I’m going to open this post with a powerful quote from an excellent pro-life speech.
Freedom was hard won in our country, and it jars with us to restrict and limit individual liberties, even temporarily. But freedom is not an abstract concept. We give it meaning every single day in the way we live our lives and the decisions we take willingly to protect esee loved ones and colleagues. So I’m asking people to give meaning to our freedom and liberty by agreeing to these restrictions. Restricting how we live our lives, so that others may live.
These aren’t the words of an anti-abortion activist: they’re from Leo Varadkar’s recent speech about the latest round of COVID-19 lockdown measures.
And they are powerful words. The point about freedom in particular is quite profound: freedom is for something, and that something is, roughly ‘leading happy, flourishing lives’. One is for the sake of the other. If we use our freedom to take away the lives of others, we have got things backwards. Note also that Varadkar is not just talking about everyone choosing individually to limit their autonomy: the Oireachtas has passed legislation giving the Gardaí power to enforce the lockdown. He’s inviting people to make the choice for themselves, but we as a republic are also willing to go further and forcibly restrict each other’s autonomy if lives are at stake.
For me at least, it’s impossible to listen to or read this speech without thinking about how the logic of it applies more widely. The case that Varadkar is making here could be taken over almost without alteration to arguments about abortion: specifically, to bodily rights arguments.
A lot of abortion discourse is about the moral status or personhood of the pre-born human: about whether or not the pre-born are our moral equals. The Equal Rights Argument is a moral status argument against abortion. An example of a pro-choice moral status argument is the Embryo Rescue case.
By contrast, a bodily rights argument in favour of abortion argues that even if a pre-born human is as morally important as you or me, it’s still ethically justifiable for a woman to get an abortion when she chooses to, because of her own bodily autonomy. A classic example of a bodily rights argument in favour of abortion is Judith Jarvis Thompson’s ‘Famous Violinist’ case. We’ve written about bodily autonomy before and will again.
But the central thing about all bodily rights arguments is that they’re supposed to be justifications for actions that lead to the death of a person. They’re supposed to work even if pre-born humans are our moral equals. In other words, if a bodily rights argument works, it should justify abortion even if pre-born children were as developed as toddlers: bodily autonomy is just that important.
But our response to COVID-19 suggests that most of us are actually very willing to drastically restrict our and other people’s personal autonomy in order to save lives. The restrictions that have been adopted in Ireland are severe in the extreme: we are mostly confined to our houses, unable to socialise or even to be physically near anyone outside our household. We are able to do far fewer of the ordinary things of life than the vast majority of pregnant women. And what’s the justification for doing this? That our freedom is for living flourishing lives, and thus that the right to life of our neighbours outweighs our bodily autonomy.
The argument could be fairly made that there is a difference between emergency restrictions on autonomy, imposed for a time to resolve a great crisis, and the level of restriction that should be tolerated in ordinary life.
But we have to ask: why do we think COVID-19 is an emergency? The answer is, of course, that it is a threat to the lives of vast numbers of people.
The world has already officially lost over 68,000 people to the virus – thought this almost certainly doesn’t capture all the deaths caused by COVID-19, and is rising every day – with the death count in Ireland standing at 137. And as the numbers rise it can be too easy to forget that each data point represents the loss of a unique, valuable, irreplaceable human being.
Now, imagine that people who believe in the equality of pre-born children are correct. Entertain the possibility for a second that something like the Equal Rights Argument is right and that killing a pre-born child is as wrong as killing a born one.
With that in mind, think about the fact that there were an average of 56 million abortions every year from 2010 to 2014. (That’s according to the Guttmacher Institute, the pro-choice research arm of the abortion provider Planned Parenthood.)
Again, why is COVID-19 rightly designated an emergency? Because it’s a threat to the lives of a vast number of people – 68,000 dead so far and rising. We have all drastically restricted our personal autonomy in massive ways to help save people from that threat.
If we’re right about the equality of pre-born children, then abortion is an emergency too. If anything else was killing 56 million people in a year, it would be universally recognised as the emergency to dwarf all emergencies. (That’s leaving aside any moral difference that there might be between direct killing and failing to protect people).
Malaria killed 405,000 people in 2018; starvation kills around 9 million people a year. (For what it’s worth these figures are also a disgrace. Our response to COVID should also make us think about how unwilling we – relatively well-off people living in rich countries – are to take the much less onerous measures that could minimise these numbers.)
None of this is to downplay the seriousness of COVID-19 or to say that no other human rights violations matter in the light of abortion. That would be what the Equal Rights Institute rightly calls ‘Fetus Tunnel Vision’.
It’s not that the restrictions of autonomy made in response to COVID are too strong: it’s that if pre-born children really are our equals, our willingness to restrict our autonomy to save their lives is far too weak.
Now, none of that applies if pre-born children are not our moral equals. The point of this post is that that is the question that matters. A bodily autonomy argument is supposed to work even if the pre-born matter as much as born children. But our response to COVID-19 suggests that when it gets right down to it we are willing to dramatically curtail and restrict our autonomy to save people’s lives, especially vulnerable people’s lives.
If we think that a near-complete shutdown of freedom of movement and freedom of association is justified to avert the number of deaths that COVID threatens to cause, then the argument that the deaths of 56 million children per year is an acceptable price to pay for autonomy begins to look very weak indeed.