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.

 

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4 replies
  1. Scott Grice
    Scott Grice says:

    ‘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.

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  2. Michael
    Michael says:

    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.

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    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      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.

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