If pro-life advocates want to help pro-choice people change their minds about abortion, then they must understand arguments about bodily autonomy and how to respond to them in a persuasive way. In his recent video, How To Destroy The “Best” Reproductive Rights Argument, Matt Walsh draws attention to these types of arguments, explains that they are critical to the modern pro-choice position, and then lists his five problems with how bodily autonomy arguments attempt to justify abortion.
At Equal Rights Institute our staff has collectively had thousands and thousands of conversations with lay pro-choice people on college campuses in the United States, and these experiences have helped us understand what typical pro-choice people actually mean by when they make easily misunderstood statements. While Walsh is right to respond to bodily rights arguments directly and he makes some good responses, he also gives responses that are based on the same understandable mistakes that most pro-life people make.
Bodily Autonomy Misconceptions
Pro-choice arguments from bodily autonomy are extremely confusing for many pro-life advocates because there is a profound cultural gap between pro-life and pro-choice people. We don’t just disagree about premises in our arguments; our whole mindset on the issue is radically different. Pro-life people are naturally inclined to focus the conversation on the baby while pro-choice people focus their attention to the woman. Sometimes this causes pro-life people to misunderstand pro-choice arguments and assume that everything comes down to the personhood of the unborn. Walsh correctly explains that this is a problem because that is not the only piece of the debate. He wants pro-life advocates to understand that there is another way to defend the pro-choice position in the abortion debate, and he wants us to understand how to refute it. He explains that personhood, while critical to understanding the immorality of abortion, is not what is driving many abortion conversations when we talk with pro-choice people. When pro-choice people bring up bodily autonomy, they are not attempting to refute the pro-life personhood argument.
Walsh goes on to describe an argument that personhood begins when the mother decides. In other words, the argument claims that because a woman has bodily autonomy she should be allowed to decide if and when her unborn child should be considered a valuable person. He goes on to explain the metaphysical absurdity of an argument like this because it claims that the mother has some “supernatural ability to grant and resend humanity to or from her child.” This argument is so bizarre and fringe that it does not play a role in ordinary bodily rights conversations. The vast majority of pro-choice people do not actual use arguments like this one. While our staff has seen this type of reasoning on very rare occasions, it is confusing and unhelpful to pro-life people to tell them that it is a major part of the bodily rights debate. I fear it will cause them to expect to find it and wrongfully interpret other, more reasonable pro-choice statements as being indicative of the weird, fringe argument.
In his first of five points, Walsh responds to the pro-choice slogan “My Body, My Choice” by saying, “It’s not your body, your body is not the body at issue here. The issue is the child’s body, not yours.” This incredibly common pro-life response to bodily rights arguments is based on a critical misunderstanding of what most pro-choice people mean when they use that slogan. They are not saying that the child’s body is the same as the woman’s body, nor are they saying that the human fetus is somehow biologically part of the woman’s body. They are saying that the human fetus’ body affects and is inside what is indisputably the woman’s body. By “my body,” they are referring to cells with the mother’s DNA, not cells with the human fetus’ DNA. This misunderstanding often causes well meaning pro-life people to unintentionally strawman pro-choice people. Read this article for a more thorough explanation of this common problem.
Refuting Thomson’s Violinist
In his second point, Walsh responds to Judith Jarvis Thomson’s violinist thought experiment. The thought experiment goes like this: Imagine you wake up in a hospital. There is a man in a coma lying in the bed next to yours. You immediately notice that there are tubes connecting your body to his body. The head of the hospital comes in and says, “Hey, I am glad you’re awake. I am so sorry, this must all seem very strange. You see, this man here in the bed next to you is a world famous violinist who has a kidney ailment. The Society for Music Lovers brought you here so that they could use your body to sustain him. And you see, he is a person with a right to life! The only way to keep him alive is to have you hooked up to him, but don’t worry it is only for about nine months. By then, he will be able to survive without you.” Thomson argues that just as you have every right to unplug yourself from the violinist, so too does a woman have a right to an abortion, even if the human embryo is a valuable person. She argues that your right to your own bodily autonomy means that others cannot use your body’s resources without your consent. The “right to refuse” version of the bodily rights argument at first can seem a little tricky to respond to. After all, most pro-life advocates agree with Thomson’s claim that you should have the legal right to unplug from the violinist, even though he is a person with a right to life and he will die if you unplug. But this argument does not justify abortion because the thought experiment is disanalogous to abortion in too many ways.
