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.
Excellent argument Ben. The sad thing is that logic does not work for pro-abortion people. They may use arguments such as “bodily autonomy” or “non-equal rights”, but they use them as slogans: they don’t believe in them enough to change their minds if they argument is proven to be fallacious or inconsistent. See how quickly Brid Smith TD has done a U-turn on the risks and dangers for pregnant women of self-diagnosed abortion pills – now she wants them to be easily available without prescription during the lock-down: where is the logic of that??
They don’t want legal abortions because they think “it makes sense” or “it’s the right thing to do under any circumstances”, but simply because they don’t want to be constrained/tied/dominated/controlled by the forces of nature.
Ben here: thanks for the comment, and sorry for the late reply! I think it’s true that that some pro-choice people (including movement leaders) don’t have very well-thought-out motives or think more in slogans than arguments (the same is true, sadly, for a lot of pro-life people).
But it’s also the case that a lot of pro-choice people do sincerely believe in bodily autonomy arguments, or think that abortion is the right thing to do in certain circumstances for other reasons. If we didn’t think it was possible to engage with people like that in good faith and get somewhere, we wouldn’t be running this site! I’ve had a lot of good conversations on these topics with individuals: once you get away from the really inflammatory space that a lot of this debate happens in dialogue really is possible.
It’s a very good point you make Ben, and it that proves most in the UK/ROI (93% support the UK lockdown) do agree on some common-sense bodily autonomy restrictions. That said, I think it worth mulling over the extent to which widespread support for abortion is because the bulk of the public (wrongly) thinks that abortion restrictions don’t work (I say they do, but societal effects aside if they didn’t work this would be a good reason for keeping abortion legal), v.s thinking that preborn humans don’t deserve human rights or to be treated equally, I think it is mostly due to an implicit belief that preborn humans belong in the same moral category as animals, and at that point the “bans don’t work argument” provide a good reason for the viewpoint not to be revaluated.
I hasten to add that I think many (perhaps even most?) abortion opponents aren’t consistent in terms of preborn equality either (not just rape/incest/disability exceptions), as if this were the case, you would expect to see substantial numbers of pro-lifers support civil disobediance to a degree (think XR protests), on the assumption that it is moral to “Rebel for life”, or at least showing non-graphic fetal images widely (which I only saw a tiny number of at the UK March for Life the three years I’ve been), yet my anecdotal experiences have suggested that a considerable proportion of us would be averse even to a street stall designed to invite passers by to talk to us and talk about the issue (which is just daft). I genuinely wonder what the reaction would have been if pro-life leaders had blocked some roads or done other forms of eye-catching protests in the aftermath of the referendumb, it might not have made pro-lifers popular, but I think it would have helped keep the Overton window from shifting too much.
Also, unrelated to the article, but we should get back in touch about that pitch for the Atlantic etc (and it would be good to talk more by Skype generally in the age of lockdowns etc).
Hello. I got a link to this article from a “Consistent Life” email from the USA. (I’m in the UK). Very good article. Interesting comments from Dane Rogers. I have been involved in XR protests in the UK, and those “Rebel for Life” signs have struck me, since such words would normally be interpreted in a different way… One of the things I would like to do, is to get the Consistent Life group here restarted, which some friends used to run.
That comment has certainly got my interest Martin (I’m also in the UK), and have been involved in a couple of radical climate protests once or twice (focused on fossil fuel divestment at my uni mainly, and protests at fossil fuel company recruitment events), including one protest that got some national media coverage though haven’t been to XR specific actions (am not quite brave enough to risk or accept arrest, but perhaps in the future). One interesting anecdote that I heard through a former member of the commitee of my uni pro-life group (but cannot corroborate) is that there were rather a lot of Jesuits involved in the very early days of XR (and note the XR website claims some seed funding from a Christian group that wanted to stay anonymous). Some good implications to say the least, no?
I would love to get involved if a CLE group got rebooted in the UK, and in truth I think that overall, the UK pro-life movement doesn’t have very effective strategy (some, but not all of which is on the PL movement). On that note, I wrote a rather long critique of it in the comments of the article, “March for Life Signs: The Bad and the Ugly” on the Equal Rights Institute website discussing these themes (though really just for the UK March), as food for thought if there’s an in person march next year.
I do think that a rebranded and radical (dare I say, explicitly left-wing) consistent life group might be able to make more progress at changing the culture, and challenging the systemic forces that drive abortion, and cut through traditional political binaries enough that it forced wider engagement with pro-life ideas. By the way, you might be interested to know that there are some links between Planned Parenthood and fossil fuel and arms companies. BP, Shell, Boeing, Lockheed-Marton and Exxon Mobil have all made donations to Planned Parenthood with BP, Boeing and Shell being “corporate supporters of the Center for Reproductive Rights”, and indeed the Rockefeller foundation (funded by an oil magnate) had involvement both in the designing of the atomic bomb, and also funded (and still funds) Planned Parenthood (who for fairness, weren’t in favour of abortion at the time). There are many more links between abortion and capitalism (such as PP busting unions and oppsing universal healthcare, or the abortion pill being funded by billionaires and patent rights belonging to a company in a tax haven) that I could go into, but shall not given that these sorts of links were the topic of the pitch with Ben that I mentioned before.
I have to ask, are you the Martin Newell that took part in blocking the tube trains from running back in October? (Good job if you were btw, I’m of the opinion it was a good protest, despite it being reported by the Guardian as highly controversial within XR.) Also, is there any way in which it might be possible to get in touch at all beyond this comment section? I don’t wish to dox myself by sharring my email address, but Consistent Life stuff would make staying in touch very worthwhile.
hi Dane. Sounds very interesting. If you go to the Passionists UK website, and look for the Vocation Directors email address, email that address, it will get through to me. Alternatively, if you can’t find that email address, email the office or info email address on the same website, and ask for it to be forwarded to me. It would be good to hear from you. I’ll answer some of your other questions then. Martin