A few years ago I wrote this article in the Christian Research Journal regarding the the bodily rights argument for abortion rights. After discussing this issue with a friend, who is seeing this argument being used more frequently on campus, I wanted to give some more thoughts about the issue.
In short, the bodily rights argument states that even if a human fetus is a full fledged member of the human family, a mother has the right to kill her offspring due to the fact that she has control over her own body. Please see the article for a more detailed explanation, but one of the more popular ways to illustrate this argument is by mentioning that the state does have the right to make a mother donate an organ or donate blood to her children even if not doing so would result in their death. It would be considered a moral good if she choose to do these things, but the state cannot compel her by force of law to use her body in this way even if her child dies as a result. Likewise, a mother cannot be compelled to continue a pregnancy, which also uses her body, even if discontinuing a pregnancy results in the death of her child. Thus abortion should remain legal.
Before I get into answering this argument, one thing needs to be emphasized. The strength of this argument from the pro abortion rights side is that is would allow abortion to remain legal regardless of the moral status of the human fetus. For that reason, before we continue, the abortion rights advocate needs to acknowledge at least for the sake of argument that the fetus in question is a human individual with human rights. So-called "personhood" arguments cannot be brought in at any point if they are arguing from bodily rights.
Now we've established that fetus has full moral status,and is in fact a child of the mother in question, let's move on to the issue of parental provisions, or things that parents provide for their children. Many, if not most parental provisions are good, but not legally required. For example, yesterday I drove my kids to soccer and violin lessons. Few would argue that these provisions that I provided for my children were not a moral good, but are certainly not a legal obligation. I can cease to give consent to these provisions at any time (and if there are a few more 40 degree rainy soccer games that might actually occur). I would argue that most of the provisions that my wife and I provide for our children fall into this category.
There is another category of provisions that the state requires us to provide. These are admittedly more rare, but are quite important. I am legally required to feed my child. I am legally required to provide my children a safe environment. If the authorities come to my house to find that my children have died because I did not feed them, or died because I did not them back into my house after they were playing I would not merely be considered a moral failure - I would be criminally prosecuted. This seems very clear.
We could make a list of parental provisions that are optional and ones that are legally obligatory. We would also include on the list of optional parental provisions the notion of providing an organ or a blood transfusion to a sick child. This would be a parental good but we do not legally compel mothers to provide this to their children, even if the child dies as a result.
Two question need to be answered here. First why, why are blood transfusions and organ donation optional? Second, and the big question is whether pregnancy is more consistent with the set of obligatory provisions or with the optional ones.
I do agree that the state has no right to demand blood transfusions or organ donation from parents. The reason, however, is very important. The state should not obligate these parental provisions because the child is in a state of illness, and no one has the right to demand the use of another person's body to cure their disease state. That, unfortunately, is the nature of disease. If a young child dies of leukemia even though his mother could have donated her bone marrow to treat him, he doesn't die because of a lack of maternal bone marrow. He dies because of his leukemia. Although as a culture we do everything we can do mitigate the effects of disease, we still acknowledge that no one has the "right" to their health. Thus the mother is not legally obligated to provide her organs or blood.
Compare this to the set of legally obligatory provisions. In the case of feeding and providing safety for their child, we do legally compel parents to provide what is needed for the continued good health of their child. If the child is otherwise healthy, the parents have an obligation to do a minimum to not cause a child to become sick or die. Thus they are required to provide food and a safe environment for their child.
So what about pregnancy? Is it closer to the set of obligations that are good but optional or closer to the obligatory provisions of providing food and safety for a child? Another way to ask the question is to ask is the state of pregnancy one of health or one of disease? If a pregnancy is considered a state of health for the child and mother, it seems the provision of pregnancy would be obligatory. "Continuing a pregnancy" would be amenable to continuing to provide what is otherwise necessary (nutrients, oxygen, a safe environment) to support the child's good health. If pregnancy is a disease state for mother and/or child, then the child has no right to demand the continued use of the mother's body, and withdrawing such support through abortion would be legally permissible and consistent with other optional parental provisions.
Clearly, the status of the vast majority of pregnancies is one of complete health for mother and child. In fact, the consequences of considering pregnancy a pathological state would be widespread and disastrous. For example, I have two pregnant women working for me at this very time. Should I be allowed to send them home because they are "sick", and return only when they are "better"? For this reason, the bodily autonomy argument fails to convince us that the parental provision of providing what a pregnant mother provides to her child is merely optional. Just like a parent has a moral and legal obligation to feed their child, a pregnant mother has a legal and moral obligation to support the good health of her child during pregnancy.
There are a few objections to this line of reasoning that I plan on addressing in future posts. These include:
1. Since pregnancies are not without risk, and some argue that continuing a pregnancy is safer than abortion, then a mothers provision is not legally obligatory because of the risk.
2. The fact that the child is dependent and connected to the mother is more important than the obligatory provision that the mother provides food and nutrition during pregnancy.
3. A mother can choose not to provide the obligatory provisions if she doesn't wish to by ways of adoption. Since she cannot place a fetus up for adoption, by means of the child's dependency, she should be allowed to discontinue the pregnancy via abortion.