Saturday, April 26, 2014

On Bodily Rights and Personhood [Clinton Wilcox]

In my recent debate with Matt Dillahunty, he made a claim that bodily rights arguments "include" arguments from personhood. This apparently means, to him, that he doesn't have to make a case against unborn personhood, it just means that whether or not the unborn are persons because of bodily rights abortion is permissible because no one has the right to use your body against your will. I believe this to be mistaken, and I will explain why bodily rights arguments don't "include" arguments from personhood; in fact, bodily rights arguments assume unborn personhood. This will be my last article written about my recent debate, but I feel that this is an important point to make. The debate is already over, so I'm not trying to score additional points with my articles. Debates are won or lost based on what is argued in the debate. I am here just explaining this topic in greater detail.

The reason that bodily rights arguments don't "include" personhood arguments is simple: if I make a case that the unborn are persons, then arguing bodily rights does not address personhood arguments. Bodily rights is not a defeater to the personhood argument; it doesn't even address it. If I make a case for unborn personhood, and you argue bodily rights, you've completely avoided the argument and the argument goes through. If I make the case that the unborn are persons because they don't differ from adults in any morally relevant way, and it's our inherent capacities, not our presently-exercisable capacities, that ground our personhood, then going to bodily rights arguments does not address these. In order to address my argument from personhood, you must show that the unborn actually do differ from us in morally relevant ways, or that our presently-exercisable capacities, rather than our inherent capacities, are what ground our personhood.

So Matt apparently thinks I was lying when I said he didn't address my arguments, but an honest listen to the debate will exonerate me on this point. He refused to address them because he didn't respond to them. Arguing from bodily rights is not addressing personhood arguments, it is avoiding them. But even Thomson, in her famous essay "A Defense of Abortion," understood this. She wrote, "I propose, then, that we grant that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception. How does the argument go from here? Something like this, I take it. Every person has a right to life. So the fetus has a right to life. No doubt the mother has a right to decide what shall happen in and to her body; everyone would grant that. But surely a person's right to life is stronger and more stringent than the mother's right to decide what happens in and to her body, and so outweighs it. So the fetus may not be killed; an abortion may not be performed."

Thomson then went on to give her famous violinist thought experiment, in an attempt to show that by granting the major premise of the pro-life position, that the unborn are full human persons with a right to life, abortion is still permissible. Bodily rights arguments, again, do not "include" personhood arguments, they assume the personhood of the unborn. If the unborn are not persons, there is no need to argue bodily rights because if the unborn are not persons it is not seriously wrong to kill them. Or if the unborn are a mere part of her body, then abortion would literally be no different than having a tooth pulled or a mole removed. But as I indicated in my last article, several times during our debate, Matt actually assumed the unborn are not persons, which is not an option a proponent of bodily rights has open to them, especially if their debate opponent made a case for the personhood of the unborn.

There are good reasons to consider the unborn to be persons. I also believe there are good reasons to make abortion illegal. But we must take care to be logically consistent in our arguments. Not only did I make a case that the unborn are persons, but I also made a case for why, in light of bodily rights arguments, a discussion of personhood is important. We are all persons from fertilization and because of this, we also have our basic rights from fertilization which includes a right to life.


  1. "in fact, bodily rights arguments assume unborn personhood."

    I disagreed on this particular point. The "pro-choice" argument basically says it doesn't matter if the unborn are persons, half-persons, or not persons at all, the unborn don't have a right to another person's body, any more than a 2-year old has a right to one of his mother's kidneys. It why often you will hear our opponents decry abortions in some circumstances, yet still affirm the right to abortion.

    By the way, our opponents routinely mock our personhood arguments ("you believe people can live in a petri dish?"), but we rarely seem to address how ridiculous the bodily autonomy argument is. We really need to start doing this. For example: If we have 100% control over our bodies, how can you outlaw prostitution? Or what about military conscription, which every civilization in the history of the world has had. The idea of complete ownership of your body is completely anti-biblical and goes against basic principles of government civilization.

    1. You say you disagree with me about my point regarding bodily autonomy, but then you say "It [sic] why often you will hear our opponents decry abortions in some circumstances, yet still affirm the right to abortion." This sentence proves my point. The only reason some would decry abortion in certain circumstances (even if they believe it should be legal) is if the unborn entity actually *is* a human person, otherwise it would not be something to decry. Some pro-choice people may pay lipservice to the position that "it doesn't matter whether or not it's a person, it doesn't have a right to my body," but that's untenable. If you're arguing from bodily rights, you are assuming unborn personhood (as Thomson did in her essay) because if the unborn is not a person, there is no need to argue from bodily rights because a non-person *definitely* does not have a right to use your body against your will. This is not a position that is open to a proponent of bodily rights. And you certainly can't *deny* unborn personhood with a bodily rights argument if I make a case for unborn personhood, as Matt Dillahunty did in our debate.

