Abortion and the Body
Abortion and the Body
We hear it argued that a woman has the right to abort her unborn baby because she has a right to choose what happens to her own body. This is a bad argument. First, it begs the question: an opponent will insist that the fetus is not part of the mother’s body—it is someone else’s body that happens to be inside hers. The case is not like the organs of the mother’s body, which really are parts of her body. It is easy to imagine an intelligent conscious being living inside the body of a human: this would not be simply a part of the host’s body over which he or she has complete dominion. Second, the fetus is quite unlike the organs of the mother’s body in that it can be removed without causing harm to the mother—it isn’t part of her normal physiological functioning. Third, there is no absolute right to do with one’s body whatever one chooses to do: a mother could not choose to have all her limbs amputated because of some bizarre religious belief given that this would disable her from performing her maternal duties—she needs to stay able-bodied in order to raise her children. Fourth, if the fetus were part of the mother’s body, it would still be so when removed from it—just like any other part of her body. But no one argues that infanticide is morally permissible because the child is an erstwhile part of the mother’s body: she doesn’t have to right to do with this removed part whatever she chooses. The logic of bodily part-hood is completely different from the logic that governs the relation between a mother and her child, whether born or unborn. Is it to be supposed that the baby was once a part of her body but at birth ceases to be a part of her body? No, it was once inside her and now it is outside her: but that isn’t the same as once being a part and now not being a part (like a removed appendix). The rhetoric of “my body, my choice” is conceptually flawed, and only leads opponents of abortion to think that nothing better can be said to address their concerns. After all, the fetus remains inside the mother for nine months, but surely no one thinks that for this entire time there is no moral question about whether abortion is acceptable. Yet this “argument” is trotted out all the time as a defense of the legitimacy of abortion.
‘My body, my choice’ is a bad argument as most slogans are. It has been some time since I have read ‘On Abortion’ but Thomson’s arguments seem to be that scaffolding supporting slogan. First, in response to the claim that a fetus is not part of the mother’s body, the response should be ‘maybe, but the criteria for determining such a thing seem to change as the pregnancy advances. There is a period of time, though, where the fetus is, at the minimum, dependent upon the mother for life (viability). Second, the only thing I would say (given that saying more edges uncomfortably close to some sort of biological determinism) is that ‘(pregnancy) isn’t part of a woman’s normal biological functioning’ sounds suspect. Third, there are no absolute rights, regardless of what the NRA says. Fourth, I am not sure anyone should be employing the body/part dichotomy when trying to clarify pregnancy. It too confusing. We may be inclined to say different things at different times, and about different things. Is the placenta part of the mother or part of the child? Thanks for your blog, it is always fascinating.
These are good points; they show that the question of abortion is not a simple moral issue but depends on myriad graded factors.
Products of conception are seldom viable prior to 24 weeks. In fact, many an undetected pregnancy is flushed down a toilet daily, no one cries for these “babies.” I once posed the question to a nun once, if abortion was so wrong then why didn’t they insist that every missed abortion (miscarriage) wasn’t scooped up from the toilet and brought to the priest and named, christened and buried in the church cemetery? I received no answer. My response was “Exactly!”
An obvious question to the pro-life people is whether an early-term miscarriage is morally equivalent to the death of a healthy five year old.
You claim that the argument begs the question, but then your very argument itself begs the question. By claiming that the fetus “is someone else’s body that happens to be inside her” you are assuming the conclusion that there is a “someone” for whom the developing fetus is its body.
Not really, because the “someone” could just be an organism not a conscious self. The point is that the fetus is not a bodily organ of the mother but an organism in its own right, and the anti-abortionist will claim that it is really a being with moral rights. I don’t agree with that but the question isn’t settled by claiming that the fetus is just a component of the mother’s body.
It’s really a very obvious point and yet the same terrible argument is repeated with numbing frequency. It does no good to one’s cause to defend it with patently question-begging arguments.
I believe you missed the point. More Specifically: My Body My Choice. My choice as in my decision for my future.
My decision for what conditions my body endures/suffers. My decision for how my time, energy and money will be invested. My decision on the ancestry of my progeny. My decision on whether to be or not to be as only a person can determine for oneself. ProChoice because life changes on a dime. ProChoice because some times women are victims of choices made for them and against their free will.
You have replaced one bad argument with an even worse one: of course no woman has carte blanche to determine her future without any regard for anyone else’s welfare, if that future involves immoral actions; and that is precisely the question at issue. A woman obviously does not have the right to kill her child simply because it hurts her back to pick it up, though that is a condition of her body.