Bodily Rights Arguments Necessitate Extremism

Bodily rights arguments for abortion are always extremist arguments, at least in the way people present them. No bodily rights argument that I have ever seen (or even heard of any pro-choice advocate making) leaves room for abortion exceptions.

Estimated reading time: 14 minutes.

Not all pro-choice people are extremists.

A 2013 Gallup poll found that 80% of Americans believe abortion should be illegal in the third trimester. A 2012 Lozier Institute poll found that 77% of their respondents believed sex-selective abortions should be against the law. Most people, even pro-choice people, believe there are circumstances when abortion should not be legal.

But almost all pro-choice people use extremist arguments.

What is an extremist argument?

By “extremist arguments,” I don’t mean “arguments that extremists often use;” I mean arguments that necessarily lead to an extremist position. I am not saying that having an extremist position means you must take extremist or violent action. I am just saying if you make an argument that logically requires an extremist position and you don’t take that extremist position, you’re being inconsistent.

For instance, suppose someone said, “Having dark skin makes you a non-person, but I really like lots of people with dark skin and I think people ought to be nice to them.” They’re advocating for being nice, but “having dark skin makes you a non-person” is an extremist argument. The logical conclusion of that argument is that anyone who has dark skin should not be legally protected, that it is morally justified to enslave or kill such people. It doesn’t matter how kind, compassionate, or well-meaning the person is who says it; the argument is extremist.

People are welcome to try to justify abortion with extremist arguments, but they should expect to be gently challenged to hold a consistent view. If you’re making an extremist argument, you should be consistent and hold the extremist view that comes with it.

Pro-life people can make extremist arguments too. For instance, if a pacifist pro-life person said, “Abortion is wrong because it is always wrong to take any human life,” then that person would be forced to oppose even killing in self-defense or defense of others. That would be an extremist argument because it necessitates an extremist view.

Describing views (and the arguments that necessitate them) as extremist is intended to be descriptive, not pejorative. Consider the pacifist example. I personally know several extremely virtuous people who have advocated for that view and my intent is not to mock them. It’s also, of course, possible that an extremist view could be true. Describing an argument as extremist doesn’t mean it’s false. I just want people to be consistent. If you use an extremist argument, then accept the implications of it, don’t ignore them because they make you uncomfortable.

Many pro-choice people attempt (unsuccessfully) to paint pro-life claims that unborn babies have a right to live as extremist. The key here is whether the premise must lead to the extremist position. For instance, the claim that it is always wrong to kill innocent human beings does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that the death penalty is immoral. Whatever the correct view is on that issue, it should be obvious that it can be logically consistent to oppose the killing of the innocent and be in favor of the killing of people guilty of murder. Similarly, saying that unborn babies have a right to live does not necessarily lead to a conclusion like, “Women should be second-class citizens.” It can be logically consistent to believe one without believing the other.

Move Over Personhood, Bodily Rights Is the Reason People Are Pro-Choice

Sarah Wade dialogues in front of ERI's poll table at Aquinas College.

Sarah Wade dialogues in front of ERI’s poll table at Aquinas College.

Last month ERI had our most recent outreach event at Aquinas College in Michigan. We set up a poll table that asked the question “Should Abortion Remain Legal?” and set out pads of paper for students to sign “Yes,” “No,” or “It Depends.” Here are all of the comments, completely unedited, from the students who signed “Yes” (at least, the ones who left comments):

