Two Bad Pro-Life Responses to Bodily Rights Arguments

There are some good pro-life responses to bodily rights arguments for abortion. These two rejoinders don’t belong on that list.

JoshBrahm-BodilyRightsSpeech-300x218 (1)I am convinced that most pro-abortion-choice advocates who go beyond basic rhetoric and slogans are partially grounding their position in some form of bodily autonomy arguments. If you’re somewhat new to arguments for abortion rights that admit for sake of argument that the unborn is a fully valuable person, please listen to this speech I gave at UCLA last month explaining them as well as offering some refutations.

Let me offer a brief summary of bodily rights arguments before getting to the faulty pro-life responses. Most pro-choice arguments either assume that the unborn are not valuable human beings, (“What about poverty?” “What if she will lose her scholarship?”) or they argue that the unborn are not valuable human beings. (“It’s not viable yet.” “It’s not sentient yet.” “It can’t feel pain yet.”) But there’s a third category of pro-choice arguments that admit (at least for the sake of argument) that the unborn are valuable human beings, yet the mother should still have the right to kill them because of her bodily autonomy. Her view is that if it’s in her body, she has the right to kill it, or at least take whatever measures necessary to refuse to have her body used as life support.

I’ve spoken on bodily rights arguments a lot, especially after helping write the De Facto Guardian paper. During Q&A, someone will often ask about a potential pro-life response that I didn’t include in the speech.

Here’s one I’ve heard several times in that context, and I’ve seen pro-lifers use it in blog posts as well:

“No woman has an abortion because she’s trying to protect her right to bodily autonomy.”

According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute’s 2005 survey of more than 1,200 abortion patients, these were the most common reasons that women chose abortion:

guttmacher

I agree that the women who took this survey didn’t report that their natural right to bodily integrity was the primary reason they chose abortion, but that’s irrelevant.

First of all, the Guttmacher survey didn’t have an option for “I want to maintain control over my body.”

Secondly, even if that’s not at all a part of a woman’s decision-making process, that doesn’t mean that bodily autonomy arguments fail to justify abortion being legal. If bodily rights arguments succeed, then it doesn’t really matter why a woman decides to have an abortion, because it’s justified. This is especially true if the “Sovereign Zone” argument is correct. In that case, taking Thalidomide to intentionally deform or hiring an abortionist to torture a baby to death would be justified, as Timothy Brahm shows in this brilliant piece.

In other words, there can be a difference between why abortion is morally justified and why a particular woman would decide to choose abortion.

Here’s another bad pro-life response. It is usually exclaimed by someone when they hear Judith Jarvis Thomson’s violinist story or “people-seeds” analogy for the first time:

“Well, that’s just weird!”

judith-216x300Thought experiments like Thomson’s violinist are meant to test our intuitions and help us determine things like whether or not a certain action is morally justifiable. Thought experiments about pregnancy will almost always be weird. Why? Because pregnancy is weird! There’s nothing else in our universe that’s like pregnancy, so you end up with these bizarre stories about people being hooked up to different body parts.

It’s not just pro-choice thought experiments that are weird either. There are pro-life thought experiments that are weirder than the violinist story, and they are very helpful. You don’t want to ban all bizarre thought experiments from your conversations because frankly, you should probably be using them sometimes.

If you want to hear some of the thought experiments I’m referring to that will help you respond persuasively to bodily rights arguments, download this speech I gave at UCLA and then post any questions you have in the comments below!

The post Two Bad Pro-Life Responses to Bodily Rights Arguments originally appeared at JoshBrahm.com. 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.”

Question: Do you have any faulty pro-life responses to bodily rights arguments to add to the list? Post them below!

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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, pro-life philosophy, and relational apologetics.

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  • Acyutananda

    You have a good point that the Guttmacher survey didn’t have that option.

    But then you go on: “Secondly, even if that’s not at all a part of a woman’s decision-making process, that doesn’t mean that bodily autonomy arguments fail to justify abortion being legal. If bodily rights arguments succeed, then it doesn’t really matter why a woman decides to have an abortion, because it’s justified.”

    What can cause a bodily-rights argument to succeed? The argument would have to show to our intuitions that bodily rights have a very high value, higher than the right to life. If in practice bodily rights is not a part of any woman’s decision-making process, isn’t that some indication that bodily rights don’t resonate as much to human intuitions as they’re cracked up to, or don’t resonate as much in the context of pregnancy as they might in some sensationalized imaginary situation such as the violinist?

    • I think a bodily-rights argument could succeed if a sufficient argument could be made that a thought experiment like Thomson’s violinist is parallel to pregnancy in all the morally relevant ways. I don’t think the person in the violinist story should be legally forced to remain hooked up, so I do think it’s possible for pro-choice people to demonstrate that the two situations are parallel. At this point I remain unconvinced though, and I explain why in the speech audio I linked to.

      • Acyutananda

        First of all, “I do think it’s possible for pro-choice people to demonstrate that the two situations are parallel. At this point I remain unconvinced though . . .”

