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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Pro-Choice Dilemma

There are basically two types of rights that you possess: those of a human being and those of a particular government(s) you belong to. These are called natural rights (or basic human rights) and legal rights. Discussion of rights often gets confused in discussions on abortion so it’s important to keep these terms straight.

A natural right is a right that you possess by virtue of being human (belonging to our biological species). These include (but are not limited to) the right to life, the right to self-defense, and the right to liberty. If you’re from the United States, our Bill of Rights is a basic treatise on the natural rights of human beings. These are rights that every human being has and a government that does not recognize them is a corrupt government.

A legal right is a right that is granted by the government and can rightly be taken away or adjusted. They are also acquired due to achieving a certain level of maturity with which to be able to exercise them. These include (but are not limited to) the right to vote and the right to drive.  These are rights granted to anyone who is a legal member of a state, country, province, etc.

There lies a problem in that people tend to conflate the two types of rights together. Usually when I argue that a human fetus has certain rights, they’ll argue back that a fetus has no rights because they don’t have a right to drive or vote. The response to this reasoning is obvious: Of course not. The right to drive and to vote are legal rights, obtained when one reaches a certain level of maturity. Toddlers don’t have a right to drive or vote, either, yet they still have natural rights as human beings.

This is actually a dilemma which does not seem resolvable for the pro-choice advocate. You see, natural rights exist when we come into existence. Natural rights are rights we enjoy by virtue of our being human, not by virtue of obtaining a certain level of development or maturity. So are the rights to life and bodily autonomy/integrity [1] natural rights? If no, then they are legal rights. Meaning that the government grants those rights and can rightfully take them away. I don’t think the pro-choice advocate wants to make this concession. So if the answer is yes, then the unborn actually do have a right to life and bodily autonomy/integrity. It follows, then, that abortion is actually a violation of not just the unborn’s right to life, but the unborn’s right to bodily integrity, as well.

So the discussion usually moves to: which right takes precedence? The argument is usually made, by the pro-choice crowd that the right to bodily autonomy trumps the right to life. [2] But from many people in the pro-life crowd, we argue that the right to life trumps the right to bodily integrity. First, it should be pointed out that abortion can be seen as the greater violation than preventing a woman from aborting since in the case of abortion, you’re violating two rights that the unborn has, the right to life and bodily autonomy (to say nothing of robbing them of their future), whereas if you prevent a woman from aborting, you’re only “violating” one, the right to bodily integrity (I put violating in quotes because if a woman willingly engaged in the act of sex, she waives her right to bodily autonomy by acting in a way that is intrinsically ordered toward creation of life).

Aside from that, the right to life is the most fundamental right anyone has. That’s why it is mentioned first in our pursuit of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Without the right to life no other rights makes sense. It is incoherent to speak of my having a right to free speech if I don’t have a right to live in the first place. The right to life trumps the right to bodily autonomy/integrity because it encompasses and affects the whole person, body, mind, soul (if you believe in it). Bodily autonomy/integrity only encompasses what can or can’t be done to your own body. If you don’t have a right to live, you don’t have a right to your own body (which is why people don’t give animals a choice on if they want to become someone’s next meal -- obviously this is debatable, I’m just using it as an example for clarity of understanding). If you do have a right to live, only then do you have the right to determine what can be done to or with your own body.

So now that we’ve seen that the right to life is more fundamental than the right to bodily autonomy/integrity (though it, of course, is also a fundamental right), the objection is usually brought up that if the right to life trumps the right to bodily integrity, then we should force blood transfusions, kidney donations, bone marrow donations, etc., since a dying cancer patient’s right to life is more important than a healthy person’s right to bodily integrity. However, this objection doesn’t stand up.

The right to life, properly understood, is a right not to be intentionally killed without strong justification. If I refuse to donate blood or an organ, no one’s rights are being violated. So since forcing a blood transfusion or organ donation would be a violation of someone’s right to bodily integrity, and no one’s rights are being violated by a healthy person not being forced to donate an organ or blood, then it would be blatantly immoral to force someone to donate blood or an organ.

So with a proper understanding of rights, it seems that granting a “right” to abortion simply cannot be justified.

The preceding post also appeared on the Secular Pro-Life blog.

[1] I separate bodily autonomy/integrity for this reason: in philosophical discussion, it’s important to make your terms as clear as possible. Autonomy is usually understood as the right to do what you want. For example, an autonomous state is one that is not subject to a higher government and can make whatever laws it feels is best. So it seems to be the best way to understand bodily autonomy is the positive right to do whatever you want with or to your own body, within reason. The right to bodily integrity is the negative right not to have your body infringed upon for any reason against your will (such as being forced to donate blood).
[2] Pro-life people who believe that abortion should be illegal except in the case of rape make this same argument (the Responsibility Objection explains why abortion should be illegal in all cases except for rape). I didn’t include them in the body of the article because explaining the exact position would have detracted from the flow of the article itself. This also explains why I say “many” pro-life people, since the pro-life people who believe abortion should be legal in the case of rape don’t argue this position.

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