Abortion. It’s a controversial topic surrounding political discourse that has resurfaced especially with regards to the Roe v. Wade ruling. Opponents of this bill articulate their arguments through three different lenses: the life above all polemic, the personal responsibility argument, and the religious argument. And here I will respond to them all.
First thing’s first- those, such as myself, who are pro-choice aren’t necessarily pro-abortion, and the people that receive abortions aren’t serial abortionists or doing it for some sort of sadistic pleasure. It is always necessary to recognize the humanity of the people who can be impacted by a decision as severe and rash as the criminalization of abortion.
To begin with, one must be able to recognize what bodily autonomy truly means from a legal standpoint. It means that anyone is not required by the state to do anything to themselves without their consent, or in more legal jargon, “Bodily autonomy is defined as the right to self governance over one's own body without external influence or coercion”. State-enforced pregnancy, as many refer to as the pro-life position, is an example of a lack of respect for that fundamental right of bodily autonomy, as are state-enforced abortion, eugenics, and most horrifically and recently, mass hysterectomies in ICE detention facilities, which falls under the United Nations criteria of genocide. Bodily autonomy is morally and fundamentally necessary to preserve in both my eyes and the eyes of many.
Some may argue that bodily autonomy doesn’t outweigh the value of life, which would be a fascinating philosophical and hypothetical discussion to have if not constricted to the framework of criminalizing and jailing those that disagree. For all my readers out there, let’s do a few thought experiments and hypotheticals.
Bear with me here.
You’ve been kidnapped after having a bit too much to drink last night, and you wake up in a damp and musty hospital bed with IVs connected to you and a little boy named Javier. Your arms are immobile and you are tied down. Your kidnapper wakes you up, and lets you know that Javier is a 7-year-old violin prodigy suffering from severe anemia who needs to have a constant blood transfusion in order to survive. Being a pro-life advocate, and given that Javier is a fully formed child, you stick to your principles and stay with Javier for now. Your captor says that you can leave Javier at any time and simply walk out of the building if you choose to do so,
Eventually, you grow tired, hungry, and start wondering how much of your time is acceptable to dedicate to Javier. And that is the question. If life truly trumps all, then you should stick it out with innocent Javier to the end, regardless of how your freedoms and life may be affected, right? If not, then at what point does your autonomy and freedom outweigh his life?
Even if you truly would stick it out for the violinist, why shouldn’t that simply be morally commendable instead of morally required?
This is a similar premise to Judith Jarvis Thomson’s work, which I recommend you take a look at. Never mind the potential scientific inconsistencies that the hypothetical I have presented may have, that truly is the question. The reason that most pro-choice people believe that a baby has the right to life outside of the womb is just that, they no longer interfere with the bodily autonomy of the mother. A similar hypothetical would be if you were to run into a fertility clinic which was burning down, and saw one five-year-old boy stuck under a desk on your left, and a hundred viable embryos in vials on the right. If you could only save one or the other, everyone would pick the child, regardless of the potentials of the embryos to grow, whether rationally or not.
However, the most real and violent example one could justify with the logic that bodily autonomy is subservient to life is state-forced organ donation. There is certainly a very real demand for organs to save lives, but we could not fathom seriously discussing allowing the government to force you to donate your organs to somebody else who needs them without your consent.
Detractors may attempt the argument that there is a fundamental difference between ‘killing a baby’ and letting somebody die. In that scenario, the difference is between action and inaction. Seeing as though you are already strapped to the violinist, you would be committing the action, just as an abortion does, not simply choosing not to save Javier. But even if I grant this contention credence, then the truth is that embryos and fetuses are unable to support themselves for at least 21 weeks, and at 23 weeks a premature birth has a 13% chance to survive. Honestly, I, and many others, would be happy to center the discussion of abortion at 21 weeks, or just under six months. This number isn’t even really a make or break point in the contemporary context of abortion, where over 99% of abortions happen before that 21st week, and frankly, if a woman has borne a fetus for six months, she must certainly have good reason to terminate the pregnancy that late after all that suffering which a blanket legislation ban can’t account for, such as the heart-wrenching stories one may come across when researching this topic and talking to people that had to resort to late-term abortions. Kate Carson writes, “Nobody loves [my child] more than I do. Her death was a gift of mercy. Mercy means different things to different loving families, and that has to be OK. To all the families who faced similar circumstances and made a different choice, I honor you. I trust your wisdom. I celebrate your child’s brief and beautiful life”. Other testimonies include the experiences of women who have set up nurseries and cribs only to be hit with the surprise medical issues of the fetus and the exorbitant surprise medical bills that would have come with delivery. It is absolutely necessary to recognize that these are not cruel and soulless people by any stretch of the imagination. It’s much easier to argue in good conscience when one doesn’t take into account these cases and dehumanizes the people that go through these issues. The same goes for every aspect of politics, truly empathizing and understanding the consequences of policy.
