Stated in such an unqualified fashion, the claim seems less than obvious. But why might someone think that it’s true? What argument could be given on its behalf? Perhaps the following:
1. I have the right to do whatever I want with whatever I own.
2. I own my body.
I have the right to do whatever I want with my body.
You might be tempted to think that premise 2 is uncontroversial, whereas premise 1 is “where the action is,” so to speak. But actually, premise 2 is not obvious either. Consider this: everything that you own, you are morally permitted to sell. Are you morally permitted to sell your body? Suppose the answer is yes. Then that means someone else is morally permitted to buy your body. But slavery is not only illegal. It’s also immoral.
Consider also that everything you own, you are morally permitted to give away to someone else. Are you morally permitted to give away your body? No, since we already saw that this would be slavery, which is both illegal and immoral.
So it’s not at all obvious that premise 2 is true. But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that it is. What about premise 1? Do I have the right to do whatever I want with whatever I own? As recent events tragically remind us, lots of people own guns in this country, and yet, it is clear to most that those who do own guns do not have the right to do whatever they want with them.
So it’s not obvious that I own my body, and it’s not obvious that I have the right to do whatever I want with whatever I own. In fact, both of these claims seem false. But then what might drive people to accept these claims, even if only implicitly? Why would a slogan such as “My body, my right” feature so frequently in debates over abortion? Here one can only speculate, but my best attempt at such speculation is that those who endorse the slogan make the following two assumptions:
Assumption 1: If a particular action doesn’t harm anyone else, then it’s morally permissible.
Assumption 2: Abortions don’t harm anyone else.
Are these assumptions true? Consider assumption 1 in connection with cases of harm to oneself. Why is the recreational use of certain substances illegal? Heroine, cocaine, and other such substances were widely and legally available through mail-order catalogues in the 1920s precisely because of the view that people have the right to do as they wish with their own bodies, provided that they aren’t harming anyone else. Gradually, we came to see that this was a mistake—both because it’s plausible to think that we have a duty not to harm ourselves—and because we know that in harming ourselves, we harm others insofar as we deprive them of the good of our best selves.
What about assumption 2? This will depend on whether the subjects of abortion—fetuses—are subjects of moral worth. If not, if the fetus is akin to a clump of cells as morally insignificant as the hairs on my head, then it’s plausible to think that abortions harm no one except (potentially) the mother. But of course, this is a claim that no one on the pro-life side of this dispute will grant. The debate over whether abortion is generally permissible turns on whether the fetus possesses the same right to life as you or I. While I do not propose to take up that question in this post, it ought to be stressed that an affirmative answer to that question need not be at all religiously motivated. As it happens, one of the more noteworthy pro-life philosophers in recent memory—Don Marquis—is an atheist, and his arguments against the permissibility of abortion rely only on premises that have appealed to the religious and non-religious alike.
So far we’ve seen that this common argument for the Pro-Choice position doesn’t have a whole lot going for it. But what about the child already born—whose only hope for survival is the donation of his mother’s kidney? If the government can’t force her to donate even a part of her body to save the life of her already born child, on what basis could the government force her to donate her entire body to preserve the life of her not-yet-born child?
In this context it’s important to recognize that the law sometimes acknowledges the distinction between killing and letting-die. In this case, the government will allow the mother to let the child die by refusing to donate her kidney. However, the government will not allow the mother to bring about the child’s death by, say, shooting it in the head—because she does not have the right to kill the child, even if she may have the right to let it die in certain exceptional circumstances.
Does the fetus have the same moral status as the child? That is the issue.
About the Author. Michael Willenborg is a PhD student studying philosophy at Baylor University. His research interests include ethics, metaphysics, epistemology and the philosophy of religion. His hobbies include reading, writing, thinking, traveling, enjoying good conversation, watching good football, and eating good food.