What are the diferences between different kinds of bodily autonomy, and why do they matter?

Our post on COVID-19 and bodily autonomy has been our most-read article to date, so it’s pretty unsurprising that we’ve got a lot of feedback on it.

Some of the comments have focused on the point that the restrictions due to Covid-19 are restrictions of autonomy in general, whereas banning abortion is a restriction of a pregnant person’s bodily autonomy. The concept of “bodily autonomy” refers to the importance of ensuring that you (and only you) get to decide what happens to your body. We think this is a good point and is worth responding to.

First off, we acknowledge that there is a difference between restricting what you can do to and what you can do with your body (or in other words, there is a difference between restricting what you can do to your body and what you can do in general). It seems that (almost) everyone agrees that it’s acceptable to restrict general autonomy to save lives (as we pointed out in our original post). However, the pro-choice claim is that we still can’t restrict what we do to our bodies, even if it saves lives. Bodily autonomy is sacrosanct, even if general autonomy is not.

Just to remind ourselves, bodily autonomy arguments are supposed to justify abortion even if unborn babies are our moral equals. If that’s the case, there are actual lives at stake, so we here at the Minimise Project think that the burden of proof should rest with the pro-choice side, to explain why (rather than merely claim that) bodily autonomy overrides the right to life of an unborn baby (especially if the baby is our moral equal). However, we are happy to outline here why we still come down on the side of life.

Bodily autonomy arguments typically rest on analogies with organ or blood donation, or thought experiments like Judith Jarvis’s famous violinist. They observe that we don’t force someone to donate a kidney against their will, even to their own child, or even to a victim of a car crash that they caused, and even if the person will die without this kidney donation. The potential donor’s right to bodily autonomy overrides the would-be donee’s right to life.

One problem with these analogies is that they differ fundamentally from abortion because they involve saving a life that would otherwise be lost. Abortion, on the other hand, ends a life that would otherwise continue. So a better analogy is that of particular cases of conjoined twins, or the hypothetical case of someone who had already donated their kidney and now wants it back. For a deeper discussion, check out this post by Secular ProLife.

Even having said this, there still are instances where pro-choice people may be happy to infringe on bodily autonomy to save, rather than to not end, a life. For example, many pro-choice people support mandatory vaccination programmes, or opt-out rather than opt-in clauses for organ donation. The principle can apply even more broadly: pro-choice people may be happy to limit bodily autonomy for the common good even if directly saving lives doesn’t come into it. For example, very strongly pro-choice people are very often in favour of bans on possessing and using at least some drugs, even though drugs more clearly only directly affect one human body. Pro-choice people also often support restrictions on the right to buy and sell sex. (Check out this article written by one of Ireland’s longest and strongest pro-choice advocates, who is happy to limit bodily autonomy to serve the greater good and protect marginalised groups).

Or what about an example that’s a bit “out there” but is actually very common – illegal drugs are often transported by someone swallowing the drugs in a packet, getting onto a plane and then retrieving the drugs later once they have passed through their digestive system. Is that illegal? Should it be? And if so, what exactly is illegal? When was the crime committed? Was everything completely fine and legal up until the moment the drugs were retrieved, because up until then everything relevant took place inside the person’s body? Does that mean that if a drug enforcement officer witnesses someone swallowing illegal drugs and then trying to board a plane, they can do absolutely nothing? If we take a strict view that bodily autonomy is sacrosanct, the drug enforcement officer cannot intervene in any way until the drugs have been expelled from the person’s body. However, very few would make that argument.

So given all the examples above of restrictions on bodily autonomy that at least some pro-choice people support (including cases where no lives will be directly saved), as well as the restrictions on general autonomy (including but not limited to the Covid-19 restrictions that we originally blogged about) that we all almost certainly support, we here at the Minimise Project think that our pro-choice friends don’t actually believe that bodily autonomy is sacrosanct in general. We argue that the beliefs of many pro-choice people indicate that they only think bodily autonomy is sacrosanct in the particular case of abortion. This is a very strong claim, and we think it requires strong arguments to back it up. We do not believe that the organ donation analogies prove what pro-choice people claim they do, but we are more than happy to consider other arguments that we may have overlooked. We look forward to continuing to dialogue with our pro-choice friends on this issue.

All this being said, we also believe that when it comes to pregnancy and abortion, general restrictions on autonomy – rather than restrictions on bodily autonomy specifically – are actually what people care most about – but we’ll leave that for another post!