Published June 23, 2022
Some abortion supporters sense the truth of the basic pro-life argument—that the unborn child is a human being and a person with moral value, and that the state has a legitimate role in protecting the lives of all people—so they make a different case. Conceding these three points for the sake of argument, they argue that the state’s protection of innocent life cannot come at the expense of women’s bodily autonomy. That is, there are two goods—and two state interests—at play when it comes to abortion, and the state needs to balance them.
As a result, one significant set of arguments, often used by feminists, is that abortion is first and foremost a matter of female autonomy. These thinkers say that, without abortion, women cannot control their bodies and their reproductive choices. Even if the unborn child is a human being and a moral person, that doesn’t give him a right to trespass in a woman’s body. Women have authority over their own bodies and need the right to abortion in order to be free and equal. We say more about the social equality argument in our new book Tearing Us Apart: How Abortion Harms Everything and Solves Nothing. Here we focus on the bodily autonomy argument.
The Academic Debate
This basic bodily autonomy argument for abortion was first fully articulated in 1971 by moral philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson. Thomson stipulated for the sake of argument that the unborn child is a human being—and even that it is a human person. But she nonetheless justified abortion as non-intentional killing. Her famous analogy compared a pregnant woman to a hypothetical individual who, without his consent, has been hooked up to a famous violinist who is sick and requires this connection to remain alive. Imagine someone with kidney or liver failure who needs to be plugged into your body so he can rely on your kidney or your liver for, say, nine months, until a transplant could be found.
In Thomson’s analogy, just as it would be morally acceptable for you to choose to detach from the violinist, even if you know he will die as a result, so too would it be acceptable for a pregnant woman to have the unborn child detached. In neither case did you consent to having the violinist plugged in or the child exist in the womb. And in neither case are you seeking the person’s death. You don’t want it for its own sake, nor do you want it for the sake of something else it will bring. Death is neither your means nor your end, in the jargon of philosophers. It isn’t intended, only foreseen. You cut someone off from invasive access to your body, while knowing this will result in death. With this argument, Thomson portrayed pregnancy as an act of violence against women. Just as the violinist was secretly hooked up without your knowledge or consent, violating your bodily integrity, so too the child conceived and growing in the womb does so without permission.
Thomson’s argument fails spectacularly, as we explain more fully in our book. First, the bodily autonomy argument for abortion could only get off the ground if abortion entailed unintentional killing. But unlike the case of the violinist, where the intention truly is just to detach—with his death a foreseen but unintended side effect—in the case of abortion, the intended outcome is a dead child. Thomson’s hypothetical is wrong about what people want when they seek abortion. An abortion where the child survives is a failed abortion. By contrast, a detachment from the violinist where the violinist survives would be considered a success. In performing an abortion, the abortionist doesn’t seek only to remove an “invading” child from a womb but also to ensure that the child no longer exists. (This is why the pro-abortion movement opposes even the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, which would legally protect newborns who survive an attempted abortion.)
To better illustrate the difference, consider situations in which the death of an unborn child is foreseen but not intended, such as when a pregnant woman has a cancerous uterus. In treating a woman in such a case, the death of the child is neither a means to the desired outcome nor the intended end itself. In fact, the death of the child in such situations is almost always lamented. The mother with the cancerous uterus doesn’t intend to kill her child but rather to remove a cancerous organ. So, too, a woman with an ectopic pregnancy—in which the embryo implants and develops in the fallopian tube—doesn’t intend to kill her child but to remove it from developing in a place inhospitable to continued life for both baby and mother. She foresees but does not intend that the child will inevitably die as a result. Women seeking abortion, however, don’t just seek to be “unpregnant.” They seek not to have a living child.
Second, the analogy between abortion and the violinist is a non-starter in any case other than when the pregnancy itself was the result of a violation of bodily integrity—as it would be if the violinist were hooked up to you. The analogy doesn’t apply to nearly all pregnancies, the vast majority of which result from consensual sex. In fact, the pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute’s research has shown that only 1 percent of abortions are obtained in cases of rape—a percentage that holds steady across decades of data.
Missing from bodily autonomy arguments for abortion is any recognition that a moral relationship between mother and child already exists by the time a woman is contemplating an abortion.
