Understanding and Responding to Bodily Rights Arguments

JoshBrahm-BodilyRightsSpeech-300x218 (1)I just posted a recording of my presentation of the “de facto guardian” argument at the Students for Life of America Regional Leadership Summit at UCLA. This is an updated version since the speech audio I posted last year. There are some changes to the way we frame the argument now, that I make clear towards the end of the speech.

I described both types of bodily rights arguments, discussed the most common pro-life responses to the violinist analogy and why they are unpersuasive to many pro-choice atheists, and then explained the de facto guardian argument that may solve this problem.

This is the first part of a two-part speech. I was asked to talk about bodily rights arguments as well as responding to life of the mother cases. This is just the audio from the bodily rights portion of the speech. You can download the second part on life-threatening pregnancies here.

Click here to download the free 56-minute MP3 file on bodily rights arguments.

Click here to download the paper.

President

Josh Brahm is the President of Equal Rights Institute, an organization that trains pro-life advocates to think clearly, reason honestly and argue persuasively.

Josh uses speaking, writing and campus outreach to emphasize practical dialogue tips, rigorous philosophy and relational apologetics.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are snarky, offensive, or off-topic. If in doubt, read My Comments Policy.

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  • Guest

    Good speech. But I didn’t quite understand why you think RU-486 is disanalogous to unhooking from the violinist and is in fact a form of direct killing. Can you please clarify? I think the breastfeeding example effectively shows that the woman has a duty to sustain (so it would still be seriously wrong to take RU-486), but I’m not sure why the nature of pregnancy makes it impossible to separate killing from refusing to sustain (yet one can make this distinction with the kidney dialysis thought experiment).

    • I’m still doing thinking about this, but at least one relevant difference is that if you unhook from the violinist, he will die from his pathology, as opposed to a child who starves to death when cut off from the endometrium. I think that’s more like putting a baby in the blizzard or a lake.

      • Guest

        Hmm, I’m not quite convinced yet but I think you might have something there. Looking forward to seeing where this goes.

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  • Guest

    Is it “later this week” yet? I want to hear the second part!

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  • Adelai Rickman

    The problem with your line of thought is that you postulate the ignorant and oversimplistic strawman that abortion is necessarily an act of killing when it isn’t. Abortion is simply the termination of a pregnancy, nothing more, and it is completely possible to terminate a pregnancy without killing the fetus. (In fact, terminations are sometimes done to *save* infant lives.) If we induce labor at twelve weeks and the woman delivers the fetus at that point in gestation, no, it won’t survive, but that is a natural consequence of its prematurity not the result of a direct act of bodily harm. Something that the anti-abortion crowd fails to take account of. Typically, when discussing the issue of bodily rights with regard to the abortion debate anti-abortion people will say that the right to life trumps the right to autonomy and yet, none of you actually believe this because if someone then says “Alright, then you accept that if a person requires one of *your* organs for life that this means it now belongs to them, correct? After all, their life trumps your autonomy, doesn’t it?” To which anti-abortion will unanimously say “No, that’s wrong.”

    When asked why it is then that *they* have the right to deny a human being life to safeguard *their* autonomy (but a pregnant woman does not) they will claim that well, technically, THEY didn’t kill the other person; rather that individual’s medical condition killed them. This works the other way around as well because it isn’t necessarily the abortion procedure that kills the fetus; it’s the fetus’ own prematurity that does this. Have some consistency in your arguments.

    • When you start with “the problem with your line of thought” you imply that you understand what my line of thought is. Did you actually read the paper or listen to the speech? Or are you just guessing?

      As I explain in the very beginning of the audio, if the pro-choice person I’m talking to is arguing something like “abortion is not killing”, then obviously we’re not talking about a bodily autonomy argument, it’s something more like an argument that the fetus is not a person. And that’s fine, it’s something that most pro-choice people think and something I’m eager to talk about, but it’s an entirely different category of pro-choice reasoning. Pro-choice people only need bodily autonomy arguments if they concede (at least for sake of argument) the personhood of the fetus, because otherwise abortion is tantamount to having a tooth pulled.