But for now, let’s run another analogy then, is it ‘murder’ when a guardian or next-of-kin decides to pull the plug on a person in a vegetative state? At that point, most consider it mercy, totally acceptable, and up to the discretion of those closest to let someone pass on from this plane of existence. In the case of an abortion, does not the prospective mother assume that guardian right? To decide to end suffering before it even begins? But that’s a question for another time.
Thus far, I have generously granted the pro-life side of the argument that a fully formed human life is equivalent to that of a fetus. The truth is that emotionally and literally, there is no contest nor a valid comparison in the eyes of most.
My colleague Shri Thakur has written a piece that may or may not end his career in a decade or so wherein he discusses abortion. He seems to take on the life-above-all arguments that I mentioned earlier, but empirically falsely equalizes the life of a fetus and a person, implying consistently that fetuses are “unborn babies” or “child” in order to evoke a more visceral reaction by the reader. He cites that researchers state that life begins at conception, to which I would absolutely agree, but never provides clarity on if humanity begins at conception. Conflating life or the scientific definition of species and personhood here is also an inherently philosophical and biological issue that has no consensus as of yet. Some may pose that a fetus is a homo sapien sapien, which is true, but then use that as justification for the idea of personhood, which would mean we would have to treat zygotes and embryos the same way, suggesting that even contraceptives should be banned, a premise beyond the pale. Personhood as a philosophical concept is a hotly debated and intriguing discussion, where those such as Aristotle believed that hat the soul develops first a vegetative soul, then animal, and finally human, adding that abortions were permissible early in pregnancy, before certain biological processes began. In contrast, prominent thinker John Locke contends that personal identity is a matter of psychological continuity. He considered personal identity to be founded on consciousness and sentience, but not on the substance of either the soul or the body. In federal law, the concept of legal personhood is formalized by statute (1 USC §8) to include "every infant member of the species homo sapiens who is born alive at any stage of development." That statute also states that "Nothing in this section shall be construed to affirm, deny, expand, or contract any legal status or legal right applicable to any member of the species homo sapiens at any point prior to being 'born alive' as defined in this section". This separation of personhood and the unborn was actually cited by Justice Blackmun in the landmark case that is often debated, Roe v. Wade. To legislate or criminalize based on such a wildly disputed claim is irrational and puts all of the facts behind the feelings.
Even if Shri or someone else were to believe that full personhood and humanity begins at conception, I would have no problem if he were to practice that principle in his own life, and I would never try to influence his or his girlfriend’s decision on an abortion, should he ever get a girl. I’d gladly discuss that fundamental question with him, and I believe that there is absolutely room for that conversation, but believing that the opposing side of the dialogue should be criminalized based on zero scientific or philosophical consensus is nothing short of counterproductive to the discourse. And until that philosophical question has an answer or a consensus, it seems perfectly rational to keep the legal statute limits to the bodily autonomy of a woman, the birth of the child with a legal discussion surrounding week 21.
As for the DNA argument- the idea that the fetus’ DNA being different should make it count as a separate person- is fundamentally biologically unsound. The idea that even all the cells of a single individual have the same DNA is erroneous, since many of them will experience multiple mutations during their life cycle, from random errors to effects of solar or other radiation, to viruses altering things in minor ways. Furthermore, every one of your cells is filled with mitochondria, which are symbiotic life forms that power our cells and have their very own, completely different DNA. That’s not even including all the bacteria that live inside you and help you survive or many other biological processes. And this DNA contention could just as easily apply to tapeworm infections, which doesn’t make it a factor in determining humanity. It's a justification for a belief where one works backward from the idea that a fetus is a different person to their mother during pregnancy, not a fundamental reason that can lead one to that conclusion.
