“Reproductive Freedom”: Another Pro-Choice Non-Argument

Recently, some pro-choice people and organizations have moved away from focusing on bodily autonomy as grounding a right to an abortion and instead frame the issue as one of “reproductive freedom.” This might sound like a rhetorically powerful move—who could be against freedom? However, it is a self-defeating strategy that comes at the cost of the pro-choice movement’s best slogan: “my body, my choice.” 

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

What is Reproductive Freedom?

The way some pro-choice people define reproductive freedom is, frankly, insensitive nonsense that marginalizes people struggling to conceive and stigmatizes those experiencing “unplanned” pregnancies. Consider the following example definitions of reproductive freedom:

I’m pro-reproductive freedom. People have a fundamental freedom to decide if, when, and how to have a family. – Mini Timmaraju, President of NARAL, in the MSNBC interview with Emily Albrecht and others

Reproductive Freedom: The ACLU works to ensure that every person can make the best decision for themselves and their family about whether and when to have a child without undue political interference. – ACLU, https://www.aclu.org/issues/reproductive-freedom

​​We deserve the freedom to decide if, when, and with whom to start a family. – Beto O’Rourke Campaign Website, https://betoorourke.com/issue/defend-reproductive-health/

I’ll start with the strongest, most charitable, interpretation of these, which the ACLU’s definition most closely reflects. Here, “reproductive freedom” amounts to the permission to reproduce and the permission to not reproduce. This is negative reproductive freedom, and as a pro-life person I fully affirm its importance. This is one of the (many!) reasons why no one should be forcibly sterilized (yes, this happens), coerced into surrogacy (yes, this happens), or have their sperm stolen (yes, this happens).

The definitions taken from Mini Timmaraju and the Beto campaign website, however, reflect positive reproductive freedom. Rather than saying others must refrain from preventing you from becoming or forcing you to become a parent, they posit a positive right to become a parent in any manner of your choosing and at the time of your choosing—and not at any time you choose not to. 

The idea of positive reproductive freedom isn’t in touch with reality. Even under the best circumstances, conception doesn’t happen right away for most couples. Only about 38% of women conceive in the first cycle when they time intercourse with their fertile window to maximize their chances of conceiving. Most will conceive within one year, but almost 20% of women struggle with infertility (> one year of timed intercourse without conception). Even using intracytoplasmic sperm injection—where a doctor injects sperm directly into the oocytes—does not guarantee conception: total fertilization failure occurs in 2-3% of cases.

On the other end of the spectrum, about half of all pregnancies are unplanned, and in about half of all those unintended pregnancies, the couple used some contraceptive measures. As Emily Albrecht pointed out in a TikTok video, when these “birth control failures” happen, people are often expected to “be responsible” and have an abortion rather than be supported in their unplanned pregnancy. By promoting the idea that reproducing is something that we can or should have fundamental control over, positive reproductive freedom obscures the reality that there is no way to guarantee you will ever reproduce, much less that you will reproduce at a specific time, and the only way to guarantee that you will never reproduce is to have your ovaries/gonads removed and destroyed so that your gametes can never be used to create a new human organism. Setting up such unrealistic expectations contributes to women and men feeling like failures when they are not able to conceive at will or conceive despite using contraception. As such, I reject the positive definition of reproductive freedom as harmful, insensitive nonsense, and I urge pro-choice people to do so as well.

But the problems for abortion and reproductive freedom don’t end here. 

Abortion Cannot Serve Reproductive Freedom

While I recognize the right to negative reproductive freedom, this right cannot ground a right to an abortion. Assuming that a woman is pregnant with her own biological child, she has already reproduced. Laws prohibiting abortion do not “force” her to become a biological mother. She already is one. Moreover, laws prohibiting abortion do not “force” her to stay a biological mother. She will always be one, whether her biological child dies or not. That’s just how biological relationships work: once they start—and these biological relationships start when a new member of the species homo-sapiens starts, that is, fertilization—they don’t end, even when that new member of the species dies

We know this. Genealogy makes no sense if death ends biological relationships, and yet many people take DNA tests to find all their distant relatives and flesh out their family trees as far back as possible—including babies who die in utero or shortly after birth, when records exist! We then speak proudly about our X-great grandparents who came over on the Mayflower, or perhaps how we are distantly related to such-and-such historical figure. Even in pop culture we see it: finding out that they are biologically related changes the relationship between Darth Vader and Luke from adversarial to redemptive. Biology matters, and biology persists. Abortion can’t change that; it does not return a woman to “not-a-mother” status, it just kills the child.

Limits to Reproductive Freedom

Lest anyone think I am strawmanning by focusing on the inseverable nature of a biological relationship to show that abortion cannot serve reproductive freedom, I will grant that the death of a child can end other kinds of parenthood. A child’s death can end gestational motherhood and social or legal parenthood. However, birth (even premature birth!) also ends gestational motherhood, and adoption ends social and legal parenthood. In other words, non-violent means are available to sever those relationships. Abortion ends them through a lethal act of violence. So, while negative reproductive freedom might ground a right to sign away parental rights or deliver prematurely, it cannot ground a right to an abortion. The natural limit to someone’s reproductive freedom is violent action.