      “The right to life trumps the right to bodily autonomy” is a simplistic argument, as you show with the organ use case. I agree that you shouldn’t be legally forced to donate a kidney to someone else, or even have your kidney connected to somebody else. Obviously I don’t think this is analogous to pregnancy. And a big part of that argument is something that you actually went directly to, so I know this won’t be out of left field to you, and that’s the killing vs. letting die aspect of this issue. (You address this in your last paragraph.)

      And this is where we disagree. Unplugging from the violinist and then the violinist dying of a kidney ailment is not analogous to an abortion where the fetus is dismembered. That’s direct killing, just as it would be direct killing to hack the violinist to pieces with a machete. No, I don’t think you should be able to do that.

      Your argument is that it’s not direct killing because the reason the child dies is not the abortion instruments but because of the fetus’ prematurity. This seems like a very strange argument, possibly made by somebody who doesn’t understand how abortion procedures work.

      But another response would be that this argument is analogous to a situation where I’m in a boat and I put a newborn in the lake, and then say, “it wasn’t necessary me extracting the baby from the boat that killed the baby, but the baby’s own inability to swim that killed her.” No, it was me putting her in the water, knowing that the baby can’t swim that killed her.

      • Adelai Rickman

        *”When you start with “the problem with your line of thought” you imply that you understand what my line of thought is. Did you actually read the paper or listen to the speech? Or are you just guessing?”*

        I read the 21 page “De facto guardian” article linked from jfaweb.com, yes. Unless you said something drastically different in your speech (which I did not view), I believe I grasp the gist of what you were saying.

        *”As I explain in the very beginning of the audio, if the pro-choice person I’m talking to is arguing something like “abortion is not killing”, then obviously we’re not talking about a bodily autonomy argument, it’s something more like an argument that the fetus is not a person. And that’s fine, it’s something that most pro-choice people think and something I’m eager to talk about, but it’s an entirely different category of pro-choice reasoning. Pro-choice people only need bodily autonomy arguments if they concede (at least for sake of argument) the personhood of the fetus, because otherwise abortion is tantamount to having a tooth pulled.”*

        Abortion, as a simple matter of fact, is not always an act of killing. It is possible to abort a fetus without killing it, so the strawman of “Abortion always equals killing” is just that. However, with regards specifically to abortion methods that do involve directly killing the fetus, a person could still accept (for the sake of discussion) that a fetus is a person and could still make a moral argument that killing them in this or that circumstance is justified. Homicide is something we allow under a rainbow of different circumstances and personally (within the hypothetical context of “The fetus is a person”) I would consider abortion to be one such circumstance. While I reject fully the notion of fetal personhood I try to avoid arguments that hinge on the personhood debate because under that system of thought, if it can be agreed upon by both parties that the fetus (under whatever definition(s) of personhood the conflicting parties agree to) is a person, then the claim becomes that abortion is not justified due to the fetus being declared a person. Personally, I don’t understand what this changes about the scenario or why the fetus being a person would give it any rights at all over the flesh, blood, and organs of another person. So personhood, to me, is completely irrelevant to the issue of abortion. Bodily sanctity and equality with respect to individual rights and limitations are really the only facets of the issue I care about.

        *””The right to life trumps the right to bodily autonomy” is a simplistic argument, as you show with the organ use case. I agree that you shouldn’t be legally forced to donate a kidney to someone else, or even have your kidney connected to somebody else. Obviously I don’t think this is analogous to pregnancy. And a big part of that argument is something that you actually went directly to, so I know this won’t be out of left field to you, and that’s the killing vs. letting die aspect of this issue. (You address this in your last paragraph.)”*

        You can claim all day long that you believe the right to life trumps the right of autonomy (in so many words), but you just contradicted yourself and disproved that this is actually what you believe with the “…You shouldn’t be legally forced to donate a kidney…” comment. If my life is not precious enough that it defeats your right to your kidney, then neither is the fetus’ life precious enough that it defeats the woman’s right to her uterus. To say anything otherwise in favor of fetal life is simply special pleading and ageism.

        *”And this is where we disagree. Unplugging from the violinist and then the violinist dying of a kidney ailment is not analogous to an abortion where the fetus is dismembered. That’s direct killing, just as it would be direct killing to hack the violinist to pieces with a machete. No, I don’t think you should be able to do that.”*

        So presumably, you would be fine with prostaglandin abortions then, correct? Since it is not the direct action of the physician that kills the fetus is these cases; rather it is the fetus’ own medical condition of prematurity that causes its demise. This is not a direct act of killing and therefore permissible under your standard, yes?

