In the previous articles in this series, I’ve addressed the claims that a human embryo is just a “clump of cells,” and that a human fetus isn’t a person. Some pro-choice advocates still say, “Even if the unborn are human beings, they have fewer rights than the woman. No one should be expected to donate her body as a life-support system for someone else. A woman has the right to control her own body.”
One pro-choice advocate, in the face of overwhelming evidence, admitted to me that the unborn are human beings. He then added, “But that’s irrelevant to the issue of a woman’s right to have an abortion.”
But how can someone’s humanity be irrelevant to the question of whether someone else has the right to kill him? Wasn’t the black person’s humanity relevant to the issue of slavery or the Jew’s personhood relevant to the ethics of the Holocaust? The unborn child’s humanity and personhood is the single most relevant issue in the whole abortion debate.
The “Right to Choose”
While presenting the pro-life position on public school campuses, I sometimes began by saying, “I’m pro-choice.”
Immediately students looked relieved, and sometimes they even applauded. I then said, “And because I’m pro-choice, I believe every man has the right to rape a woman if that’s his choice. After all, it’s his body, and we don’t have the right to tell him what he can and can’t do with it.”
After the shock settled in, I asked them to tell me the fallacy of my argument. They pointed out that in asserting the man’s right to choose I ignored the harm done to the innocent woman whose rights have been violated.
I asked, “So are you telling me you’re anti-choice?”
After they argued that some choices are wrong and should be illegal, I asked, “So actually you’re pro-choice about some choices and anti-choice about other choices. And it all depends on what the choice is and whether it harms the innocent?”
Yes, they agreed.
I responded, “So you’re saying that if I can demonstrate to you that a woman’s choice to have an abortion harms or kills another human being, then you’ll no longer be pro-choice about abortion?”
I hoped they would heed their own common sense, which was perfectly sound—but which they failed to apply to the unborn and to the issue of abortion.
It’s absurd to defend a specific choice simply on the basis that it’s a choice. Every single good or evil thing that has ever been done by one person to another was part of a choice. The fact that something is a choice tells us absolutely nothing about whether or not it’s right or should be legal.
Laws That Necessarily Limit Choice
Despite the fact that he’s choosing to do what he wants with his own body, a man isn’t legally permitted to expose himself. There are laws against public urination, drug use, prostitution, trespassing, and even loitering, even though every one of them involves a choice to do something with one’s own body. Most of us agree with these laws, even though they restrict personal freedoms, because they protect the rights and interests of others whose personal freedoms they directly or indirectly violate.
My hand is part of my body, but I’m not free to use it to hit you or steal from you or hurt your child—or mine. Aren’t you glad the law prevents me from doing whatever I might want with my own body?
All of us are in favor of free choice, without the restriction of laws, when it comes to issues like where people choose to live, what kind of car they drive, and a thousand matters of personal preference that harm no one else. We’re also pro-choice in matters of religion, politics, and lifestyle, even when people choose beliefs and behavior we don’t agree with.
But most of us are decidedly not pro-choice when it comes to murder, rape, kidnapping, armed robbery, and child abuse. We should all recognize that any law that prohibits the victimization of another person is by nature a just law.
But What About a Woman’s Rights and Choices?
Of course, any two people are equal and have equal rights. Hence, a mother has the right to live every bit as much as a child. But in nearly all abortions, the woman’s right to live is not an issue, because her life is not in danger. (I’ll take a closer look at abortion when the mother’s life truly is endangered in a later article.)
Except in the rare case of pregnancy by rape (I’ll also address abortion in cases of rape or incest in a subsequent article), a woman carrying a child has made choices of control over her body that resulted in pregnancy. Women are free to choose to abstain from sex or use birth control or do neither. But when a woman is pregnant, the choices she has made have produced a new human being. As one woman points out, “After a woman is pregnant, she cannot choose whether or not she wishes to become a mother. She already is, and since the child is already present in her womb, all that is left to her to decide is whether she will deliver her baby dead or alive.”
