Tuesday, October 30, 2012

More Thoughts on the Bodily Rights Argument for Abortion [Serge]

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.


9 comments:

  1. Excellent post. You're talking about parental obligation. i think pro-lifers should use your point far more often.

    Pro-aborts ask "can we force a mother to donate her kidney to her child?" The answer is "it depends". If the mother caused, through intent or negligence, her child to need a kidney, she refused to supply that kidney and the child dies from the lack of that kidney then the mother is guilty of criminal homicide.

    And this is parallel to pregnancy. The unborn child is in a needy and dependent state. Who put that child in her needy and dependent state? The parents did. This is why parents are obligated to fulfill the needs of their children. This is the basis of parental obligation.

    The WHY of parental obligation (parents causing the child to be in need) also explains the WHEN of parental obligation. Pro-aborts claim that parental obligation doesn't begin until birth. But this assertion makes no sense because parental obligation is based on the parents putting the child in a needy state. Parents don't do this at birth but about nine months earlier at conception. Therefore, parental obligation begins at conception.

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  2. As further evidence, pro-aborts should consider when parental obligation ends. When is that?

    When the child becomes an adult.

    Why is that important? Because that is when the person can take of herself. She no longer needs her parents' assistance. So parental obligation is directly related to the neediness of the child.

    Imagine if human beings came into existence as adults. There would be no parental obligation.

    One can also readily see that the practical requirements of parental obligation also lessen as the child grows less dependent. If a parent drops off her 4 yr old alone at the mall with 20 bucks to watch a movie and get lunch, we'd call the police and Child & Family Services. But if a parent does the same thing with her 14 yr old, we think nothing of it. The greater the child's needs, the greater the parents' practical obligation.

    When pro-aborts say that an unborn child can be killed because she's not viable, pro-lifers should respond that the dependence of the child is not an excuse to kill her but actually points to the parents' greater obligation to care for her.

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  3. I really enjoyed this post, and look forward to the reading the rest of the series.

    One question, though. Will you also be discussing how parental obligations work with the bodily autonomy argument in cases of rape? The argument seems a lot more powerful in this case (since male victims of rape wouldn't be required to pay child support). The responsibility objection, which is otherwise sound, is also inapplicable.

    I think that, with a bit of work, the analogy described in the Christian Research Journal article could successfully defeat the bodily autonomy argument in the rape case.

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  4. Anon, i agree that the bodily rights argument only has a chance of working in the case of rape. In the non-rape case, bodily autonomy fails to justify abortion.

    Parental obligation still exists in the case of rape. The rapist has an obligation to care for the child. He caused the child to exist, causing the child to be in need. Of course, he's grossly neglecting his responsibility.

    If i dump my child on your porch, my responsibility to care for my child would still exist even as i forced you into an unfair situation. There's a baby on your porch. Are you under no obligation to care for the kid?

    Here's an article on the subject that's pretty good: http://www.l4l.org/library/aborrape.html

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  5. Incidentally, I have been working on and am just about to finish a personal blog post analyzing the bodily rights argument, and I came across your post, and so I will include the link to it at the end as a recommended reading.

    Some further thoughts concerning the bodily rights argument:

    -Organ donation does not merely involve the use of one person's body by another ("use" is broad language -- more on the implications of this below). It specifically involves a transfer of ownership of a body part (to the transplant recipient).

    Pregnancy does not involve the transfer of ownership of a woman's uterus. A woman retains ownership.

    Some pro-choicers would perhaps consider the above distinction to be an technicality that is practically insignificant, precisely because their argument hinges upon the tern "use". But if we take their argument ("no one has the right to use another person's body without that person's consent") at face value, it is undermined by this fact:

    Legal parental responsibility entails obligatory use of parents bodies for their children's sake (feeding the children, clothing them, monitoring them and taking measures to procure their safety, all involve use of the parents' bodies -- whether directly or in coordinating efforts -- in order to secure the legally required ends, that is, the proper care of children).

