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Friday, August 17, 2012

Bodily Rights Arguments

So far we’ve considered three different objections to the pro-life case: that the preborn are not humans biologically, that the preborn are human but are not persons, and that the preborn are humans biologically but are not full-fledged human beings in a morally relevant sense. That is, when someone claims the preborn are human but not persons, they agree that they are human biologically but they do not have rights as other people do (such as the right to life). When someone claims they are human biologically but not in a morally relevant sense, they accept that they belong to the species Homo Sapien but are not part of the “human community” at large. Thus, even though there is a zygote, you don’t actually come “into existence” until some later point in development (such as when you are conscious or able to survive independently of the mother).

But what if we encounter someone who concedes all three points? That the preborn are humans biologically, they are persons, and they are full-fledged humans in a morally relevant sense? Even with these points conceded, this person argues that abortion can still be morally justified.
I know what you’re thinking: “Surely, you can’t be serious!”
Well, I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.
In an earlier post (see footnote two), I mentioned the four distinct differences between the born and preborn, one of those being “environment.” Some say that because it’s not even in the world yet, it’s not a human. I’m going to discuss two different types of arguments that are similar, so it’s important not to get those confused. These two arguments I will be discussing concede that the preborn is a human person with full moral status and make an argument grounded in bodily rights arguments. Trent Horn has classified these two types of arguments as Sovereign Zone arguments, and Right to Refuse arguments.
Sovereign Zone
I will start with the weaker of the two arguments, the Sovereign Zone argument. This argument essentially says that the woman’s body is a “sovereign zone,” in which she has full and complete control over everything outside and within her body. Therefore, even if the preborn is a full human person, she still has the right to abortion because he is inside her body. She claims the right to get an abortion because the preborn is seen as violating her personal sovereignty.
Right off the bat, we can see this is not a strong argument. We do not have the right to do whatever we want with our bodies. For instance, we cannot take illegal drugs, we must obey seatbelt laws, and we cannot strike anyone without just cause. So obviously we can’t just do anything we want to, or with, our bodies.
Consider a powerful counter-illustration from Life Training Institute’s Rich Poupard [1]: there was a drug back in the 50’s and 60’s called Thalidomide [2] which pregnant women took to ease morning sickness. However, it was later discovered that Thalidomide caused severe damage to the embryo/fetus so that the child was born without arms and/or legs. Thalidomide was subsequently made illegal for pregnant women to take. But if a woman has the right to do whatever she wants with her body, then why is it illegal for a pregnant woman to take Thalidomide? If the “Sovereign Zone” argument were in fact correct, then if a woman took Thalidomide knowing its destructive effects, causing her child to be born without limbs, you would have to say that she did absolutely nothing wrong even though she has harmed her child.
We might also look at the recent case of Aliza Shvarts, who allegedly artificially inseminated herself several times and induced miscarriage each time to use for a senior art project at Yale. This had many people in an outrage, including the pro-choice organization NARAL. Yale officials later concluded that her shocking claim was fiction, but if her body is really a sovereign zone, then we have no grounds for condemning her art project.
Right to Refuse
This argument is where the gloves come off. Judith Jarvis Thomson, a pro-choice philosopher, came up with a thought experiment showing that even after accepting the premise that the preborn are human persons with full moral status, abortion can still be justified. It’s additionally powerful because it rests on another premise that pro-life advocates generally agree with: If someone is in a life-threatening situation, then we bear no responsibility to donate an organ or blood to that person, even if neglecting to do so would result in that person’s death. Thomson’s thought experiment is as follows:
“You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, ‘Look, we’re sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you — we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it’s only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.’ Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says, ‘Tough luck, I agree. But now you’ve got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person’s right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him.’ I imagine you would regard this as outrageous, which suggests that something really is wrong with that plausible-sounding argument I mentioned a moment ago.” [3]
This argument seems very powerful upon first (and even fifth) readings. Greg Koukl, of Stand to Reason, mentions that the first time he ever heard it was on a radio talk show, while he was driving down the 405 freeway in Los Angeles. It shook him up so much he almost had to pull over. It’s a very powerful argument because she is essentially conceding the main premise of the pro-life position: Yes, the preborn are full human persons from fertilization, but she continues to argue that abortion is morally permissible. [4]
Once you dig deeper we realize that there are parallels which aren’t really parallel in morally significant ways and as such, the argument fails to be a successful argument for the legality and/or morality of abortion. There are some objections that are stronger than others. I’ll start from the weaker objections and end with the strongest objection to this position.
You must stay in a hospital bed plugged into the violinist, whereas most pregnant women are not bedridden.
In the violinist analogy, you must stay in the hospital bed plugged into the violinist for nine months (or amended to years or the rest of your life). However, most women are not bedridden for nine months. They can still go to the store, go to church, go to school, and/or work for most of the pregnancy. As Dr. Bernard Nathanson has written, “Few pregnant women are bedridden and many, both emotionally and physically, have never felt better. For these, it is a stimulating experience, even for mothers who did not originally want to be pregnant.” [5]