        *”Your argument is that it’s not direct killing because the reason the child dies is not the abortion instruments but because of the fetus’ prematurity. This seems like a very strange argument, possibly made by somebody who doesn’t understand how abortion procedures work.”*

        I assure you, I’m quite familiar with abortion procedures, and there does exist at least one reliable method of abortion that does not cause direct fetal harm (induction/prostaglandin). And it is completely analogous to your example of “Unplugging the violinist doesn’t kill him; his medical condition does.” Because, likewise, disconnecting the fetus from the uterus does not kill it; its own underdeveloped lungs do. You’re committing the fallacy of special pleading by declaring that it is morally reprehensible to indirectly kill an unborn human, but not a born one. That isn’t equality, and it isn’t morally tenable.

        *”But another response would be that this argument is analogous to a situation where I’m in a boat and I put a newborn in the lake, and then say, “it wasn’t necessary me extracting the baby from the boat that killed the baby, but the baby’s own inability to swim that killed her.” No, it was me putting her in the water, knowing that the baby can’t swim that killed her.”*

        Then you must also accept that disconnecting the violinist and killing HIM in this exact same fashion is also murder, which is something that you are not willing to do. Proving that you do not actually hold the life of fetuses and the lives of born people on equal footing. You believe that it should be illegal and taboo in all circumstances to directly or indirectly cause harm or death to a fetus, but that it should be permissible to directly or indirectly kill born people under certain circumstances. You’ve demonstrated that you do not hold all human life as being equal and your entire argument amounts to nothing but a giant case of special pleading and the assertion that unborn humans are entitled (for whatever reason) to more rights, care, and protection than the rest of us. Stop discriminating against people based on their size, level of development, environment, degree of dependency, and age.

        • I never make the SLED argument. The fact that you’re trying to use that kind of rhetoric to discredit my argument demonstrates that you aren’t paying close attention to my arguments; you’re making assumptions and being obnoxious.

          The fundamental problem with your entire line of response is your statement that the fetus’ condition of immaturity is a medical condition. You make that absurd move because in order for your argument to work, you have to make the fetus unhealthy and in need of help, like the violinist. But the fetus is a perfectly healthy human organism at that stage of development. It’s healthy for it to be immature at that stage. A prostaglandin abortion intentionally takes a healthy person from an environment it can survive in and puts it into an environment it can’t survive it. That’s like an astronaut murdering someone by throwing them out of an airlock and saying “Hey, it’s not my fault you aren’t evolved enough to survive in space without a spacesuit!”

          The violinist is not healthy. The violinist has a kidney ailment and you have the moral right to not give life-saving medical care with your body. You also have the right to not donate your kidney to someone who needs it in order to survive. If that person dies, they die because they are sick and you didn’t save them. If you do a prostaglandin abortion, the fetus dies because, though it was healthy and in a safe and natural environment, it was inconvenient so you decided to intentionally destroy it. You don’t have an obligation to save sick people with your body. You do have an obligation to not intentionally destroy healthy people.

          It is nothing short of shameful to try to defend the right to destroy innocent lives on the grounds that being young and vulnerable is a disease.

          Quick question about something you wrote: “It is possible to abort a fetus without killing it, so the strawman of ‘Abortion always equals killing’ is just that.”

          Please enlighten me. How can you abort a fetus without killing it?

          • Adelai Rickman

            *”I never make the SLED argument. The fact that you’re trying to use that kind of rhetoric to discredit my argument demonstrates that you aren’t paying close attention to my arguments; you’re making assumptions and being obnoxious.”*

            I wasn’t attempting to be; it was meant to be ironic. And yes, I know you haven’t made that argument so far in the course of this exchange, but since this is something that gets thrown around CONSTANTLY by pro-life people in discussions I thought it would be appropriate to inject it here in case this was something that was coming next.

