Does an unborn baby have the right to use his mother’s body?
This week I’ll be making a return trip to speak at my alma mater, UBC. This upcoming engagement has brought to mind an encounter I had with a philosophy and pre-law student at that same campus just a few months ago.
The young woman was justifying abortion from the perspective of abortion advocate Judith Jarvis Thompson who argues that even if the pre-born are human persons, they do not have a right to use another person’s body without consent. Given that this argument continues to be raised by some who support abortion, I thought it would be helpful to create an imaginary exchange between two people debating this perspective:
AA (Abortion Advocate): If a famous violinist was going to die and someone who had the right body type to keep him alive was kidnapped in order to be plugged into the violinist, wouldn’t we say that while the violinist is a full human person he doesn’t have the right to use another’s body without consent? Wouldn’t we say that the kidnap victim has no obligation to keep the violinist plugged into him, and that just as the kidnap victim may unplug the violinist, a woman may “unplug” her fetus?
PL (Pro-Lifer): Well, for the violinist scenario to be analogous to abortion you’d have to turn around and dismember the violinist’s body, cutting it to pieces.
AA: So are you saying if abortion is merely removal that it’s okay?
[This reaction is where we see this typical pro-life response is not that strong a point, which is why we need to go on.]
PL: Fair enough. No, I’m not, because even if you merely “removed” or “unplugged” the pre-born child without dismemberment, it would still be killing and still be wrong. If you unplug the violinist who doesn’t have a right to your kidneys, she dies of kidney disease. If you unplug the fetus, she dies because you directly killed her. In one situation (violinist) a person is dying. In another (pregnancy), a person is living. Furthermore, a parent has a responsibility to her offspring she doesn’t have to strangers.
AA: So then consider that the person plugged into you, using your kidneys, is your own child—if you can unplug that child you can unplug the fetus.
PL: Parents have a responsibility to meet the ordinary needs of their children, not the extraordinary ones. So, for example, parents aren’t obligated to take their kids to Disneyland but they are obligated to feed, clothe, and shelter their children. Pregnancy is analogous to the latter, not the former. Giving your kidneys, even to your own child, would be extraordinary. After all, kidneys exist in my body, for my body; therefore, there isn’t an obligation to give those in the way the uterus exists in my body, every month, getting ready for someone else’s body, so there is an obligation to “share” that, so to speak, with the pre-born child.
AA: I don’t see why that matters.
PL: Well let me explain through analogy: Imagine you just gave birth but didn’t want to breastfeed your baby. You have formula and bottles all ready to provide nourishment for your child that way. But suddenly, you and your newborn are kidnapped and locked in a cabin in the woods. There is solid food for you to eat but no bottles or formula for the baby. Would you be obligated to breastfeed your child or could you justify letting her starve because you didn’t want to use your breasts [a body part, like the uterus, designed to provide nourishment to one’s offspring] to help your child?
[It is also worth noting that even when one opts for formula and bottles, the mom must use /her own body/ to prepare the meal and hold the child and put the bottle in the baby’s mouth—thus “using” her body to help their child’s body.]
AA: But if someone used several methods of contraception then they shouldn’t be forced to keep the child in their uterus. If my body was like a house, use of contraception is like locking your doors. And if someone breaks into your house when your doors are locked, it’s not your fault and you can kick them out. Maybe if someone didn’t use contraception then abortion would not be reasonable (analogous to keeping your doors open and inviting someone in, a degree of negligence in a way), but with the presence of contraception, I’m putting up a “keep off my property” sign.
PL: Your example isn’t analogous. Because no contraception is 100% effective, the failure risk is like you actively unlocking your doors and physically welcoming that person into your home (even if only for a small percentage of time). Further, pregnancy from failed contraception is not analogous to a burglar breaking into your home because the latter requires the burglar unlocking a locked door and it is also an action done independent of you—there’s nothing you did to make the burglar break into your home. On the contrary with your analogy, however, when you have sex, you yourself have done something that “unlocks” your doors and you physically place the pre-born child in your “house” by engaging in an act, sex, which has pregnancy as an outcome. Breaking into a home cannot be directly associated with unlocking your door, but pregnancy is directly associated with having sex. As a result, having sex is like setting up a sign that says “come onto my property” and then walking someone through the process of entering your home.
AA: Well what if someone is raped? She didn’t choose to have the action which brought about that consequence?
PL: Certainly it’s true that when we consent to an action (like sex) we have to accept the consequences (like pregnancy). But saying that you are responsible for the consequences of choices you consented to, does not mean that when you don’t consent to something, you have license to do whatever you want in response to that unjust situation.
So in the case of rape, the pre-born child is still the offspring of the woman (even though the baby’s creation was not willed by her). The only way out for the next several months is to kill the child; therefore, that act of injustice is not acceptable even though a previous act of injustice occurred to the woman. So, to borrow an example someone once mentioned to me, imagine you rowed a boat of yours far into the ocean one day. After paddling for an hour, you suddenly discover that a baby is sleeping in that boat. You could argue you didn’t consent to that baby being in your boat and you could even say you want the baby out right away, but if the only way of getting the baby out of your boat is to throw her into the water where sharks are, you may not do it. Just as you would have to wait until you were able to pass the baby to someone else, so too it is with pregnancy from rape: the rape victim can certainly “pass” the baby to someone else through adoption at birth.