  1. Reproductive Freedom
  2. My uterus pls.
  3. Bodily autonomy
  4. Freedom [unintelligible]
  5. Every case is different
  6. No one can understand the complexity of another’s
  7. My body, my choice/life
  8. Freedom of women’s health & choice
  9. It’s a choice
  10. Just like people cannot be forced to give blood for their children, they should be forced to give life.
  11. I like that ^
  12. It’s the women’s right to choose
  13. Yes!
  14. Motherhood is a choice, I believe in the agency of the person who’s putting their life at risk
  15. Bodily autonomy
  16. Bodily autonomy + viability beginning at birth!
  17. Ban on abortion disproportionately affects poorer communities
  18. None
  19. Not my right to say
  20. Mother’s choice
  21. My body, my choice
  22. “Choice”
  23. Not your body, my body
  24. My choice
  25. Keep it clean + safe.
  26. Making them illegall won’t stop them, just lead to more deaths. Keep it clean + safe.
  27. Serious women’s health issue women should be able to choose how to use their body
  28. Everyone has a reason, + we are not one to judge bodily autonomy
  29. If it’s not legal, people will do it anyway
  30. It’s a woman’s own body
  31. My vagina my right

For those of you keeping score, that’s fourteen out of thirty-one comments with explicit references to bodily autonomy, six that vaguely point to “choice” or “freedom,” three concerned about illegal abortions, three that don’t think it’s their right to judge another person’s situation, one vague “Yes!”, one vague “None,” one “Motherhood is a choice, I believe in the agency of the person who’s putting their life at risk,” and one “Ban on abortion disproportionately affects poorer communities.” Those last two are different enough that I don’t want to lump them in with the others.

Notice the number of statements about the belief that the unborn is not a human person: zero. Our polls aren’t scientific, but every time we do them the results look just like this. People do justify their views about abortion by arguing against the humanity of the unborn, so we still need to talk about that, but I don’t think it’s the driving force behind why most people are pro-choice. The more I talk with pro-choice students, the more convinced I become that at the end of the day, they are pro-choice because of bodily rights. If you are not prepared to recognize and engage bodily rights arguments in a persuasive way, then you shouldn’t be surprised on the occasions when you don’t change pro-choice minds.

Why Bodily Rights Arguments for Abortion Logically Necessitate Extremism

Bodily rights arguments for abortion are always extremist arguments, at least in the way people present them. No bodily rights argument that I have ever seen (or even heard of any pro-choice advocate making) leaves room for exceptions. But the majority of these people believe there should be times when abortion should be illegal.

Almost all pro-choice people make bodily rights arguments, but most of these people, well-meaning or not, are flagrantly inconsistent.[Tweet that] Usually there’s a stage in pregnancy they’re uncomfortable with, and often there are reasons for abortion that they don’t agree with. I frequently hear, “You shouldn’t be able to have an abortion for sex-selection,” or “There should be a limit on how many abortions someone can get,” or “They shouldn’t be able to use it for birth control.”

This is clearly not a well-thought out position. It’s the position of someone that has some of their moral intuitions intact, like about how awful late-term abortion is, but they haven’t thought beyond the talking point they’re using to justify other abortions.

There is no way to consistently argue that a) first trimester abortions should be legal because “it’s a woman’s right to decide what to do with her body,” AND b) second-trimester abortions should not be legal. If the thing that justifies abortion in the first trimester is women’s bodily autonomy, then abortion continues to be justified in the second and third trimester because the fetus still resides inside her body. The same principle applies to distasteful reasons for abortions. You may not like sex-selective abortions, but you can’t oppose them while simultaneously supporting early abortions with bodily rights arguments.

Between a rock and a hard place

The violinist argument falls into the same problem. If you’re justifying abortion by arguing that women have the right to abort just like you have the right to unplug from a violinist, then you can’t make exceptions. If I want to unplug from the violinist because the violinist is African-American and I’m a racist, I still have the right to unplug. If I want to unplug eight months into the procedure, I still have the right to unplug. Similarly, if someone wants an abortion at eight months, or because of sex-selection or even racism, you can’t deny it to her if you’re justifying the other abortions through bodily autonomy.

The only reasonable way to justify a pro-choice position with exceptions is to argue that the unborn is not a human person early in pregnancy but becomes a person later in pregnancy. I’m not saying that’s a good position, but it can at least be logically consistent. If you become a person when you can feel pain, then it makes sense to oppose abortion after a fetus can feel pain. The problem comes if you are justifying abortion by making a bodily rights argument. As soon as you do that, you have thrown open the door to accepting all abortions, and the only question is whether you’re consistent enough to recognize it.