        Doesn’t “At this point I remain unconvinced” mean that you’re not yet sure it’s possible to demonstrate that the two situations are parallel?

        I will listen to the audio, but I think that even before doing so I can ask something about “a bodily-rights argument could succeed if a sufficient argument could be made that a thought experiment like Thomson’s violinist is parallel to pregnancy in all the morally relevant ways.” Wouldn’t one of the morally-relevant ways have to be an intuition that a normal pregnancy is as negative an experience as the violinist situation? And if women don’t tend to cite a negative experience of pregnancy as a reason for abortion, wouldn’t that help show that a normal one is not as bad as the violinist situation?

        I’ve written a little more on this at http://www.noterminationwithoutrepresentation.org/Personhood/#comment-98

        Search for: cited a Guttmacher study

        Now I’ll listen to the audio. Thanks for your work.

        • I think what I’m trying to communicate is that I remain open to being wrong about my current beliefs. I have strong views on the subject because I’ve spent the better part of three years thinking about bodily rights arguments and trying to respond to the strongest versions. Yet, I think there is more work to be done. For a better understanding of what I mean by open-minded, check out this discussion I hosted on the subject: http://prolifepodcast.net/2013/05/172/

          • gladys1071

            I know your comments are three years old, so bear with me. I am one of those women that would have an abortion due to bodily rights. I place a very high value on bodily rights and being pregnant would be a gross violation of my body. I have debated others online on this issue, it seems bodily rights is not used enough by my fellow pro-choicers like myself.

            I seem to be one of the few pro-choicers that use bodily rights more than any other reason for abortion. To me the issue of personhood human DNA are irrelevent when it comes to bodily autonomy.

            I am a Christian, but i have very strong sense of bodily rights, so i won’t deny that i am biased at the same time i find it a gross violation to force a woman to gestate in her body against her will NO matter how she got pregnant.

            Though we will probably disagree on this issue, but do know their are pro-choicers like me that highly value bodily autonomy and do believe it trumps the right to life in most cases.

            Let me know what you think.

            • Crystal

              You might like to take a look at this:

              https://blog.equalrightsinstitute.com/quote-pro-choice-friend/

              His blog is full of teaching prolifers to relate constructively to people who disagree with them on abortion. I hope he does respond back to your questions.

            • Greetings! Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me. No, I don’t think your situation is super unusual. I think most pro-choice people weigh the “fetus is not a person” view as driving their overall pro-choice views than you are, but I spent years talking to a pro-choice person who literally was only pro-choice because of violinist reasoning. She even believed that a two-day old zygote is morally equal to a toddler – it was ONLY the bodily autonomy argument driving her pro-choice view.

              I have a few clarification questions for you if you’re open to discussing further. I prefer private dialogues over public ones, so maybe let me know if you’d be open to reaching out to you through email? (Because I’m an admin on this blog and because of the way Disqus works, I can see your yahoo email address that you connected to Disqus.) Open to further dialogue? :)

          • gladys1071

            the other thing i want to add is the bodily autonomy is highly valued in the U.S and for that reason alone I don’t believe abortion will every be outlawed. People underestimate how strong the bodily autonomy argument is and in a court of law will not compel a woman to gestate against her will.

    • Deanna Young

      “The argument would have to show to our intuitions that bodily rights have a very high value, higher than the right to life”

      Bodily rights arguments don’t seek to show that bodily rights are of higher value than the right to life. They try to show that the right to be kept alive using someone else’s body is not included in the right to life. And that abortion is not violating the unborns right to life.

      • That’s correct.

      • Acyutananda

        You will find bodily-rights arguments trying to show slightly different things, but let’s use your definition of them:

        “Bodily rights arguments. . . . try to show that the right to be kept alive using someone else’s body is not included in the right to life.”

        Do they show that without comparing values? If they do compare values, what values do they compare?

      • Mark Chance

        “And that abortion is not violating the unborns right to life.”

        George Orwell called. He’s says the Ministry of Truth has a job waiting for you.

  • Guest

    I have to agree. If pregnancy really is like the violinist analogy, your reason for unhooking yourself shouldn’t diminish your right to refuse. Suppose I’m hooked up to the most famous violinist in the world, and I’m the second-most famous. If I unhook myself solely because I’m jealous of him and would benefit from his death, I still wouldn’t be legally obligated to stay attached.

    • Acyutananda

      One reason society wouldn’t decide to make you legally obligated is that they could not know for sure what your reason was. If they could know for sure that the situation wouldn’t trouble you at all in any way except that, might they not consider it justified to protect life by law?

      I would ask the same about Josh Brahm’s “there can be a difference between why abortion is morally justified and why a particular woman would decide to choose abortion” — isn’t abortion justified (assuming, as we are for the sake of argument, that bodily rights are highly important) because bodily rights might possibly be the “why” of some women? What if that possibility could be excluded?