In consensual sex, even in the case of failed contraception, the man and woman voluntarily engage in the act that brings a new life into existence. The unborn child is not an intruder who uses force and violence to attach himself to the mother, the way a parasite attaches to a host. Rather, the unborn child is right where he is supposed to be, doing what he’s supposed to be doing. Conception is the natural fruit of sex, and a child developing in the womb is a sign of reproductive health. Conception and gestation are natural results of sex. People—parents especially—bear responsibilities for the natural consequences of their acts. A man and a woman who voluntarily engage in the act that can create new life, a life that comes into existence in the condition of radical dependence, owe duties in justice to care for that new life. This is the heart of parental obligation.
Pregnancy for many women can be a burden, and for some it can entail grave physical costs, but that doesn’t justify the intentional killing of another innocent person—and not just any innocent person, but the woman’s child. Missing from bodily autonomy arguments for abortion is any recognition that a moral relationship between mother and child already exists by the time a woman is contemplating an abortion. Both mother and father have natural duties to protect and care for their children, regardless of whether they are “wanted” or “unwanted,” “planned” or a “surprise,” “perfect” or “defective.”
Thomson’s analogy, then, fails as applied to nearly all pregnancies. The analogy seems apt only when the pregnancy in question was the result of rape. Even in the case of rape—a horrible violation of a woman’s dignity, bodily integrity, personal autonomy, and rightful liberty—justice still requires respecting the unborn child’s life. The child, after all, wasn’t the rapist, did nothing wrong, and is still the mother’s child. The burden of persisting in even a difficult pregnancy is not proportionate to losing one’s life. That is, there exists a profound asymmetry between existence or non-existence on the one hand, and the burdens and costs of pregnancy, even one that comes with profound psychological challenges, as in cases of rape. And, of course, as a moral matter nothing justifies intentional killing of the innocent, let alone one’s own child. (As a legal matter, exceptions for rape may be a political necessity to enact otherwise protective laws.)
But we shouldn’t fall captive to this pro-abortion rhetorical red herring. Abortion supporters most often point to pregnancies resulting from rape not because they believe that abortion should be limited to these truly hard cases but to use these difficult examples to justify abortion on demand throughout all nine months of pregnancy. If the Thomson argument succeeded, it would justify abortion only in rare cases when the mother did not consent to sex and thus is not responsible for the fact that a new life came into existence inside of her. Even so, it still wouldn’t justify intentional killing. What’s important to remember is that the overwhelming majority of children are conceived as the natural result of consensual sex. Unlike Thomson’s hypothetical individual, who suddenly woke up and found himself attached to the violinist, parents bear responsibility for the fact that they have conceived a child.
The first three steps of our book’s argument—a new human being comes into existence at conception, human beings possess intrinsic dignity and worth, and government exists to protect innocent human beings from lethal violence—explain the long moral and legal tradition against murder. Examining the bodily autonomy argument for abortion highlights another pro-life point: abortion is wrong not only because strangers shouldn’t kill each other, but also and especially because parents have special obligations to their children, and it isn’t governmental overreach to require parents to fulfill those obligations. The unborn child in the womb isn’t an intruder or parasite. He is exactly where he is supposed to be, doing exactly what he’s supposed to be doing, and his parents are supposed to be nurturing, protecting, and loving him. Though some parents cannot care for their child after birth, they have a responsibility at least to bring their child into the world and find someone who can care for him. Carrying a baby to term and placing him for adoption is one way in which parents can fulfill their obligations to a child for whom they are unable to care after birth.
The Public Debate
In public debate today, abortion proponents often echo Thomson’s argument, describing the right to abortion with euphemisms focused on women’s right to self-determination: bodily autonomy, the “right to choose,” reproductive rights, or reproductive freedom. Other times, they claim that pro-lifers favor “forced pregnancy” or “forced birth.” By this, abortion supporters mean that, if you oppose legal abortion, you favor forcing women to be pregnant and to give birth against their will, a denial of bodily autonomy.