Trotting out a toddler can provide a useful illustration of this. Imagine that Chip has had a vasectomy in an attempt to ensure he will never become a father. Even then, he’s extremely careful—he knows that while vasectomies fail rarely, they do sometimes fail. Chip has a one-night stand with Clarice, who has had a tubal ligation. Still, he uses a condom, as tubal ligation fails sometimes as well. A few years later, Chip receives a call from Clarice, who has managed to track him down. Against all odds, their one-night stand led to the conception of a child, Donny, and she would like Chip to waive his parental rights so that her new husband, Dale, can legally adopt Donny. Chip is livid. He never wanted children and took steps to avoid having children. While he has no relationship other than biology with Donny, Donny’s existence weighs heavily on Chip—what if Donny eventually tracks him down, too? What, if anything, does he owe Donny in virtue of their biological relationship? A conversation? A kidney? Nothing? Chip’s reproductive freedom has (unintentionally) been violated for he has been made into a father despite his best efforts. 

Nevertheless, Chip may not kill Donny. Killing Donny won’t turn Chip back into not-a-biological-father; killing Donny just makes Chip into a biological father of a dead child. Killing Donny isn’t necessary to release Chip from any social or legal parental responsibilities to Donny; signing his parental rights away to allow Dale to adopt Donny does this. The natural limit to Chip’s reproductive freedom is the point at which he commits violence.

The Clash of the Pro-Choice Slogans: Bodily Autonomy or Reproductive Freedom?

In order to steel-man the pro-choice position, I will grant a host of pro-choice assumptions, some of which I take myself to have just shown are wrong. First, I will assume that human beings in utero are not persons with equal rights but merely potential persons who might eventually have rights. Second, I will assume that abortion can serve reproductive freedom by preventing a new human being from existing in the same way that contraception can serve reproductive freedom. Third, I will assume that positive reproductive freedom is something that can or should be guaranteed to people. Even granting all these assumptions, the shift to frame abortion as essential to ensure reproductive freedom puts pro-choice rhetoric on a collision course with the best justification they have for abortion: bodily autonomy. If bodily autonomy, specifically the right to refuse to have another person connected to your body, is the primary reason why abortion should be permitted, then the decision whether or not to abort should clearly belong only to the pregnant woman: her body, her choice. But if ensuring reproductive freedom (rather than bodily autonomy) is the primary reason why abortion should be permitted, then there are multiple parties with an equally weighty stake in the abortion decision.

Specifically, there is no reason to privilege the biological mother’s reproductive freedom over the biological father’s reproductive freedom. For example, Brett’s reproductive freedom might be directly at odds with Sally, or vice versa. Perhaps Brett does not want to have this baby, now, with Sally because he has terminal cancer and doesn’t want his kid to grow up without him. Perhaps Sally wants to have this baby, now, with Brett because she cannot imagine ever marrying again and sees this as her last chance to have a family. Whose reproductive freedom should win out? Perhaps the person who wants an abortion performed should always win because it (in this hypothetical) secures negative reproductive freedom. Perhaps the person who wants the pregnancy continued should always win because it secures positive reproductive freedom.

There might be other parties with legitimate interests in reproductive freedom, too. What about the reproductive freedom of grandparents? What about the reproductive freedom of potential adoptive parents? The possibility for posthumous reproduction means we must be concerned with the reproductive freedom of the dead. As we’ve seen in court battles over frozen embryos, these are precisely the kinds of thorny interpersonal conflicts that judges and mediators are brought in to solve as they weigh some interests against others. So, appealing to reproductive freedom requires more people—and potentially more government representatives—be involved in the decision to have an abortion. 

The right to positive reproductive freedom that NARAL and other pro-choice groups champion potentially justifies overriding a woman’s bodily autonomy, unless a woman’s bodily autonomy is the ultimate trump card. But if bodily autonomy is the trump card, then it, and not reproductive freedom, is what grounds the right to an abortion. In the best case, reproductive freedom is a talking point that distracts pro-choice people from their best argument; in the worst case, it actually contradicts bodily autonomy arguments. Talking about reproductive freedom is just a bad rhetorical move for the pro-choice side.

How to Respond to Someone Arguing from Reproductive Freedom

Much of what I’ve said above was to flesh out the concept of reproductive freedom, so that you can better understand the position and potential pitfalls. However, in my research, I found places where someone used the phrase “reproductive freedom,” left the concept undefined, and switched to talking about bodily autonomy or “reproductive justice.” Expect similar things to happen to you in a dialogue situation. 

Make sure you know how the person to whom you are speaking uses the term. If they really have bodily autonomy in mind, address that head on rather than getting bogged down discussing reproductive freedom. If you are confident that the issue at hand really is reproductive freedom, show that you have some common ground with your dialogue partners, and then help them see why you draw different conclusions about abortion’s justification. You might say something like this:

“I agree that becoming a parent is a life-altering experience that no one should forcibly prevent or require of another person. I’m against forced sterilization, sperm stealing, and the coercive surrogacy in the Handmaid’s Tale. I do not support outlawing contraception. I consider these positions the proper domain of reproductive freedom. Abortion, however, doesn’t fall into that category. Abortion is the deliberate killing of the new human organism through lethal injection, dismemberment, or suffocation. It’s an inherently violent act, and unlike contraception, which prevents a new human organism from coming into existence, it cannot serve reproductive freedom. Biological parenthood starts when the new human organism starts—at fertilization—and biological relationships persist beyond an organism’s death. That’s why, for example, genealogy makes sense. If you’re concerned about someone’s freedom to refuse other kinds of parenthood, like gestational, social, or legal parenthood, there are non-lethal methods for doing so, like induced labor or adoption. Reproductive freedom is no justification for violence.”

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The post “Reproductive Freedom”: Another Pro-Choice Non-Argument 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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Elizabeth Lollar writes under a pen name. She has a master's degree in philosophy and teaches ethics at a small university. Her ever-patient and ever-loving husband stays up until the wee hours of the morning listening to her talk through whatever philosophical puzzle currently prevents her from sleeping. She has four children, three of whom are standing before the throne of God and interceding on her behalf.

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