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!
Muireann, I think that you’re perhaps missing the strongest versions of the arguments though, namely right to refuse. I think that abortions which work by direct killing (such as a D&E) are philosophically fairly easy to argue against once you concede that embryos and fetuses have basic rights, but the stronger argument that might (or that should be used if pro-choice) be used is that would go along the lines of saying that pregnancy does substantially change a pregnant person’s body, and while this need not justify direct killing of preborn humans, it does imply a right not to sustain them (which could be used to justify abortion via something RU-486 if the arguments hold).
I think there are still ways to respond to this, but it’s less clear cut if responding to a more robust pro-choice argument that concedes more or less everything else. I don’t think Thompson’s violinist is necessarily a terrible analogy (although I think organ donation a flawed comparison here), I just still think that in that case I would say that a law making it illegal for someone other that the person connected to the violinist to disconnect them should exist (equivalent to criminalising abortionists, but not people seeking them), even if for example on consequence of staying connected for 9 months would be muscular atrophy. Plus, it needs to be said that at least some people that support lockdowns are in favour of them becasue they think the virus a risk to their families of themselves and that this justifies restrictions on other people for themselves, rather than on themselves for other people, so arguments from COVID-19 restrctions aren’t a 100% watertight argument (but they are still almost always good though).
Re: bodily autonomy, around drugs and prostitution, I agree on prostitution that the Nordic model is best, but as far as opinion polling goes (in the UK at least) this is far from clear cut, and also doesn’t rebut anything beyond absolute bodily autonomy. If the argument being used for a Nordic model is a feminist one of “prostitution is almost always coerced sex and effectively paying to rape someone”, banning it wouldn’t be a contradiction, and while I don’t think it leads to the results claimed, I don’t view legalising prostitution as necessarily a crazy idea (just a bad one). I think on drug law it probably is evidence of a contradction on somebody’s viewpoint to support abortion but not liberal drug laws on bodily autonomy grounds, but the consistent conclusion and in my honest opinion generally sensible position would just be that drug laws should be more liberal and grown at home under a government monopoly to avoid funding violent conflicts abroad, and I as a pro-life person would say that “cavity searches” should be totally outlawed on bodily autonomy grounds (it’s rape, and I really can’t understand why someone thinks they can be justified), so I don’t buy the argument here (and also note that Portugal’s drug policy of legalising all consumption but keeping sales illegal resulted in a massive drop to addiction rates, with evidence from Canada suggesting that cannabis legalisation could be used to drive down alcohol consumption to the point of there being fewer deaths overall).
That said, a better analogy that I think a pro-choice person might find it hard to argue against is the following: Suppose that an activist furious with the treatment of disabled people (or some other policial cause) decided to remove one of their legs, and then use this to start blogging and raising awareness of how disabled people arre treated. Beyond arguments of “this won’t work and/or is conuter-productive”, it seems hard to argue that this would be wrong for someone applying bodily autonomy premises consistently. A more down to earth one that most would probably agree with are things like banning public sex*/defacation (with exceptions in the latter case for homeless people), as I would assume that you would get few arguments against laws banning this beyond broader complaints about the criminal justice system.
*Small quibbles around sex clubs aside, I would ban them but others people may not, and it doesn’t rebut the fundamental point upon pointing out that consent to arousal from seeing it is clearly a sufficient premise to justify banning public sex.