Is Abortion Justified by an Inalienable Right to Sex?

I wrote an article two weeks ago describing the first part of my conversation with a student I’m calling “Brent.” If you haven’t read it yet, I’d encourage you to check that out first. It has the first half of this story as well as four practical dialogue tips I think you’ll find helpful in your conversations.

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Trigger warning: This is a story of me grappling with the view Brent had that abortion is necessary so that people can have sex without consequences. I challenged Brent to change his view with a thought experiment. I had to push Brent pretty hard though, and the thought experiment became pretty grim. If you’re sensitive to dark thought experiments involving born babies being killed, this may not be the article for you.

I had a suspicion that there was a part of Brent’s view that we hadn’t talked about yet, so I took a chance and asked him:

Tim: I have a guess about something that’s going on in the background for you. Do you think people have a fundamental right to have sex?

Brent: Yeah I do. It’s like, one of the most important things in life.

Tim: That’s really interesting. I think if the right to have sex is inalienable and if limiting that right is immoral, then you’re right, abortion does needs to be legal. Birth control fails sometimes, and sometimes people don’t want to have kids. In order to protect an inalienable right to sex, legal abortion is necessary.

Brent: Yes, exactly. And it’s especially necessary for women to have equality. Men can have sex without being forced to take care of children, they can skip out, but women need abortion to be equal.

Tim: Yeah, I think this is an important point, and I think it’s one of the reasons people want so strongly for abortion to be available. The way pregnancy works, it doesn’t create symmetrical responsibilities for men and women. You can curse God if you want, maybe it isn’t fair, but you’re right, it’s not symmetrical. This is one of the reasons I’m strongly in favor of harsher punishments for men that don’t pay child support. Given this asymmetry, a just society should compensate by protecting women from being taken advantage of. It’s similar to how a just society should respond to the fact that men are generally physically stronger than women by working as hard as it can to stop men from assaulting them, sexually or otherwise.

Brent: Yeah, that makes sense.

Tim: I don’t think the right to have sex is the kind of fundamental right that justifies killing children though. Sex is important, but the right of one person to live has to be above the right of another person to have sex.

Brent: I disagree. Stopping people from having sex is like slavery. It shuts down their ability to live life in a human way.

Tim: I’m a bit confused, help me understand your view better. What if two guys both wanted to have sex with the same girl, and she was open to having sex with either of them but not both of them. Do they each have the right to kill the other? It would seem weird if they did, because the same thing that would justify killing the other (the right of the guy to have sex) would also make it wrong to kill the other (restricting someone’s right to have sex, which you can’t do if you’re dead).

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Brent: That’s tough. I guess they don’t have the right to kill each other because that would restrict each other’s opportunities. It’s more important to not restrict someone else’s ability to have sex than to enable your own ability to have sex.

Tim: If that’s true, I think I could argue that killing the fetus is preventing him from ever having sex when he grows up, but I think there’s a bigger problem with your view. Let’s go back to the example of John Paul we used earlier. He wants to go out, party, and hook up with girls, but he can’t because he has to watch his kid. The kid is totally limiting his ability to have sex. Does he have the right to kill his kid so he can have sex whenever he wants to?

Brent: No, he doesn’t have to kill the kid. He should just put it up for adoption.

Tim: Well pregnant women can’t immediately put their kid up for adoption, so let’s adjust the story to reflect that. Let’s say the adoption agency tells him he’ll have to wait nine months. Should he go nine months with limited sexual opportunities, or can he kill the kid?

Brent: That’s a hard one. I guess he can’t kill the kid. But he’s a guy, and abortion is necessary for women’s equality.

Tim: Okay, let’s try another one. Suppose a woman gave birth to a child at the hospital. Her dirtbag boyfriend is out of the picture. The kid is gross-looking, she doesn’t want to take care of him, and she knows if she has to take care of him, he will dramatically limit her opportunities, including her opportunities to have sex. Let’s suppose the hospital has a shredder installed for just this purpose, kind of like what they use for Christmas trees. Can she dump the born baby into the shredder?

Brent: Well, that doesn’t seem necessary. She can just leave it at the hospital and walk away.

Tim: Again, that isn’t an option in pregnancy, so let’s change the story again to reflect that. What if she couldn’t just leave the kid at the hospital? Let’s suppose the government has cracked down on child-abandonment. They’ll let you put a kid in the shredder but not abandon him. If she takes care of the kid for nine months, the adoption agency can take over. Should she take care of the kid for nine months, or can she put the kid in the shredder?