Shri frames his overall thesis with, “[b]eing pro-life is about recognizing that every human life, no matter how small, no matter the circumstance in which it was created, has value”, which creates the snuck premise and false equivalency that a fetus is a person and disregards the value of bodily autonomy, as women aren’t simply fetus carrying facilities. Had he addressed or maybe attempted to quantify the value of bodily autonomy, versus that of the life of a fetus as cells, this could be a much more interesting and thought-provoking discussion. I would agree that every human life has value, which is why I am anti-war, for universal healthcare, the redistribution of wasted food, public housing, and other policies that aim to help the general welfare of people, but the question is, are not some things more valuable? Give me liberty or give me death, anybody?
Additionally, I wholly empathize with the religious and life-above-all arguments. It is a perfectly understandable belief that one can practice in their own private life instead of forcing this religion or philosophy on others in society. Again, to reiterate, the contention that I and many others hold is pro-choice. Not pro-abortion, or pro-murder, or whatever other names one may hurl at others in a Twitter comments section.
Finally, I would like to address the personal responsibility argument that is thrown around quite a bit. Unlike Shri’s position where rape and incest are not exceptions to his philosophy, those that argue the personal responsibility angle often agree with these exceptions as necessary. Again, it is worth remembering that women are not serial abortionists who hate consequences and law, but are much more easily and accurately characterized as somewhat irresponsible younger girls who oftentimes have lives to live, educations to attain, or people to care for.
That said, I believe that the social stigma surrounding getting an abortion is punishment enough. And frankly, if these women are that irresponsible, why should they now be trusted with raising a child? Make no mistake, most pro-choicers don’t like abortion itself and approve of the overall idea of personal responsibility. But is a woman who gets an abortion not taking responsibility anyway? If we reduce responsibility to natural, and not social, norms, then the idea of women assuming the birther role in society is revitalized, an archaic concept that we should be glad is gone. In any case, I still believe in proven techniques for reducing abortion, none of which are criminalization or stripping freedoms. According to the Guttmacher Institute, countries that have banned abortions actually have a higher abortion rate than countries where it is legal, the lowest of which is Switzerland which has been attributed to largely unrestricted and inexpensive abortion and comprehensive sexual education. Measures like this have even proven to be effective in the United States, as Colorado’s rapid decline in teen birth rates, a 54% drop, and a 64% reduction in teen abortion rates, are accredited to free and low-cost access to IUDs. An analysis by University of Colorado researchers found the state program was responsible for as much as two-thirds of the decline in births to teen mothers from 2009 to 2015. I want to promote personal responsibility, I don’t want to use the life sentence of birthing and nurturing a child as an ineffective deterrent. Additionally, the argument fails to state an unsound premise that it stands on, and follows this logic: consent to sex, with the plausible consequence being pregnancy, means consent to pregnancy. The unstated premise is that consent to x, means consent to possible repercussions of y, a fundamentally unsound argument. This line of thinking is actually ludicrous in other contexts. Someone who buys a car with the potential consequence of it being robbed doesn’t consent to the robbery. We don’t say that someone crossing the street that gets hit by a car should have understood the risks that came with it, nor smoking for lung cancer patients, or alcoholism for liver failure, so then why should we leave women to fend for themselves, citing this arbitrary standard of ‘personal responsibility’, instead of trying to help them? The entire point of accountability and consequences is to help those who commit mistakes learn and grow, not to sadistically condemn them for their actions, add insult to injury, and laugh at them.
As valiant as the efforts and principles of my counterparts and ideological foes on this field may be, it is of the greatest importance to ensure that a woman has the right to her bodily autonomy, abortions, and contraceptives. The pro-life argument may seem intuitive and natural to you, and if so, that’s absolutely fine, go ahead and practice it on your own time. Just make sure you don’t become anti-choice.
*The author does not claim to represent all the opinions of all the members of the Postpartisan in this essay.