    Parents have bodily roles to fulfill in the lives of their children. If an infant falls into the backyard pool, and is drowning, and the parent is able but unwilling to pull out the child, refusing to use his/her body citing bodily autonomy,he/she is culpable of negligence from the point of view of law. Bodily autonomy does not reign supreme above all other considerations.

    - "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"

    When pro-choicers say, in response to the parental responsibility argument, that guardianship and responsibility of children can be transferred from parents to other designated and authorized persons, we simply transfer our argument onto those designated persons. The ultimate point being, that the killing of dependent children is not a legitimate means of releasing oneself from the responsibility to care for those children *regardless* of the option(or lack thereof) to transfer this responsibility.

    They are trying to salvage their bodily rights argument by appealing to the transfer-of-children option (which exists for those who are already born). What they need to ask themselves is this: absent the transfer option, is it permissible to kill such children? (That is what they argue concerning unborn children, though of course they avoid use of the word "kill").

    -"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."

    Parenting in general, entails risks: liabilities, financial strains, stress, loss of sleep, and illness (when caring for ill children with a contagious condition). Such risks, both potential and actual, do not justify eliminating the presence of the child by means of killing him or her.

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  6. On the issue of parental negligence/irresponsibility:

    There's a story that just came out about an incident that happened at the Pittsburgh Zoo, where a woman placed her 2-year old son on top of a railing, that overlooks an exhibit of wild African dogs, in order for her son to have a better view of the animals. He lost balance and fell into the pit, and was attacked by a pack of 11 dogs. He died, but pending the autopsy, it is not clear whether he died as a result of the fall, or of the mauling.

    Wild dogs kill 2-year-old boy at Pa. zoo exhibit


    This is a horrific tragedy that will haunt the mother. I want to clarify that what I say next is not an interpretation of the above actual incident, simply a consideration of a thought experiment.

    If we imagine a scenario identical to the above story, except that instead of the fall being an accident, the mother released her son purposely, having "withdrawn consent to hold him", her action would not be excused, bodily autonomy notwithstanding.

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  7. "So-called 'personhood' arguments cannot be brought in at any point if they are arguing from bodily rights."

    Rich,
    I think it's reasonable to state these ground rules. In our experience in discussing bodily rights on college campuses, though, it's common for the bodily rights argument to be used in conjunction with arguments against equal rights/value of the unborn. It's critical in these conversations to identify that the person is attempting to get traction for one argument from the other.

    My suggestion is to try to point this out (Scott Klusendorf says, "Narrate the debate") through a question about leaky buckets (I learned this from JP Moreland, I think): "If your argument is made up of two buckets, but neither bucket holds water on its own, how can putting the buckets together hold water?

    Stephen Wagner
    http://hbmm.net
    http://jfaweb.org

    ReplyDelete
  8. "So-called 'personhood' arguments cannot be brought in at any point if they are arguing from bodily rights."

    Rich,
    I think it's reasonable to state these ground rules. In our experience in discussing bodily rights on college campuses, though, it's common for the bodily rights argument to be used in conjunction with arguments against equal rights/value of the unborn. It's critical in these conversations to identify that the person is attempting to get traction for one argument from the other.

    My suggestion is to try to point this out (Scott Klusendorf says, "Narrate the debate") through a question about leaky buckets (I learned this from JP Moreland, I think): "If your argument is made up of two buckets, but neither bucket holds water on its own, how can putting the buckets together hold water?

    Stephen Wagner
    http://hbmm.net
    http://jfaweb.org

    ReplyDelete
  9. Drew, parental obligation to continue pregnancy is NOT due to the parents causing a situation in which the child needs this care. That is only part of the picture. The bodily rights argument does not hold in cases of rape either.

    The guardian of a child (even a de facto guardian who had nothing to do with the creation or enganderment of the child)must provide for the basic needs of this child: those being proper nutrition, clothing, and shelter as applicable. You are not obliged to donate a kidney, but you are obliged to provide the environment and nutrition that pregnancy entails. Someone may withhold their own kidney as their child dies of their own ailment. But you may not directly and intentionally cause the child's death by withholding nutrition and a necessary environment.

    ReplyDelete

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