            *”The fundamental problem with your entire line of response is your statement that the fetus’ condition of immaturity is a medical condition. You make that absurd move because in order for your argument to work, you have to make the fetus unhealthy and in need of help, like the violinist. But the fetus is a perfectly healthy human organism at that stage of development. It’s healthy for it to be immature at that stage. A prostaglandin abortion intentionally takes a healthy person from an environment it can survive in and puts it into an environment it can’t survive it. That’s like an astronaut murdering someone by throwing them out of an airlock and saying “Hey, it’s not my fault you aren’t evolved enough to survive in space without a spacesuit!”*

            Once again, you’re flashing your fallacy of special pleading. And yes, prematurity IS an medical condition, and it is a very severe one that can and often does kill the developing human. (The entire purpose of a NICU wing of a hospital, for example, is for treating medical conditions such as prematurity and any complications that might go along with that, such as jaundice, respiratory problems, and anemia.) You just want to maintain that you have more rights over your organs than women do over theirs, because for some reason you think you are special and exempt from the “Right to life is supreme to autonomy” standard that you want others to be subject to.
            And saying that throwing someone out of an airlock into space (for no discernible reason) is equivalent to an abortion is absurd because Person B (the one being tossed from the ship) is not in any way harming or using someone else to prolong their own life against that person’s will, and the action taken here is not someone’s stance of asserting bodily rights or protecting themselves. It’s just one person deliberately putting another into a dangerous situation seemingly for the sheer hell of it. Comparing an inanimate, mindless thing like an airlock that has no wishes and cannot suffer to a thinking, feeling woman is insulting and inaccurate. You are, like most pro-lifers, simply cutting the woman and her will out of the picture by comparing her to a machine. Real nice.
            However, if you were to instead give a more accurate analogy to pregnancy—say, a healthy conjoined twin with a full set of organs choosing to sever themselves from their parasitic twin (who does not have all of their organs and cannot live without their sibling) then it would have been closer to the mark. It wouldn’t have changed my opinion on the topic though, because I would still side with Twin A’s right to disconnect themselves from their sibling even if the result was the death of Twin B. (Autonomy > Right to life.) But it would have presented a much more similar scenario to an unwanted pregnancy than the airlock thing.

            *”The violinist is not healthy. The violinist has a kidney ailment and you have the moral right to not give life-saving medical care with your body. You also have the right to not donate your kidney to someone who needs it in order to survive. If that person dies, they die because they are sick and you didn’t save them. If you do a prostaglandin abortion, the fetus dies because, though it was healthy and in a safe and natural environment, it was inconvenient so you decided to intentionally destroy it. You don’t have an obligation to save sick people with your body. You do have an obligation to not intentionally destroy healthy people.”*

            If the fetus was perfectly intact and healthy it wold not require subsisting off of another simply to keep itself alive. It requires making use of someone else’s organs because its are not working properly. If they were, it could live independently on its own without direct biological assistance from anyone else. You can try to explain away your double-standard and bigotry against born humans in favor of unborn ones by making cheap and weak appeals to technicalities and pathology, but this is a shabby justification and I think you know that, whether you will acknowledge it or not. Regardless of why Human A requires making use of Human B’s body for survival, whether due to disease, genetic anomaly, or physical immaturity, this does not change the basic situation that we have to deal with: One human making use of another as a life-support machine, and whether or not the other human has any say in this situation. I say the second person should always have a say in the matter and that no one has more rights over you than you do, and you say that a person only belongs to themselves under certain circumstances, and that in other cases, they belong to someone else, and this other person can do with them whatever they wish. That would be the fundamental distinction between our positions. I support upholding the 13th amendment and affirming an individual’s right to protect themselves and their bodies, you seem to (at least sometimes) disagree with these things.

            *”Quick question about something you wrote: “It is possible to abort a fetus without killing it, so the strawman of ‘Abortion always equals killing’ is just that.”Please enlighten me. How can you abort a fetus without killing it?”*

            By delivering it prematurely. We can induce labor and deliver a fetus as young as 10-12 weeks and have the fetus come out alive. In this scenario, we did not cause any direct harm to the fetus (None of the cutting, crushing, or dismemberment that pro-lifers just LOVE to go on and on about.) and it will continue to live for however long it can support itself. Since the fetus’ death in this case is not due to our direct action of delivering it, but by its own condition of prematiruty, we are not directly responsible for its demise. It is not the doctor or the woman’s fault that the fetus cannot keep itself alive out of the uterus any more than it is your fault that the violinist cannot filter his own blood without your help. If detached from their donors, both of these humans will die, and in neither case is it the fault of the donor in question that this is the consequence. You did not murder that dead violinist, and the woman did not murder that dead fetus.