Once the baby is born, the woman is again free to choose: she can raise the child or choose to place him in a loving adoptive home with one of the million couples waiting to adopt.
The first two areas where a woman made a choice—whether to have sex or use birth control—were personal and private. The issue of abortion is not personal and private. It directly involves the life of another person and therefore becomes the concern of a decent society. Just as society would protect the life of the mother if someone tried to kill her, so it must protect the life of the child if someone tries to kill her.
Yes, carrying a child is a natural condition that comes with some inconvenience. But few women are bedridden during their pregnancies. Most are socially active, capable of working, traveling, and exercising almost to the day the child is delivered. It’s reasonable for society to expect an adult to live temporarily with an inconvenience if the only alternative is killing a child. Regardless of the challenges, one person’s right to a lifestyle is not greater than another person’s right to a life.
Even when pregnancy is unwanted or difficult, it’s temporary. Since the great majority of abortions take place from seven weeks to six months of development, the actual difference between the woman who aborts her child and the woman who doesn’t is not nine months but three to seven months. While pregnancy is a temporary condition, abortion produces a permanent condition—the death of a person.
More Than One Body Involved
Pro-choice advocates argue, “Every woman has the right to choose what she does with her own body.” Ironically, the choice of abortion assures that something like 530,000 females in the United States each year don’t have the right to choose what they do with their bodies. (That’s roughly the number of girls aborted every year—approximately half of all aborted children.)
Philosopher Mortimer Adler claimed, as have many others, that the unborn is “a part of the mother’s body, in the same sense that an individual’s arm or leg is a part of a living organism. An individual’s decision to have an arm or leg amputated falls within the sphere of privacy—the freedom to do as one pleases in all matters that do not injure others or the public welfare.”[i]
However, a body part is defined by the common genetic code it shares with the rest of its body. The unborn child’s genetic code differs from his mother’s. Every cell of the mother’s tonsils, appendix, heart, and lungs shares the same genetic code. The unborn child has a different genetic code, and every cell of his body is uniquely his, each different than every cell of his mother’s body.
A Chinese zygote (a new human in the earliest stage of development) implanted in a Swedish woman will always be Chinese, not Swedish, because his biological identity is based on his genetic code, not that of the body in which he resides. If the woman’s body is the only one involved in a pregnancy, then she must have two noses, four legs, two sets of fingerprints, two brains, two circulatory systems, and two skeletal systems. Half the time she must also have testicles and a penis. (Can anyone seriously argue that a male child’s reproductive organs are part of his mother’s body, just because he resides there?) It’s a clear scientific fact that the mother is one distinctive and self-contained person, and the child is another.
Human Rights for All
Writing in the New York Times, pro-choice Barbara Ehrenreich says, “A woman may think of her fetus as a person or as just cells depending on whether the pregnancy is wanted or not. This does not reflect moral confusion, but choice in action.”[ii]
In this Alice-in-Wonderland approach, a woman’s choice is not made in light of scientific and moral realities. Instead, her choice is the only important reality, overshadowing all matters of fact. But if society operated this way, every killing of every person would be justifiable. The real issue would not be the worth of the person killed, but the free choice of the one doing the killing. If a man doesn’t want his wife, he can think of her as a nonperson. If he chooses to kill her, it would not be “moral confusion,” but “choice in action.”
Ms. Ehrenreich goes on to say, “Moreover, a woman may think of the fetus as a person and still find it necessary and morally responsible to have an abortion.”[iii]
We must not miss the implications of this viewpoint. It says that one may acknowledge the personhood of a fellow human being, yet feel that for one’s personal benefit or exercise of choice it is legitimate—even “morally responsible”—to kill that other person.
Though this is a logical conclusion of abortion-rights thinking, if carried out in our society it would ultimately mean the end of all human rights and social justice.
[i] Mortimer J. Adler, Haves Without Have-Nots: Essays for the 21st Century on Democracy and Socialism (New York: Macmillan, 1991), 210.
[ii] Cited by John Leo in “The Moral Complexity of Choice,” U.S. News & World Report, 11 December 1989, 64.