How to Turn the Tables

In an earlier blog post, I described how powerful it is to turn the tables on pro-choice rhetoric. This is another great example of a time to do that. I don’t have a good example of a specific story where I did this, so what follows is merely an estimation of the type of conversation I’ve had many times. This is just for the sake of illustrating the idea, these are not direct quotations from a specific conversation:

Tim: Why are you pro-choice?

Jane: My body, my choice. It’s nobody else’s business what I do with my own body.

Tim: I’d like to understand your view better. Do you think there are any circumstances when a woman shouldn’t be allowed to get an abortion?

Jane: What do you mean?

Tim: I’ll give you a common example. Most people are pretty uncomfortable with abortions at like, eight months. What do you think?

20-week fetus.

20-week fetus.

Jane: Oh, I’m definitely not for that. I’m only for abortion in the first twenty weeks.

Tim: Really? I’m confused. At twenty-two weeks, isn’t it her body, her choice? How is it anyone else’s business what she does with her own body?

Jane: Well, I get what you mean, but after twenty weeks it’s too late. The baby is too developed.

Tim: I want to understand your view but I’m struggling. Based on what you just said, it seems like you aren’t really justifying abortion with bodily rights. It seems like you’re justifying abortion by claiming that a fetus doesn’t count as a human person until twenty weeks. The bodily rights claim isn’t sufficient by itself to justify abortion because as soon as you think the fetus is human, you don’t think abortion is justified.

Jane: Yeah, I think both at the same time. In the first twenty weeks it isn’t a person, AND women should have the rights over their bodies.

Tim: I actually think you don’t need the bodily rights argument. If the fetus isn’t a person, I think abortion is obviously justified, don’t you?

Jane: Yeah, I guess so. Bodily autonomy just matters a lot to me.

Tim: That makes sense. I think bodily autonomy is really important too. It seems like our main disagreement isn’t about bodily autonomy though, it seems like we need to determine if the fetus is a human person.

Notice how vacuous the pro-choice rhetoric is if they have exceptions. “It’s nobody else’s business what I do with my own body (but only in the circumstances I’m comfortable with)!”

You should also notice that the extremely common arguments about back-alley abortions have the exact same problem. If you’re going to justify first-trimester abortion by arguing that it’s better to keep abortions legal so women don’t seek them illegally, then how can you justify making any abortion illegal? If you make an abortion illegal, a woman might seek it anyway and do it unsafely.

When people make extremist arguments, like bodily rights arguments and back-alley abortion arguments, I’m not recommending that you treat them rudely or call them names. I’m not saying to scream at them that they’re extremists. Please don’t do that. I’m suggesting that you help them to understand the logic of their argument. Help them to see that they only have two options: either 1) embrace the extremist position, or 2) reject the extremist argument.


But What If We Make People Even More Pro-Choice?

There is a clear risk to this strategy. Sometimes they’ll just embrace their extremism and then they’ll walk away even more pro-choice than before! My colleague Jacob Nels shared this story with me of a conversation he had at our other recent outreach day in Michigan, this time at Grand Valley State University.

Jacob Nels speaking to Grand Valley State professor about bodily rights.

Jacob Nels speaking to a Grand Valley State professor.

I engaged a young female professor in a dialogue by asking her:

Jacob: Excuse me, ma’am. Would you take a moment to sign our poll? Should 20-week abortions be legal?

She signed: No.

Jacob: Thanks for signing our poll. Would you mind telling me why you answered no?

Professor: Once it goes that far along, abortions shouldn’t happen.

Jacob: Okay. Would you help me understand where the line is for you and why?

I showed her fetal development pictures in the ERI brochure.

These are the first two pages on the inside of the ERI Outreach Brochure.

These are the first two pages on the inside of the ERI Outreach Brochure.

Jacob: Could you point out when in human development abortion is not okay?

Professor: I’m not really sure.