This line of argument is so popular among abortion supporters that it even appeared during oral arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court in the 2021 case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. In her opening statement against Mississippi’s fifteen-week ban on abortion, attorney Julie Rikelman said, “For a state to take control of a woman’s body and demand that she go through pregnancy and childbirth, with all the physical risks and life-altering consequences that brings, is a fundamental deprivation of her liberty.”
After conception, the issue is no longer “reproductive freedom” but rather ending a life that has already been produced.
Like most supporters of abortion, Rikelman is speaking as though she has no idea where babies come from. But we all know that sex naturally leads to children. As our Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Erika Bachiochi has noted, the original feminist movement was staunchly anti-abortion and in favor of voluntary motherhood. These feminists knew that bodily autonomy meant that women must consent to sex if it is to be just, including in the context of marriage, but that no one could rightly “consent” to killing an unborn child. That is, “reproductive freedom” applies prior to conception, when reproduction takes place. After conception, the issue is no longer “reproductive freedom” but rather ending a life that has already been produced. No one is in favor of “forced pregnancy” or “forced childbirth”—women should be free to decide whether or not to have children. But the way in which they exercise their freedom not to have children cannot entail killing the children they have already conceived.
But those who use Thomson’s philosophy to justify abortion today have repurposed it and pushed it in an even more insidious direction. During the Dobbs oral arguments, for instance, both attorneys arguing against Mississippi’s fifteen-week abortion ban were asked about “safe haven” laws, which shield women from prosecution if they terminate their parental rights and surrender an unwanted child to a safe haven. Justice Amy Coney Barrett asked both attorneys why safe haven laws are an insufficient solution to the supposed burden of parenthood, such that a right to abortion is still necessary.
In response, Julie Rikelman emphasized the burdens of pregnancy, echoing Thomson by arguing that continuing an unwanted pregnancy remains too burdensome on a woman’s rights even if she can legally relinquish her child after birth. But the second attorney made an even more revealing admission. U.S. solicitor general Elizabeth Prelogar told Barrett that reliance on safe haven laws overlooks “the consequences of forcing [on a woman] the choice of having to decide whether to give a child up for adoption. That itself is its own monumental decision for her.”
The implication of Prelogar’s argument was that the right to abortion is more than a right to “terminate pregnancy” or reject parenthood. As she herself said in the argument, part of the goal is to allow the woman not “to have a child in the world.” The intention in abortion, then, isn’t to remove a child from the womb but to make the child no longer exist. In the view of many abortion supporters, the right to abortion is the right to a dead baby. A National Review editorial put a fine point on it: “Abortion is valuable—it has constitutional status—because it lets mothers and fathers come as close as scalpel and poison can bring them to pretending they were never parents at all.”
For many abortion supporters, that is the aim: allowing mothers and fathers to choose abortion, not to avoid the burden of pregnancy or the sacrifices of parenthood, but as a means of eliminating their unwanted child from the world. The bodily autonomy arguments for abortion fail to acknowledge that all our liberties have limits. One standard limit on our liberty is that we aren’t allowed to intentionally kill innocent people. Whether those other people are in utero or ex utero, the same basic principle applies.
Just as the “bodily autonomy” and “forced birth” arguments fail, so too do the attempts to dehumanize the unborn baby. As we show in the book, there is simply no plausible scientific case that the unborn child is anything other than a human being at a certain early stage of development—an early age of life. Likewise, the attempts to acknowledge the humanity of the unborn child but deny his moral worth and value—the various “personhood” debates—lack a firm philosophical foundation. They rely on implausible philosophical theories and lead to morally abhorrent conclusions that we would never embrace in other circumstances.
The pro-life position alone is coherent: all human beings are moral persons because human nature is a rational nature that grounds our personal worth. That’s why the law must protect all persons, born and unborn. Just as past societies once classified some human beings as non-persons based on race or religion, so today we classify a segment of humanity as non-persons based on age, size, location, or stage of development. The law should refuse to endorse such arbitrary standards of personhood and, in so doing, protect us all.
Ryan T. Anderson, Ph.D., is the President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and the Founding Editor of Public Discourse, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, New Jersey.
EPPC Visiting Fellow Alexandra DeSanctis writes on abortion policy and the pro-life movement, as well as on other key topics at the intersection of politics, culture, and religion.