During the countless discussions this country has had on the topic of abortion, we’ve all become familiar with the large number of pithy one-liners that make up much of the intellectual arsenal of the pro-choice advocate.
Given that these slogans range from the outright illogical (“No uterus, no opinion”) to the more nuanced (“What about rape or incest?”), they require differing levels of engagement from someone trying to think clearly about the issue.
With recent events pushing the topic to the forefront, there seems to have been a noticeable shift in which arguments are most popular among those in the pro-choice camp. We’ve seemingly moved on from the “It’s just a clump of cells” justification toward more of an emphasis on bodily autonomy. For those looking to respond in a persuasive and well-reasoned way, this line of defense might be the hardest to counter. However, it’s far from impossible. Let me prove it.
The Arguments for Bodily Autonomy
There are, of course, varying levels of complexity in how the bodily autonomy claim is stated. "My body my choice" shouldn't pose a difficulty, as all you might need to ask in response is this: "If the fetus is part of your body, then please explain why it has someone else's DNA? Do you possess any other body parts that do not contain your DNA, but that of another human being?"
If the fetus is part of your body, then please explain why it has someone else's DNA?
The most sophisticated version of the argument for the right to bodily autonomy comes from Judith Jarvis Thomson, who laid out her analogy of the famous violinist in a 1971 essay titled “A Defense of Abortion.”
She proposes a thought experiment in which you, the reader, wake up one day in a hospital bed, lying next to an unconscious man, only to be informed that you were kidnapped by a group of radical, classical music-loving fanatics. Their reason for this was that their favorite violinist was suffering from a terminal condition in which he needs blood from another person pumped through his veins for nine months, and you happened to be the only one on the planet who was a match.
In this situation, she argues that, though it would be heroic and laudable to stay in the hospital bed for the required nine months, you owe your bodily functions to no one, and you have every right to remove yourself from the tubes and walk out, even if it surely means the unfortunate musician will die.
At a first glance, this feels quite hard to engage with, but upon further inspection, we can see that the analogy is faulty on every single level. Let's go point by point.
The Problems with the Violinist Scenario
First of all, the kidnap scenario could only be applied to pregnancies that came about through non-consensual sex, meaning rape or incest. Horrific as these instances are (and worthy of a whole separate discussion), they make up less than 2% of causes for seeking an abortion, even according to the liberal Guttmacher Institute. So let's put our focus on the 98%, where the woman consented to sexual intercourse, and given that legal consent can only be given by adults, we can assume they were all aware that pregnancy is a possible, natural outcome of the act.
Furthermore, having to be hooked up to tubes and restricted to a hospital bed for nine months is a pretty egregious overstatement of what it’s like to be pregnant. Unless someone is confined to the strictest bedrest regimen, the vast majority of women can and do reasonably perform most of their previous daily tasks basically up until the beginning of labor. So right off the bat, this pro-choice analogy only fits cases where the pregnancy is the product of rape and carries severe health risks.
This analogy only fits cases where the pregnancy is the product of rape and carries severe health risks.
The next point to make is that while the violinist is in all likelihood a great guy, you have no relation or special obligation to him. This is quite the opposite when it comes to pregnancy, seeing as women are always carrying their own child. They might not have been ready or eager to do so, but it remains the case that parents have a unique and inherent responsibility for the well-being of their offspring that other people in society do not have. The more vulnerable and needy the child, the more pronounced the duty to nurture and care. And while we, of course, do not owe our blood to a stranger, the uterus is a very different story.
The uterus is in a class of its own, in that it is the only organ that was designed for someone else, its primary biological function being the sustenance and growth of another human being. Our children do have a claim to our wombs, as well as a right to our protection.
Finally, there is a world of difference between simply unplugging yourself from someone and allowing them to die as the natural consequence of a disease no one was responsible for, and walking up to them and stabbing them in the heart. (If this seems harsh, I suggest you look up how abortion procedures are done. They’re not pretty.)
Offering a More Accurate Analogy
Analogies are limited and don’t have to fit exactly with the reality they’re meant to clarify. This is why, instead of only criticizing Thomson's thought experiment, I would like to propose a tweaked version that I believe describes abortion much more accurately:
Imagine you're a young college student who needs some money and you see an ad to donate your eggs to a loving couple who can't have children. You decide to do it, but like most other 22-year-olds, you don't hire a lawyer and pore through the entire contract before signing it. You undergo the procedure and forget about it pretty quickly.
Life goes back to normal, until one day, a year later, there is a knock on your door. It's the couple whom you donated to, and they ask you to come to a nearby hospital where their 3-month-old baby girl is lying in a bed unconscious.
They remind you that the contract you signed had a clause that stated that in case of a medical emergency, you’re obligated to provide support to the child who is, after all, biologically yours.
The doctors assure you that they can supply you with a backpack that would allow you to carry her with you for the next nine months and give her the blood transfusions she needs. It will be uncomfortable and will definitely disrupt your life, but after the allotted time is up, she will be fully healed and the family will not be able to call on you for help ever again.
As you try to process this news, one doctor pulls you aside and tells you that there is in fact a legal loophole, which gives you an alternate option. And that is to hand over some cash and sign a couple of papers that would authorize the doctor to walk up to the crib and hold a pillow over the baby's face until she stops breathing.
In the end, what it boils down to is this: should the latter option even be on the table in a supposedly compassionate and civilized society?
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