Recently, a common objection that I have been hearing from street-level advocates of abortion-choice is the bodily autonomy argument. While doing outreach and discussing the topic of abortion with students on the college campus, this idea would be brought up quite often. The argument has been used and popularized since Judith J. Thomson made it in her 1971 article "The Violinist". Some pro-life authors have given very detailed responses to the argument. Two of my favorites have been Francis Beckwith's Defending Life and Chris Kaczor's The Ethics of Abortion. For this post, I will briefly give a few thoughts that I have about the argument itself, and it's limits.
To summarize the argument, it goes something like this: You wake up one morning to find yourself attached to a famous, unconscious violinist, who has a kidney ailment. The society of music lovers has placed him there, saying that he will need to use your kidneys for the next nine months, until he has recovered from his kidney ailment enough to function independent of you. Thomson then asks, given the situation, are you obligated to remain attached to him? It would be very nice of you to do so, but should you? She goes on to argue that it is not morally wrong to detach yourself, thereby killing the violinist, since he has no "right" to your body unless you consent to give it to him.
The argument has a lot of force, and has been critiqued by numerous authors, both pro-life and pro-choice. The more common street level objection goes something along the lines of "I have a right to do whatever I want with my body. Even though the unborn entity can be a full human person, I am the one who must ultimately decide."
Bodily autonomy has been, for a long time, a major driving force among the pro-choice movement, and I think it will continue to become that, as the science of embryology continues to affirm the existence of human beings from the point of conception.
A couple of questions do come to mind when it comes to bodily autonomy arguments for abortion:
1. To what extent is bodily autonomy unable to be restricted? Of course, women(and men) have very broad choices as to what they are able to do to their physical bodies, but even these choices seem to be limited when it comes to the rights of other human beings that may be infringed upon. Men don't have a right to sexually or physically harass women. No one has a right to driving under the influence, or to indecent exposure. Bodily autonomy is limited by the rights of other human beings, rights that spring from having a human nature(such as the right to not be unjustly killed). The only question then regarding abortion is whether there is a human being present in utero.
2. Would any abortions be immoral?
I have written a prior post on this topic, asking whether there would be times where a woman got an abortion for the sole purpose of selling the body parts of her unborn child for profit. What if another woman participated in a study where she was impregnated, carried the child to a later term, and then had an abortion so that doctors could learn how to develop safer procedures? Do we think that would be wrong? Many pro-choicers argue from hard cases, where abortion is considered to be a last resort. But why does that even need to be brought up? If bodily autonomy is virtually unlimited, why does it need to be just seen as a last resort? It must be because abortion really does intentionally kill an innocent human being, and doing so is close to impossible to justify.
To illustrate this, let's take another look at the violinist argument: Consider a woman who has a 20 year old son who happens to be a well-known violinist protégé(nicknamed "Young Stradivarius"). He becomes ill with a kidney infection, and his mother decides to donate the use of her kidneys until he makes a recovery(which will be in about nine months). Three months into the treatment, she finds out that her son has written a will in which he leaves all of his material wealth to his mother should he pass away. The mother, since she has given up the use of her body for a period of time, loses her job due to being unable to work, and is therefore being placed in a tougher financial situation. His mother, knowing that unhooking herself will kill him, now considers: Given that her "Bodily Autonomy" is absolute, she should be fully justified in unplugging, so she can get her son's money. If a person can choose to kill someone simply for being connected to them, but not wanting to be giving support, why couldn't we allow someone to use this justification for extremely frivolous reasons? But if it would be wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human being for reasons that don't justify doing so, then the majority of arguments for elective abortions collapse.
The Bodily Autonomy argument seems, at it's core, an argument based solely in selfishness. The idea that a person may make the choice as to whether their own son or daughter dies, and has the full "right" to do so if they feel inclined, is one that needs to be deeply reconsidered.
Given that this is becoming a common argument at the street level, I think pro-life advocates would do well to deepen their understanding of it, and the broad implications it has.
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