I list this first because while it’s true for some cases, it’s not true for all pregnancies. There are rare cases in which women must stay bedridden for most of their pregnancies (e.g. if she has preeclampsia or an incompetent cervix). Although this isn’t true for most pregnancies, this objection would not hold true for women who are bedridden.
The pregnant woman’s relationship to the child in contrast to the violinist.
One problem with the analogy is that this argument rests on the premise that a woman’s responsibility to her own child is no different than your responsibility to a complete stranger. This is clearly false. While it is a very good thing to feed the homeless, I don’t believe you have a moral obligation to do so. However, you do have a moral obligation to feed your own children. So you clearly have more obligation to your own offspring than you do to a complete stranger.
The reason I have included this second is because philosophically, the argument can be made that under a bodily rights argument the woman has no moral obligation to stay “plugged in” to her own child. What if we amend the analogy and say instead of the violinist, you wake up and it’s your own son that you’re plugged in to. People may rightly look down on a parent who would unplug from their own child and allow their child to die, but morally you don’t seem to bear a responsibility to stay plugged in.
You are unplugging from the violinist, whereas in most abortions, the embryo/fetus is being directly killed.
In this analogy, you are simply unplugging from the violinist and allowing him to die. Whereas in surgical abortions, the child is actually being physically killed (usually through dismemberment, poisoning, or crushing). As Frank Beckwith points out, “Euphemistically calling abortion the ‘withholding of support’ makes about as much sense as calling suffocating someone with a pillow the withdrawing of oxygen.” [6]
This also isn’t the strongest of objections because the analogy would still justify abortions not done surgically. Abortion pills like RU-486 simply prevent implantation, the preborn child starves and is flushed out of the woman’s body. RU-486 is more like “unplugging” from the preborn child.
The woman is partially responsible for the existence of her offspring.
Now we get to the most powerful objection to the violinist analogy. Simply, you are not responsible for the condition the violinist finds himself in but in the vast majority of pregnancies, the preborn child exists because of a consensual act between a man and a woman. While this is a very powerful objection to the violinist analogy, admittedly this objection does not work in the case of rape, in which she is not responsible for the child’s presence. I will address the case of rape in a future article.
David Boonin, who has written one of the best defenses of abortion, makes the case that we must distinguish between being responsible for one’s condition of neediness and being responsible for one’s existence with the result that they are in need. Boonin amends the violinist analogy to suppose this violinist comes into the hospital dying of a fatal ailment. A doctor, in an act of generosity, administers the drug to cure him but several years later the violinist develops the kidney ailment in Thomson’s analogy. The doctor has the correct blood type to help assist the violinist. Boonin argues that the doctor is responsible for the violinist’s continued existence, but is not responsible for the kidney ailment the violinist now finds himself afflicted with.
However, Boonin’s argument fails for a simple reason. The doctor, in an act of generosity, extended the violinist’s life. He did not bring the violinist into existence in a needy condition, as a man and woman does when they engage in sexual intercourse.
So as we can see, bodily rights arguments appear powerful at first but fail under scrutiny. The main argument is simply that if someone is in a life-threatening condition and needs one of our bodily organs to survive, we have no obligation to provide that bodily organ (for example, a kidney transplant or blood transfusion). As such they don’t believe a pregnant woman bears any responsibility to keep the embryo/fetus alive. But as we can see, the pregnant woman actually bears a special responsibility to the preborn human she carries within her. If you knowingly engage in an act that creates a naturally needy child, then you bear a responsibility to care for that naturally needy child.
Suppose you come across a button on the wall that says “BABY MAKING MACHINE.” That button will give you a pleasurable experience but has a 1/100 chance of producing a baby that comes out a chute below. You walk up to it and push the button, receiving the pleasurable experience, but a baby comes out. [7] You can’t just walk away and leave the child to die. You are morally obligated to care for that child because you knowingly engaged in an act you knew had a chance of producing a child (that is, pushing the button).
Bodily rights arguments are very powerful but pregnancy is a very unique situation. In the case of pregnancy, a woman’s general right to bodily autonomy does not trump the preborn’s right to life. [8]
[1] Rich Poupard, Suffer the Violinist: Why the Pro-Abortion Argument from Bodily Autonomy Fails, Christian Research Journal, Vol. 30, No. 4, 2007.
[2] Cue Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire.
[3] Judith Jarvis Thomson, “A Defense of Abortion,” from Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 1, no. 1, Fall 1971.
[4] From the article, it actually seems to me that she didn’t really believe this. She was just conceding it for the sake of argument. Ironically, Thomson later wrote an essay in 1995 in which she actually set this argument aside and argues that if abortions are prima facie unjustified homicide, then there is sufficient grounds for restricting a woman’s right to abortion. But even if she later changed to this more open position, it does not negate her argument’s impact. The argument must still be engaged with intellectually.
[5] Dr. Bernard Nathanson and Richard Ostling, Aborting America, (New York: Doubleday, 1979), p. 123.
[6] Francis Beckwith, Politically Correct Death: Answering Arguments for Abortion Rights, (Grand Rapids: MI: Baker, 1993), p. 133.
[7] Scott L. Klusendorf, The Case for Life, Crossway Books: Wheaton, Illinois, 2009, p. 195. My friend, Josh Brahm, added some extra details to the analogy.
[8] There is an obvious exception I make to this, if the woman’s life is in immediate jeopardy and the child is not yet viable (to be saved through c-section). Offering reasons for this is beyond the scope of this article, but expect me to address it in a future one.