Brent: I guess in that case she can put him in the shredder.

This is the picture Tim pointed to in our brochure. It's an image from iStockPhoto.

This is the picture Tim pointed to in our brochure. It’s an image from iStockPhoto.

Tim: But. It’s. A. Baby. She can put a baby that looks like this [pointing to a picture of a newborn in the ERI brochure] into a SHREDDER??

Brent: I don’t like it either, but I don’t want to say she has to take care of the kid. It seems unfair to her. It’s like a no-win scenario.

Tim: I’m sympathetic to that. Either we put a kid in a shredder, which is pretty bad, or we require a woman to take care of a baby for nine months. Unfortunately, we’re kind of stuck. Which one of those options is worse? Is it really better to put this baby [pointing again to the newborn picture] into a shredder than to limit her options for nine months?

Brent: I guess not. But I think the difference is that you think the embryo is a child, and I don’t see it that way.

Tim: Now we’re getting somewhere! [Then I made my case that the unborn is human, and the conversation became more standard.]

There is a profound cultural gap between pro-life and pro-choice people. The way pro-life people tend to think about abortion is very focused on the unborn, so we hear pro-choice arguments through the lens of thinking about the unborn. In some ways this is good because some pro-choice arguments aren’t appropriately considering the unborn. But in other ways this can be extremely harmful to our conversations because sometimes it causes us to misunderstand what pro-choice people mean. It’s like we’re speaking different languages without knowing it. They say A but we hear B; or we say X but they hear Y. Even pro-life advocates that are trying hard to listen well can still completely misunderstand the other person if they don’t understand that person’s culture.

Obviously, Brent’s way of thinking about sex differed significantly from mine. It should be obvious that we shouldn’t legalize killing in order to enable people to have more sex, at least when you put it like that. But Brent hadn’t put all the pieces together. He knew he didn’t want anyone to be prevented from having sex, and abortion was necessary to protect that, but he had to rethink his view once the logic was clearly stated. This is one of the reasons I ask so many clarification questions in my conversations. I want to shine a spotlight on the pro-choice person’s view, partially so I can understand it better, but also so they can understand their own view and all the implications that come with it.

beyondBrent also brought up the subject of women’s equality. He was very frustrated with how women have been mistreated in the past, which made him even more squeamish about limiting their opportunities. Fortunately, Dr. Charles Camosy recently helped me understand this part of pro-choice culture significantly better with his chapter on abortion and women in his book Beyond the Abortion Wars. While Charles and I have some philosophical disagreements, I think he gets pro-choice culture better than almost any other pro-lifer, and this chapter of his book should be required reading for any pro-life advocate.

His chapter starts off with this statement:

Men have been deciding what happens to women’s bodies for most of human history. Any man who is thinking and writing about abortion should always keep this fact squarely in the front of his mind.

When I first read that sentence, I viscerally reacted to it because I have heard that kind of statement used so often to justify abortion. If you’re like me, and you’re already feeling defensive or frustrated, I’d like to remind you that Charles is pro-life. He isn’t justifying abortion. He’s trying to help us understand the context of arguments about abortion, and he happens to be right! Men have been deciding what happens to women’s bodies for most of human history. That fact doesn’t justify women killing their children, but it is a fact, and that fact is a huge part of the context for pro-choice views. They are understandably and justifiably concerned about any legislation that restricts what women can do with their bodies, especially if men were at all involved in writing and/or passing the legislation. In the case of abortion, we should restrict women from killing babies inside their bodies, but most attempts throughout history to restrict what women can do with their bodies have been incredibly unjust.

Please hear me. Learn what this historical context means to the pro-choice person you’re talking to, and react appropriately. If you are unwilling to acknowledge that women have been mistreated, then you are just being stubborn and uncompassionate to women. You can care about women and care about the unborn. You can acknowledge that men have been deciding what happens to women’s bodies for most of human history without giving up on protecting the unborn.

Pro-life advocates need not fear this conversation, but we need to approach it compassionately. The fact that women have been treated unjustly in the past is no justification for allowing them (or anyone) to destroy children.

Question: In what ways do people’s beliefs about sex inform their beliefs about abortion? How should pro-life people respond to this worldview difference? Share your thoughts below!

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The post “Is Abortion Justified by an Inalienable Right to Sex?” originally appeared at the Equal Rights Institute blog. Subscribe to our email list with the form below and get a FREE gift. Click here to learn more about our pro-life apologetics course, “Equipped for Life: A Fresh Approach to Conversations About Abortion.”

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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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