Walsh does an excellent job explaining the most important disanalogy. He says, “Abortion is not the act of merely detaching yourself from this other body, abortion is not simply unplugging…Abortion is rather the active, purposeful, direct killing of another human life.” Walsh summarizes this problem by saying, “Somehow abortion itself gets lost in the debate about abortion.” He’s right. Abortion is not simply not helping someone. Abortion is killing someone. It is far easier to justify that you don’t have a moral obligation to help someone than it is to justify that it is morally permissible for you to kill someone.
In his third point, Walsh gives another example of how Thomson’s thought experiment is disanalogous to pregnancy and abortion. He points out that parents have greater moral and legal obligations to care for their children than adults have to other adult strangers. I think that this parent/stranger objection is morally relevant, but when Walsh explains the problem he conflates distinct types of responsibilities. To say that lending bodily support is the same as other legal requirements that we have in place for parents is an oversimplification of parental responsibilities. Walsh lists some of these societal expectations for parents like feeding, clothing, educating, and disciplining children. While he is right that society compelling these responsibilities can be taxing on parents, there is a certainly a difference in kind between them. Walsh says:
Do we not require, okay, require, by law that parents make all sorts of sacrifices, do all sorts of things for their kids that they’re not require to do for strangers?…It involves the parent’s heart, mind, body, soul, bank account…the law says to parents of born children, is that yes, you must invest your entire being into this person, your autonomy is gone, because you have a responsibility to this person. You are not autonomous as a parent, that’s what the law says.
But this isn’t what the law says. In fact, the financial dynamic of parenthood is the only one from this list that is required by law. We legally require fathers to give the single mothers of their children financial support and even that obligation is not well regulated in practice. The law recognizes important categorical distinction between financial autonomy and bodily autonomy. For example, we do not have laws that require women to breastfeed their newborns, even though there is significant empirical evidence to show that breastfeeding is associated with better health outcomes for children. A law like this would be different in kind to the existing child support laws.
After presenting the parent/stranger objection, I wish that Walsh would have mentioned what pro-life advocates call the Responsibility Objection as a response to the right to refuse argument. This is a missed opportunity because it can be an incredibly persuasive tool and pro-life people need to learn how to present it well. This objection states that when you have consensual sex, you engage in an act which you know might result in the creation of an inherently needy child, so you owe that child compensation. In the violinist analogy, you are kidnapped in the middle of the night. You have not consented to being hooked up to him in any way, but pregnancy is not like this. Sex has a direct cause and effect relationship with pregnancy.
The Existence of Bodily Autonomy
In his fifth point, Walsh makes some inflammatory statements like “autonomy does not exist” and “you are not autonomous and you never will be.” The pro-life advocate doesn’t need to defend a claim like this in order to argue against abortion. It completely alienates you from the person you’re trying to convince. Saying something like this in a conversation is also unhelpful because it distracts from the real disagreement at hand. Instead of denying that people have autonomy at all, we should start by finding common ground with the pro-choice person on this topic. Pro-life people are not saying that women shouldn’t have control over their bodies, of course they should. Bodily autonomy isn’t exclusively a pro-choice concept. We agree that it exists and that it is a huge violation of a person’s dignity when this right is breached. We just don’t think that the right to one’s bodily autonomy includes the right to intentionally kill an innocent person, and we have good reasons for that.
Walsh goes on to say that complete autonomy doesn’t work in society because it would necessitate anarchy. But pro-choice people aren’t arguing for complete societal autonomy; they are concerned about bodily autonomy. These are not the same, and if we conflate the two then we will be responding to a much stronger claim than what the pro-choice person is actually arguing for. Instead of refuting the idea of complete societal autonomy, we should affirm their concern and then graciously demonstrate why bodily autonomy arguments fail to justify killing. Acknowledge that people have the right to control their own body and renounce crimes like rape, slavery, and other acts of violence where the victims have their bodily autonomy wrongfully taken away from them. If we take the time to do this then it will be easier for the pro-choice person to take our position seriously when we make our argument.
Keep in mind that there is a significant difference in the way the two sides of the debate think about the issue. If you want to be a wise pro-life advocate, you should work hard to prevent having important information lost in translation throughout the conversation. Spend time asking clarification questions so you have a good understanding of what they mean before you give a response. This will help you to avoid unintentionally strawmanning them and make your statements better suited to that person.
Pro-life advocates need to understand the significance of bodily rights arguments to the pro-choice position, take them seriously, and graciously refute them. For a comprehensive list of bodily rights materials that Equal Rights Institute has published click here.
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The post “Matt Walsh and Bodily Autonomy Arguments” 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.”