          • Crystal

            You’re just the awesomest!

            Your response to this person is excellent.

            http://i0.kym-cdn.com/photos/images/original/000/851/804/7db.gif

            As for this person’s comment of abortion equaling killing I have only this to say:

            http://www.burningshadow.dk/Galleries/Facepalm/Facepalm3.jpg

            And even that is too weak for how angry I feel when I see these stupid strawmen running around the place :(

          • Ann Morgan

            **It is nothing short of shameful to try to defend the right to destroy innocent lives on the grounds that being young and vulnerable is a disease.**

            It doesn’t matter if it’s a ‘disease’ or not.

            A need does not create a right.

            And the parents are not responsible for this ‘need’.

            Why not?

            Because the ‘need’ in question consists of the fact that the zygote does not have functional organs.

            Whether or not this is ‘normal’ or ‘healthy’ is not the relevant point.

            The actual point is, the state of not having fuctional organs existed BEFORE THE PARENTS HAD SEX!

            The egg and sperm existed before sex, and they did not have functional organs.

            This is not the fault of the parents, and the fact that you have chosen to be sad about a mindless diploid cell with no functional organs, but not mindless haploid cells with no functional organs, or to call the former sad little names like ‘child’, ‘baby’ or ‘human being’ can’t change the fact that the cells existed before sex, and did not have functional organs.

          • Ann Morgan

            A prostaglandin abortion intentionally takes a healthy person from an environment it can survive in and puts it into an environment it can’t survive it. That’s like an astronaut murdering someone by throwing them out of an airlock and saying “Hey, it’s not my fault you aren’t evolved enough to survive in space without a spacesuit!”

            Sort of playing word games, aren’t we?

            A few of your word games:

            1. Referring to the uterus as an ‘environment’. Your ‘environment’ in this case, is someone else’s BODY. Also, since your precious little embryo can’t maintain homeostasis or perform it’s own bodily functions, the uterus goes far beyond the definition of what is normally considered to be an ‘environment’, and falls more under the definition of a ‘life support machine’.

            Oh, and this:

            **That’s like an astronaut murdering someone by throwing them out of an airlock and saying “Hey, it’s not my fault you aren’t evolved enough to survive in space without a spacesuit!”**

            No, it is not the astronauts fault that other humans can’t breath air, and our deficiency in this matter does not entitle us to someone else’s space ship, especially if our presence there endangers and tortures them. Your example would be better expressed by my being on a space-ship that a plan to leave in ‘9 short months’ by means of blowing a hole in the side with a bomb, which as best will be very painful for the astronaut and at worst might possibly kill them, then sobbing if the astronaut doesn’t want to wait for me to do that, because I need to be on the space-ship for my ‘very life’.

            Too bad. Not my space-ship, and unless you can somehow show that the astronaut either snatched me off a PLANET WITH AIR, or alternately TOOK MY SPACE SUIT AWAY, my inability to breath outside the space ship is not his fault.

            **Please enlighten me. How can you abort a fetus without killing it?**

            More word games. What you actually mean is ‘how can you abort a fetus without it dying. Probably, you can’t. Just like you can’t deny your kidney to a dialysis patient, without their dying. Permit me to point out that rights are NOT defined by the matter of physical possession. If you have a ‘right’ to a diamond ring, then it doesn’t matter if you happen to physically possess it or not. If you do, great. But if a thief steals it, the thief doesn’t suddenly have a right to the ring simply because he has physical possession of it. The police can and will take the ring from him and give it to you.

            The same thing applies to organs. If there is a right to other people’s organs for your ‘very life’, then this right firstly must be a right of everyone, not just fetuses, and secondly, it doesn’t matter if you happen to have physical possession of the organ. If a fetus has a right to a uterus for it’s ‘very life’, then a dialysis patient has a right to a kidney for their ‘very life’, the fact that they are not in physical possession of the kidney does not and cannot matter, and anyone with two kidneys would be potentially compelled to donate one against their will.