      Aren’t laws based, ideally, on morality, and aren’t the moral principles that get embodied in law based on intuitions, particularly intuitions of fairness? It seems to me that our intuitions about the value of bodily rights stem from our awareness that bodily rights, considering our close relation to our bodies, can shield us from a frightening range of real harm. If the worst that can befall my body is that someone might tap my shoulder to get my attention or that my body might (without any other inconvenience to me) be keeping a more famous person alive, would there be any big fuss about bodily rights as an abstraction?

      And then we get back to Josh Brahm’s “if [control over my body] is not at all [in practice] a part of a woman’s decision-making process” . . .

    • Maurice Broker

      The first argument is not innocuous or irrelevant. It is worth to question if protecting women autonomy is really a issue here. Lets remember which contexts it makes sense to make claims of autonomy. The list may be long, but it has to be political or juridical contexts. I.e, someone has to be robbing you or politically oppressing you for your claim of autonomy to make sense. It would be incorrect to say I’m protecting my autonomy by staying safe from a parasite, for example, because a virus do not have any political or juridical claim over me. Maybe it is a political autonomy right to have health insurance (debatable), but the virus in itself is not oppressing someone politically. The same is valid for fetuses: it is innocuous to say you are protecting your autonomy from fetuses, since fetuses are not political oppressors or criminal agents…

  • argent

    Hmm … while “women don’t abort to protect their bodily autonomy” might not be much good as a logical argument to ban abortion, I do think it’s a valuable observation (perhaps only outside of debate?) in that it helps elucidate the real reasons people have for making the arguments they do.

    It’s an interesting apparent contradiction, the fact that pro-choicers often argue from bodily autonomy and yet most people’s reasons for aborting have to do with not wanting the child to become a born child who would need care. There is a disconnect between the people pushing for legal abortion and the people who actually get abortions, and that disconnect is worth investigating.

    Personally, I think the bad circumstances that lead people to consider abortion could be resolved either by improving the conditions these pregnant people find themselves in or by giving them access to abortion, but what leads people to push the latter rather than the former is a profound and not actually unwarranted fear of having their bodies controlled by others.

    • Maurice Broker

      Also, it is worth to question if protect women autonomy is really a issue here. Lets remember which contexts it makes sense to make claims of autonomy. The list my be long, but it has to be political or juridical contexts. I.e, someone has to be robbing you or politically oppressing you for your claim of autonomy to make sense. It would be incorrect to say I’m protecting my autonomy by staying safe from a parasite, for example, because a virus do not have any political or juridical claim over me. Maybe it is a political autonomy right to have health insurance (debatable), but the virus in itself is not oppressing someone politically. The same is valid for fetuses: it is innocuous to say you are protecting your autonomy from fetuses, since fetuses are not political oppressors or criminal agents.

  • Kelly

    Isn’t “physical problems with my health” (an answer in that survey about why women get abortions) somewhat indicative of a bodily rights line of thinking? Maybe a good place to start would be to directly address that reason.

  • MarcusFenix

    I’ve heard it once argued (though I forget where, apologies) that bodily rights are nothing more than a broader form of property rights, whereas your own body is the property. With that, the comment they made was that if a woman’s body is her property, and she forcibly introduces a child onto that property, that she should be made responsible for seeing it through to the end.

    Thought it was an interesting take, but…i’m not convinced. Thoughts?

    • I hadn’t heard that argument before, but I’ve often heard pro-choicers embrace the body-as-property analogy, then use it to opposite effect by casting the unwanted unborn as a harmful intruder, subject to violent self-defense.

      I guess the unborn is somewhere between an intruder and a kidnap victim — a lot may depend on intuition. I have thought about the role of intuition in relation to bodily rights here:

      http://www.NoTerminationWithoutRepresentation.org/dismantling-the-bodily-rights-argument-without-using-the-responsibility-argument/

    • Maurice Broker

      It seems impossible to distinguish bodily rights from some category of property rights simply because it is impossible to argue about body rights without using the term “mine”(someone’s) body. The bodily rights argument is also a individualistic liberal kind of argument, compatible with republican types of “less-government” arguments.

      The whole problem is that 1. there is another life, 2. That second life is probably innocent from the political and criminal point of view. So it is really hard even to use individualistic liberal types of arguments as rules to pro-choice people. Not to mention that it is incompatible with all their left-wing basic intuitions about human rights and “more-government” to protect the weak (or marginalized).

  • Maurice Broker

    The first argument is not innocuous or irrelevant. It is worth to question if protecting women autonomy is really a issue here. Lets remember which contexts it makes sense to make claims of autonomy. The list may be long, but it has to be political or juridical contexts. I.e, someone has to be robbing you or politically oppressing you for your claim of autonomy to make sense. It would be incorrect to say I’m protecting my autonomy by staying safe from a parasite, for example, because a virus do not have any political or juridical claim over me. Maybe it is a political autonomy right to have health insurance (debatable), but the virus in itself is not oppressing someone politically. The same is valid for fetuses: it is innocuous to say you are protecting your autonomy from fetuses, since fetuses are not political oppressors or criminal agents.