After a few more minutes of conversation, she said:

Professor: Women should have the right to do what they want with their body.

Jacob: It sounds like you are saying that you believe women should have a right to complete bodily autonomy, and you do still believe the unborn is a human person. So, is it your belief that a woman’s right to bodily autonomy supersedes the life of the fetus?

Professor: Yes.

Jacob: Could you clarify that for me? It seems like your statement that women should have complete bodily autonomy is in direct conflict with your answer to our poll that 20-week abortions should not be legal. Have you ever seen a picture of a 20-week abortion?

Professor: No, I haven’t.

Jacob: I have one here. May I show it to you?

She agreed and looked at the picture. Click here to see the page Jacob showed her from our brochure. Warning: It is extremely graphic.

Professor: Oh, this is really bad!

Jacob: Yeah it is, but in order to be consistent with your belief in bodily autonomy, then this procedure would have to be okay.

Professor: Yeah, I guess you’re right. I have to get going to class, but can I change my vote?

Jacob’s heart sank as he watched her switch her vote from “No” to “Yes – 20-week abortions should be legal.” She left and didn’t come back.

So Jacob reasonably asks, “Isn’t this a dangerous approach? Aren’t we going to help some people become more pro-choice?”

I have run into the same problem when I’ve responded to pro-choice arguments for personhood by pointing out that the other person’s understanding of personhood would either include animals like squirrels or exclude newborn humans. Sometimes they react by abandoning their pro-choice argument but other times they double down and say, “Fine! Then it’s okay to kill newborns,” or “Fine! Then squirrels are people too.”

When people react that way, in one sense it is like they become more pro-choice. But they won’t be more comfortably pro-choice. There is a type of pro-choice view that many pro-choice people hold. It’s a view that feels really moderate, reasonable, and compassionate. They know they’re uncomfortable with late-term abortion, but they also know they want first trimester abortions legal so they just start believing both things. They get comfortable with these beliefs.

My goal is to graciously drive the comfortable pro-choice position into extinction.

It is frustrating to see people bite the bullet on awful, extremist views. I have watched pro-choice students go as far as to say that parents should have the legal right to kill their ten-year-olds, because that was what it took for them to remain pro-choice about abortion. But I actually think that leaves them better off. I would rather they walk away knowing that they had to agree to something truly horrific in order to remain pro-choice. One of the best ways to help someone to change her mind about abortion is to make her experience cognitive dissonance.

If a person’s only options are 1) pro-life or 2) horrifically pro-choice, most people have enough decency to eventually choose the former. I’m cautiously optimistic that many of the college students I have seen agree to awful conclusions will grow up eventually and recognize that squirrels aren’t people, rape is actually wrong (not just distasteful), and that a newborn child has the right to live. Some won’t, but I’m honestly more interested in pulling the moderates to our side than I am worried about helping the most hardcore pro-choice people become even more extreme.

If thousands of comfortable pro-choice people have to choose between the extremism that their arguments demand and the voices of their consciences, then many of them will become pro-life.


Please tweet this article!

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  • Tweet: Turning the Tables on “My Body, My Choice”
  • Tweet: Only Extremists Should Make Bodily Rights Arguments
  • Tweet: Move over personhood, bodily rights is the reason people are pro-choice.
  • Tweet: Why bodily rights arguments for abortion logically necessitate extremism.
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The post “Bodily Rights Arguments Necessitate Extremism” originally appeared at the Equal Rights Institute blogClick here to subscribe via email and get exclusive access to a FREE MP3 of Josh Brahm’s speech, “Nine Faulty Pro-Life Arguments and Tactics.”

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Former Director of Training

Timothy Brahm was formerly the Director of Training at Equal Rights Institute. He is interested in helping pro-life and pro-choice people to have better dialogues about abortion through 1) taking care to understand what the other person means, 2) using more carefully-constructed arguments, and 3) treating each other with care and respect. He graduated from Biola University with a B.A. in philosophy and is a perpetual member of the Torrey Honors Institute.

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