      Now, I do think bodily rights arguments can be compelling, and I think pro-life people would be mistaken to act as if pregnancy is "no big deal" to the pregnant woman. So I don't think it's *ridiculous*, but I definitely don't think it justifies killing an innocent child. After all, the reason that bodily rights arguments don't work is specifically because there is another person at issue. If the unborn wasn't a person, then abortion would be more comparable to having a mole removed or a tooth pulled. But since the unborn entity is a human person, then abortion is morally wrong.

    2. I haven't watched the debate yet. But it's just as true that if the bodily rights argument is sound, then abortion proponents do not need to argue against personhood. The resolution Matt is trying to affirm is "abortion should remain legal". Either of the following two conditions would be sufficient:

      1. The unborn is not a person.

      2. Because a woman has a fundamental right to bodily autonomy, it would not be wrong to abort a person.

      Notice that, if 2 can be defended, it is not necessary to argue for or against 1 because the resolution has already been affirmed.

      It would only be necessary to argue in favour of 1 if the abortion opponent could refute 2. If you did, and the Matt's rebuttal was along the lines of "well, it isn't a person anyway", only then would he need to directly address the personhood question.

      (and if that's how the debate really went, as it very well might have for all I know, then you would have a case)

      To draw a parallel, a pro-lifer can affirm the resolution "abortion should be illegal" by defending either of the following criteria:

      1. Abortion is very dangerous for women - so dangerous that it should be illegal.

      2. Abortion should be illegal because it unjustly kills a human being, even if it's perfectly safe for the woman.

      Notice, again, that either one of these is a sufficient condition for affirming the resolution. If you can successfully argue in favour of 2, it doesn't matter whether or not you personally believe 1 is true. The abortion proponent can spend all day citing studies demonstrating that abortion doesn't cause breast cancer and that women don't face psychological harm, but that would not refute your case. You would only have to defend 1 if your opponent could negate 2.

    3. Well, you should really listen to the debate first. Matt did deny unborn personhood, even after I made a case for it. But my article here (of which your comment is a bit off-topic) is that Matt asserts that bodily rights includes personhood arguments, which it doesn't. If I make a case for unborn personhood, then making a case for bodily rights doesn't address the personhood arguments. My personhood arguments went through because they stood unaddressed by Matt. Now you can argue that abortion is permissible anyway because of bodily rights, but by arguing bodily rights you are assuming unborn personhood (which even Thomson admitted in her original essay with the violinist thought experiment). You can't argue "bodily rights justifies abortion" then assert that the unborn have no rights without making a case that they have no rights (since bodily rights arguments don't argue for or against fetal rights). Since there is a second person at issue, it's not a case where one person (the woman) has a right and the unborn doesn't, it's that you have two rights-bearing entities (the woman and the child) that are in conflict; which one's rights have the greatest moral weight in the equation?

  2. Listening to anything Matt Dillahunty says about abortion is painful. Since he has separated the legality of abortion from the morality, it is hard for him to even understand how he sounds to pro-lifers. I highly respect anyone who dares to debate him. I don't think I could do it myself since debate is not my talent, but I would gladly help anyone else do so if I had a way of supporting them.

  3. Yes I already I disagreed on this particular point. The "pro-choice" argument basically says it doesn't matter if the unborn are persons, half-persons, or not persons at all, the unborn don't have a right to another person's body, any more than a 2-year old has a right to one of his mother's kidneys. It why often you will hear our opponents decry abortions in some circumstances, yet still affirm the right to abortion.
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    1. Sorry for the lateness of the reply. I never got notified that you left a comment.

      Actually, for bodily rights arguments, the personhood of the fetus is assumed (as Thomson even says in her essay). It's not that it doesn't matter. In point of fact it does, because if the fetus is not a person, then you don't have to argue bodily rights at all. It would be permissible to kill the fetus because you are not harming a moral agent. Only if the fetus is a person would you then have to argue bodily rights. To say that it "doesn't matter" is clearly false, because if the fetus is a person then it becomes a moral agent, and you need a sufficiently justifiable reason to kill it, to say nothing of the fact that since the woman is responsible for the child's creation and state of dependency upon her, and the fact that she is the child's biological mother, establishes a greater obligation to the woman to care for the child.

  4. Clinton:

    I did not listen to the debate. However, I find a solid objection to right to refuse objections to be the consistency objection from Dr. Kaczor.

    It seems to me that if we grant two people existing in this relationship then they both have bodily autonomy. The only reason they can support the notion that the woman has a right to kill the child is because the child is benefiting from the relationship.

    That can be objected with the examples where the child isn't benefiting at all because of instances where it would be better off prematurely birthed than in a pregnant woman that is doing drugs and harming the fetus.

    Certainly it wouldn't be OK to kill the woman if the separation of the child from the woman in that case would cause the mother's death.


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