Rebutting the ‘Bodily Autonomy’ Argument for Abortion

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Women dressed as handmaids to promote the television series The Handmaid's Tale stand along a public street during the South by Southwest Music Film Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, March 11, 2017. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

In Public Discourse yesterday, Ryan Anderson and I published an excerpt from our forthcoming book Tearing Us Apart: How Abortion Harms Everything and Solves Nothing, rebutting the bodily autonomy argument for abortion. In brief, this argument concedes that the entity in the womb is a human being and even a human person but holds that a woman’s right to autonomy over her body supersedes any rights of the child in the womb.

This argument predates legalized abortion, appearing first in its fullest instantiation in a 1971 essay by moral philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson, who is famous for creating the “violinist analogy” in defense of abortion. Here’s how Ryan and I summarize her argument over at PD:

Her famous analogy compared a pregnant woman to a hypothetical individual who, without his consent, has been hooked up to a famous violinist who is sick and requires this connection to remain alive. Imagine someone with kidney or liver failure who needs to be plugged into your body so he can rely on your kidney or your liver for, say, nine months, until a transplant could be found.

In Thomson’s analogy, just as it would be morally acceptable for you to choose to detach from the violinist, even if you know he will die as a result, so too would it be acceptable for a pregnant woman to have the unborn child detached. In neither case did you consent to having the violinist plugged in or the child exist in the womb. And in neither case are you seeking the person’s death. You don’t want it for its own sake, nor do you want it for the sake of something else it will bring. Death is neither your means nor your end, in the jargon of philosophers. It isn’t intended, only foreseen. You cut someone off from invasive access to your body, while knowing this will result in death. With this argument, Thomson portrayed pregnancy as an act of violence against women. Just as the violinist was secretly hooked up without your knowledge or consent, violating your bodily integrity, so too the child conceived and growing in the womb does so without permission.

More recently, Thomson’s argument has reappeared in the form of what I call the “forced birth” smear. Abortion supporters insist that pro-lifers are in favor of forcing women to give birth, that pro-life laws force women to be pregnant, give birth, and become mothers against their will. It’s just another way of articulating the bodily autonomy argument for abortion. Here’s a snippet of how Ryan and I respond:

Those who use Thomson’s philosophy to justify abortion today have repurposed it and pushed it in an even more insidious direction. During the Dobbs oral arguments, for instance, both attorneys arguing against Mississippi’s fifteen-week abortion ban were asked about “safe haven” laws, which shield women from prosecution if they terminate their parental rights and surrender an unwanted child to a safe haven. Justice Amy Coney Barrett asked both attorneys why safe haven laws are an insufficient solution to the supposed burden of parenthood, such that a right to abortion is still necessary.

In response, Julie Rikelman emphasized the burdens of pregnancy, echoing Thomson by arguing that continuing an unwanted pregnancy remains too burdensome on a woman’s rights even if she can legally relinquish her child after birth. But the second attorney made an even more revealing admission. U.S. solicitor general Elizabeth Prelogar told Barrett that reliance on safe haven laws overlooks “the consequences of forcing [on a woman] the choice of having to decide whether to give a child up for adoption. That itself is its own monumental decision for her.”

The implication of Prelogar’s argument was that the right to abortion is more than a right to “terminate pregnancy” or reject parenthood. As she herself said in the argument, part of the goal is to allow the woman not “to have a child in the world.” The intention in abortion, then, isn’t to remove a child from the womb but to make the child no longer exist. In the view of many abortion supporters, the right to abortion is the right to a dead baby. A National Review editorial put a fine point on it: “Abortion is valuable—it has constitutional status—because it lets mothers and fathers come as close as scalpel and poison can bring them to pretending they were never parents at all.”

For many abortion supporters, that is the aim: allowing mothers and fathers to choose abortion, not to avoid the burden of pregnancy or the sacrifices of parenthood, but as a means of eliminating their unwanted child from the world. The bodily autonomy arguments for abortion fail to acknowledge that all our liberties have limits. One standard limit on our liberty is that we aren’t allowed to intentionally kill innocent people. Whether those other people are in utero or ex utero, the same basic principle applies.

In the wake of a Court decision in Dobbs, expect to see abortion supporters cling to this argument, hoping to wring some political momentum out of the end of Roe.