I’m a long-time “pro-choicer” when it comes to a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy. It didn’t require much contemplation, on my part, to reach this position.
That’s not to say that this topic is unworthy of contemplation—the contrary is true, of course—but rather, it’s obvious to me that the rights of an unconscious group of cells does not trump the rights of a conscience, thinking, feeling person. How could it!? It doesn’t have a nervous system or brain, and therefore, it can’t experience consciousness or feel… anything. It’s not yet a person. It’s a potential person, sure, much like my sperm, except with a much higher probability of becoming a person. Given the distress a woman will suffer—if she is forced to endure an unwanted pregnancy—not to mention the permanent physiological changes that come with childbearing, it’s unreasonable to value an unfeeling collection of cells over an actual person’s wishes and well-being. Remember, that consent to have sex is not consent to become pregnant, and a woman who chooses to terminate an unwanted pregnancy is, in fact, taking responsibility for her life. To me, it’s as simple as that—at least, in the early stages of pregnancy.
This article is my attempt to summarise my views on this important social issue—to contemplate, if you will. I recognise, (a) that I am a man, and not a woman, and therefore, my opinion may be skewed, and (b) that my reasoning could be flawed. I am in the infancy of my contemplation, after all. You’re welcome to point out any fallacies or false statements that I make, so that I may amend my thoughts.
Below, I will introduce a common argument—of bodily autonomy—in support of a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy. I find the argument sound and compelling, and it neatly circumvents the concern of “personhood”, which is a brick wall that some people just cannot scale. But before I get to the argument, let me draw a few thoughts on the wall.
Personhood is a controversial issue. This is unsurprising, given humanity’s various religious notions of “the soul” and our incomplete understanding of consciousness and well-being. When does a group of cells become a person? The problem, of course, is the word: person. What does that mean, in this context? It’s as much a philosophical question as it is a scientific one, and that contributes, perhaps, to the overall elusiveness of a definite answer. But, let’s not pretend that we’re completely blind and uninformed.
To some people—mostly religious individuals—it’s obvious that a fertilised egg is a person. It’s not obvious to me. In fact, I find it patently absurd. A zygote does not a person make—well, it does, but you know what I mean. To anyone who believes in the concept of a soul, my reasoning will be a disappointment, but until a soul can be demonstrated to exist, it must be discounted… Neither, by my reckoning, is an implanted embryo a person. It has none of the qualities that we value in people; it has no capacity to experience love or pain. At this stage, it’s essentially equivalent to a brain-dead human—i.e. it is non-human, in all the ways that matter—the only difference being the potential of the embryo to become a person. It’s equally unreasonable, on the other hand, to claim that a fetus only becomes a person at the time of birth. The truth, therefore, must be somewhere in between. I’m tempted to conflate my understanding of “person” with a “viable” fetus, that is to say, a fetus that could survive outside the uterus.
According to Essential Reproduction, there’s an emerging consensus among developmental neurobiologists that the establishment of thalamocortical connections—at about 26 weeks—is a critical event with regard to fetal perception of pain. In other words, one could argue that a fetus cannot perceive pain before this critical event. At 26 weeks, a fetus’s chance of survival outside the uterus is between 80 and 90%. At week 21, it’s 0%, and at week 34, it’s greater than 98%. See stats here.
In my view, based on this data alone, there’s really no moral case, let alone a legal case, to justify the violation of a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy before 21 weeks. Of course, I believe that women should have the right to legally terminate a pregnancy at any time—a belief that I think is justified, especially given the bodily autonomy argument. Remember, a termination does not necessarily mean that the fetus will die. If it is viable, the termination can be the removal of the fetus, after which, the baby could be put up for adoption.
There is a grey zone, let’s say between 21 and 34 weeks, where the choice to terminate could lead to the death of a fetus that might be able to perceive pain. While I stand by my opinion that women should have the legal right to terminate, I recognise that late-term terminations venture into morally ambiguous terrain. It’s not surprising that terminations after 21 weeks are a tiny minority.
I might as well note here that no woman desires to face this choice. They don’t gloat and shout, “Hurrah, I get to exercise my right to terminate my pregnancy.” It’s always a regrettable position to be in, and we should recognise that the decision to terminate is probably a case of choosing the least bad option from a bad bunch. All reasonable effort should be made to avoid it, and of course, there’s no better way to achieve lower termination numbers, than effective and practical sex education. That said, it’s vital that women should not be condemned, or be made to feel guilty, when they are in this position that they themselves didn’t want or plan to be in. They deserve compassion and support, and their well-being—physical, mental, social, financial—should be the only consideration.
Now, on to bodily autonomy, which is a basic—and fundamental—human right. It’s what protects you from being harvested for your organs to save the lives of five other people who will die without your “help”.
The purpose of the argument, in this context, is essentially to expose the fallacy and hypocrisy of assigning special rights to a fetus—rights we do not extend to other humans—that violate a woman’s right to bodily autonomy.
It’s best communicated through two analogies. I heard them first from Matt Dillahunty, and I paraphrase them here; I’m not sure if he conceived them.
Suppose that you wake up and find yourself attached to stranger. You’re keeping the man alive, and if you detach yourself, he will surely die. You’re in this situation against your will. Given that you have the option and ability to detach yourself, do you have the right to detach?
Yes, is the correct answer, and most people will agree with this. Is it moral to detach yourself? Well, that depends. One can easily embellish the scenario to make the choice immoral. Consider that the man only requires a day of your time until he’s cured of some disease, and it’s guaranteed that you will not be harmed in any way. In fact, let’s go so far as to say that the attachment is good for your own long-term health. It would be immoral and stupid, arguably, to detach. But you can’t escape the fact, however, that you still have the right to detach. The man simply has no right to use your body without your consent.
Likewise, a fetus has no right, at any point, to use a woman’s body without her consent. Let me remind you that consent to have sex is not consent to be pregnant. There are many women who wake up attached to a stranger in their uterus against their will.
Consider a woman that conceives a boy with the foreknowledge that this boy will have defective kidneys, and that he will surely die, early in life, if he doesn’t get a transplant. At two years of age, the boy’s kidneys start to fail. Given that the woman can donate one of her own kidneys, does she have the right to withhold her donation?
Again, yes. Of course, she has this right. No one can force her to donate an organ, nor should they be able to. Now, we may brand such a person as immoral, but we recognise that she has the right to choose.
Likewise, a pregnant woman can’t be forced to donate her uterus, and body, to a fetus, even if she planned to get pregnant. To violate her right to choose, is to bestow special rights upon the fetus—rights that we do not even give to two year old children.
In summary, even if we grant personhood to a zygote—which is ludicrous, in my view—I support a woman’s legal right to terminate a pregnancy, given that the fetus’s right to live does not supersede the woman’s right to bodily autonomy.