  1. Hello Clinton,
    I've enjoyed your post here and at Secular Prolife. I figured that since you are a defender of the Substance View, you can help me understand it better.

    In "Defending Life", Francis Beckwith responds to an objection that the human substance has the active capability to be rationality from its conception onward. The objection took the form of a thought experiment. A surgeon somehow implants part of a human's brain in a dog. The dog stays itself, but now has a capability to be rational - thus a substance can gain this ability.

    Beckwith dispatches this easily, since it springs from a misunderstanding of active or intrinsic capabilities and immediately exercisable ones. That, and the dog and the human brain part cease to be and a new substance forms. Thus the new substance always had rationality as an intrinsic capability.

    My question is, what if I get an organ transplant and the organ I get differs from my original one? Say it produces a chemical that no other organ has. Would I cease to be, would a new substance arise from the combination of me and that donor organ? This seems absurd to me (since the production of a new chemical is so trivial), but I expect you can shed some light on it.

    (Another related question: Would the replication of genetic material constitute an active capability?)

    If you have time, I would appreciate your thoughts on the matter.

    Take care,
    Sean Killackey

    P.S. My email is

    1. Hi Sean:

      Thanks! I'm glad you enjoy my writings. I'm happy to answer your questions. Also, I think the Substance View is the best argument for the pro-life position.

      A substance is an entity that retains its identity through change. A substance is ontologically prior to its parts, meaning that not only does the substance, itself, exist before its parts do, but also that the substance's nature determines its parts, not the other way around (as is true for artifacts, in which their parts are ontologically prior to the artifact, itself). There is much more to be said about the concept of substance, but this suffices for the Substance View, on the surface.

      Regarding the Beckwith example, I do have the book, but it's been a while since I've read it. I don't have it nearby, so I'm not sure if I'm responding the best that I can. I may adjust my view slightly after having a chance to review the book, if I've missed something.

      But regarding the example from the dog, I'm not convinced by science fiction thought experiments, namely because there's no way of knowing how plausible they are. We know quite a bit about the brain, but there's still a lot we don't know. Especially the fact that we've never transplanted a brain before. The person who, for example, says that you can take my brain out of my body, transplant it into another person's body, and that will be "me" in the new body, and not the original person, is assuming a particular metaphysical view, namely monism, that "I" am my brain. They deny a metaphysical reality to the human person. I don't think it's at all clear that I can transfer my consciousness if I transfer my brain, and I don't think it's at all clear (or even plausible) that if you remove the rational part of my brain and attach it to a dog's brain, that the dog can begin to think rationally. I don't think that's a valid argument against the Substance View, since you have to assume a particular metaphysical view in order to support it, one already opposed to the Substance View. In other words, this response begs the question regarding whether monism or dualism is true.

      Beckwith's a really smart guy (and the guy who turned me on to the Substance View), so it feels weird to say this, but I think my response is better, or at least more intuitive, than Beckwith's.

      However, I think Beckwith's response takes the idea of the detractor at their word. So what Beckwith is really getting at is that it's not in the nature of canines to be rational, but it is in the nature of humans to be rational. So a dog who became rational would not be a dog in the relevant sense, since this new canine is rational. Since canines are not rational, and this canine becomes rational, that means that the old canine ceases to be once rationality emerges (since it is not in the nature of canines to be rational) and becomes a brand new substance, a supercanine, if you will. That is what Beckwith means when he says the old canine substance and brain-part ceased to be and a brand new substance came into existence. It's the same thing as when the sperm and the egg create a new human being. The sperm and ovum are two different substances, but when they merge, they cease to exist and a brand new human substance comes into existence. Even though the human being develops from the ovum with the genetic material of the sperm, the fertilization process brings a brand new substance into existence.

    2. So regarding your organ transplant example, any change I undergo that does not kill me retains my identity. This means that if I lose my arm in an industrial accident and replace it with a bionic one (even though this bionic arm may have abilities I did not have with my natural arms), I still remain "me" because this change did not kill me. Or if you replace my kidney with a transplant, I remain "me" because that change did not kill me. In the example of the rational dog, it is not the change in the canine's organ that causes it to become a new substance, it is that the very nature of the canine changed; so the non-rational canine ceased to exist and a new, rational supercanine came into existence.

      Regarding your question about active capabilities, if you mean what I think you do, then yes, it would constitute an active capability. Human beings are sexual beings, meaning that it is in their nature to reproduce sexually; production of genetic material (i.e. the sperm and ovum) facilitates sexual reproduction, so the humans have the inherent capacity which becomes presently exercisable once the proper age has been reached.