Philosopher Agnes Callard explains.
by Neera K. Badhwar and E. M. Dadlez
Women’s autonomy over their lives is being threatened across the country. Clinics are being shut down, and restrictions are being placed on procedures to make them less affordable and less accessible. Some advocate bans on abortion after 20 weeks that make no exception for fetal abnormalities or the health of the mother. Even more drastically, seven states have passed “fetal heartbeat” laws that criminalize abortion after a heart beat is detectable, which is typically at 6 weeks – before some women even know that they are pregnant. In Alabama and some other states, the only exception is for the life of the mother and lethal fetal abnormalities. There is no exception for the mother’s health, or fetal abnormalities that will lead to life-long suffering, or pregnancies due to rape and/or incest.
Proponents of these restrictions show no concern for the child that, due to severe abnormalities, will be born to a life of pain and suffering, or for the mother who will become a slave to the care of a helpless, suffering child. Mere survival of the fetus is thought more important.
These new ‘pro-life’ laws are deeply inhumane. Here we examine and reject the main arguments against abortion as violations of the woman’s right to control her destiny.
The most common argument against abortion at any stage is that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception and persons have a right to life. But the fusion of two cells no more makes a person than the piling of one brick on another makes a house. A person has to have a body with organs and mind in order to function as a person. Until the cortical architecture can sustain consciousness and pain perception, which happens at 24 weeks at the earliest, the fetus is only a potential person, and all but <1% of abortions have been performed by then. The rare abortion that is performed after 24 weeks is for fetal abnormalities or the life or health of the mother.
Sometimes the argument against all abortions appeals to the soul of the fetus. However, belief in souls rests on faith, and if the Enlightenment has taught us anything, it is that religious beliefs have no place in public policy. But even if there are souls, there is no reason to believe that they enter the body at the moment of conception. Perhaps they enter bodies only in the third trimester, or only at the moment of birth.
Suppose, however, that the fetus is a person with the right to life. It does not follow that it has the right to use the mother’s body for life support. Even after a child is born, the law doesn’t compel us to donate organs, or even blood, to keep her alive. It might be immoral to refuse to do this, but the law does not and should not require us to donate parts of our bodies to our children.
Some argue that a woman who voluntarily has sex is responsible for supplying the fetus with life support. But knowing that sex can lead to pregnancy, in spite of one’s best efforts to prevent it, doesn’t automatically obligate a woman to carry that pregnancy to term. Everyone knows that driving involves at least the possibility of an accident. But if your brakes fail unexpectedly and you cause another to lose his kidneys, you are not obligated to supply him with a kidney because driving abstinence was an option. A woman has the same right to have sex as a man, without having to give up her right against involuntary servitude.
In state after state, fetal homicide laws, meant to protect the fetus and the pregnant woman, are being used against the pregnant woman herself when some action of hers is suspected of leading to a miscarriage. The so-called right of the fetus to the mother’s body, in conjunction with the Drug War and creative deployment of child abuse laws by over-zealous prosecutors, has led to women being charged with child abuse, and sometimes even murder, for miscarrying while taking drugs, ignoring other risk factors: poverty, stress, obesity, age and, possibly, paternal age. Unless fetal protection laws explicitly state that they are directed against third parties and not the pregnant woman, and unless prosecutors are prevented from abusing their power, these laws present a wholesale threat to women’s liberties.
In the words of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, what is “in the balance is a woman’s autonomous charge of her full life’s course… her ability to stand in relation to man, society and to state as an independent, self-sustaining equal citizen.”
Hastings Center blog post by philosopher Bonnie Steinbock here.