The bodily autonomy argument for abortion: Here’s why it cannot justify killing or neglect

By Paul Stark

Editor’s note.  This appears in the December issue of National Right to Life News, the “pro-life newspaper of record.” Please share this story, and the remainder of the 46-page edition with your pro-life family and friends.

Amidst the rhetoric in favor of abortion, one argument’s popularity surpasses that of all others. Pregnant women, abortion supporters say, have a right to decide what happens in and to their own bodies. 

Don’t misunderstand this claim. Defenders of abortion don’t (usually) mean that an unborn child is literally a part of the woman’s body, which would be absurdly false. The argument, rather, is that abortion is justified because the unborn child is inside and dependent on the woman’s body.

This approach tries to sidestep the standard pro-life case that unborn children are distinct members of the human species and that human rights belong to all human beings. The bodily autonomy argument contends that, even if that’s all true, it’s beside the point. Even if the unborn child counts as a valuable person like us, abortion is still justified because of the unique bodily dynamic involved in pregnancy. As some proponents put it, the woman’s right to control her body trumps whatever rights may belong to the unborn child. 

Bodily autonomy is indeed an important principle, one far too often violated (just think about the evils of sexual assault or human trafficking). But does autonomy justify abortion? Here’s how this argument works and where it goes wrong. 

May we do whatever we want to unborn children?

Trent Horn distinguishes between two versions of the argument. The “sovereign zone” version holds that a woman’s body is her sovereign domain. She owns it. So she has the right to do whatever she wants to her body or with what’s inside her body (which, in the case of pregnancy, includes the unborn child). 

But few people think this way consistently. For example, most of us agree that a pregnant woman should not knowingly ingest drugs or other substances that cause grave harm to the child (such as an extreme disability or deformity). And if harming the unborn child is wrong, then killing her through abortion is even worse. Bodily autonomy clearly has limits.

The sovereign zone view regards a woman’s body as her property, a territory over which she has total control. Yet one’s property rights, however important, can’t simply nullify the human rights of someone else. “Mere ownership,” writes the pro-choice philosopher Mary Anne Warren (in a critique of this argument), “does not give me the right to kill innocent people whom I find on my property.” If the unborn child has human rights, then we may not treat her in just any way we would like. We must treat her as the valuable human being she is.

May we refuse to provide bodily support?

The second version of the argument, the “right to refuse” version, originates with a philosopher named Judith Jarvis Thomson. It doesn’t say, as the sovereign zone argument does, that a pregnant woman may do just whatever she wants with the unborn child. Instead, it says that she has a right to refuse to let that child use her body for sustenance and protection. Just as we’re not obligated to donate an organ to save someone else’s life, the pregnant woman isn’t obligated to donate her body for nine months (and all the sacrifice that entails) to save the life of the child. 

But this version of the argument, too, faces serious problems. One problem is that abortion isn’t merely a refusal to help someone who would otherwise die from an underlying disease or injury. Instead, abortion is intentional and direct killing (via suction, dismemberment, crushing, poison, or lethal injection). The intended outcome is a dead child, and that outcome is achieved through violence to her body. So abortion is, as the pro-choice ethicist Kate Greasley puts it, “not the mere withholding of aid, but the act of killing, in breach of the negative obligation to refrain from killing other persons [though Greasley herself does not think unborn children are persons].”

Imagine two conjoined (Siamese) twins. Twin A could live independently of the body of Twin B, but Twin B could not live independently of the body of Twin A. Suppose Twin A has no special obligation to provide this extensive bodily support for his brother (after all, he’s not responsible for his brother’s existence and dependency). May Twin A have Twin B killed? 

No. Even if Twin A has a right to refuse to help his brother, that right to refuse isn’t the same as a right to kill. If unborn human beings, like conjoined twins, have human rights, then abortion violates those rights. 

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that abortion is more like declining assistance than like intentional and direct destruction. Is declining to help okay? The argument still faces a very serious problem, which is that parents (except in cases of rape) bear responsibility for their children because they brought those children into existence. 

This fact doesn’t seem controversial apart from the issue of abortion. An estranged father, for instance, must work and pay child support (in truth, he should do a lot more than that), even if he never intended to father a child. Dads and moms owe their dependent children ordinary care and protection from harm.

Of course, parenthood is really, really hard, and parents deserve our gratitude and support. Adoption, moreover, is a loving and selfless way that birth parents can fulfill their obligations. But if human beings matter before birth just as they matter after birth, then the basic responsibility their parents bear for them applies then as well. 

We flourish together, not at each other’s expense

Many people who employ the bodily autonomy argument see mother and child as competitors fighting in a zero-sum game. Mother Teresa observed that abortion has “pitted mothers against their children” and “sown violence and discord at the heart of the most intimate human relationships.” The pro-life view offers a different vision. It recognizes that human beings are vulnerable and interdependent by nature, that obligations arise from these relationships, and that real human flourishing comes together rather than at each other’s expense.

Bodily autonomy is important. But the bodily dynamic of pregnancy—the unique way that each one of us was nurtured by our mother when we were most immature and helpless—is no justification for killing or neglect. 

It is, instead, a call for mothers along with fathers to care for their children and each other—and for society to protect and support all of them.