They say that whenever a piece of writing has a question mark in the title, the answer to that question is almost always ‘no’. But this time I think the answer is something like ‘yes, in a sense, at least most of the time’, so read on without fear. Also, this blog has two authors (Ciara and Ben), so when we say ‘we’ we mean both of us!

What kind of autonomy do people care most about?

We’ve been blogging a lot recently about autonomy.

A while back, Ben argued that the response to COVID showed that people, even most pro-choice people, were often willing to significantly reduce or suspend their autonomy in order to save lives. We got a lot of positive response to that, but some readers also correctly pointed out that pregnancy and COVID quarantines are very different.

Then, Muireann responded by drawing a distinction between bodily autonomy and general autonomy. The former is about what you can do or refuse to be done to your body, and the latter is about what you can do or refuse to do with your body (or in other words, just ‘what you can do in general’). She pointed out that even on questions that were strictly about bodily rather than general autonomy, many pro-choice people were still often willing to restrict people’s autonomy to save lives (bans on hard drugs) or even to achieve other goals (bans on the purchase of sex). So it’s not just general autonomy that almost everyone is willing to restrict in some circumstances, but bodily autonomy too.

The whole thing, though, had us thinking a bit about the way we talk about autonomy in relation to the abortion question.

The discourse in the media is all about the restrictions on bodily autonomy that come from pregnancy. But in our own experience, the bigger worry for most people about the prospect of an unplanned pregnancy is actually the restrictions on general autonomy that come from having a child. The data seems to back this: in a 2017 study by the pro-choice Guttmacher institute looking at the self-reported reasons why women get abortions in 14 different countries, the “the most frequently cited reasons for having an abortion were socioeconomic concerns or limiting childbearing.” “Partner-related reasons” were the next most common sort of ‘main reason’ given, with less than 10% of women citing maternal health-related factors as the ‘main reason’ for abortion in 11 of the 14 countries listed. (The exceptions were Jamaica, 22%; The Kyrgyz Republic, 44%, and Russia, 11%). A 2005 Guttmacher study of women from the US found much the same:

The reasons most frequently cited were that having a child would interfere with a woman’s education, work or ability to care for dependents (74%); that she could not afford a baby now (73%); and that she did not want to be a single mother or was having relationship problems (48%)

What that suggests is that the abortion debate is at least partially happening in the wrong place: people are using bodily autonomy arguments when the bigger issue for most people is general autonomy. (Of course, there’s a difference between what might make abortion permissible and what motivates people to get abortions, but just from listening to public discussions, you’d certainly think that most women were primarily motivated by not wanting to remain pregnant.)

The data is echoed by our own experience. When the writers of this post talk to people we know about abortion, or when friends of ours share what would worry them about an unplanned pregnancy, the answer is almost always more to do with having a child than with being pregnant. Worries about careers derailed, life plans turned upside down, unwanted responsibilities having to be shouldered: these are mainly worries about having a born child, not about the physical state of being pregnant.

If people are actually more worried about general autonomy (the freedom to do what you want in general: to pursue your own projects, to go where you want, to decide what to do with your life) than about bodily autonomy specifically, this makes perfect sense. For most people, having kids will be a much bigger restriction on your freedom to do what you want and pursue your life goals than pregnancy will be. 

You can do a lot of things while pregnant

Now, let’s think again about the objections we’ve received to our post on COVID and autonomy. It’s true that in terms of bodily autonomy, pregnancy is more restrictive than the COVID lockdown.

But when you think in terms of general autonomy, something like the COVID restrictions are, for most women, much more significant restrictions than pregnancy. If you are told not to leave your home at all (as is the case for people over 70 here), or that you cannot leave your house unless it’s for brief exercise or to get essentials, your autonomy is being pretty massively restricted. If you are being blocked from seeing loved ones, visiting friends, engaging in many important parts of ordinary life, that’s about as significant a curtailment of general autonomy as you can get, short of imprisonment. 

The restrictions are, unsurprisingly, very psychologically burdensome for a lot of people: if you live in a small apartment with no garden, by yourself, or with a family who you don’t get along with; if you have mental health problems; if you can’t visit your parents in a nursing home; if you can’t get married; or have a funeral for someone who just died; if you don’t have adequate time or internet access to continue to educate your kids, then the restrictions on movement can impose a huge burden. It certainly seems like most pregnancies don’t stop people from doing as many things as that, and as significant things as that, for as long a time.

(Finding an image for this post was difficult because there aren’t many DRM-free images of pregnant women just getting on with their ordinary everyday lives. Most women, though, don’t let this tragic absence stop them from doing just that for most of pregnancy.)

Raising a child, on the other hand, is a dramatic curtailment of general autonomy. For the vast majority of people it’s not a grim or miserable experience like the COVID lockdowns are; but it’s in its own way every bit as significant a restriction on being able to do what you want, when you want to do it. Again, if what you’re worried about is general autonomy rather than specifically bodily autonomy, it makes sense to be more worried about the prospect of having kids than about being pregnant.

Now, there are important qualifiers. These are general patterns, not universal ones. Some of the women surveyed by Guttmacher and others, as well as some of those we’ve spoken to, were more bothered by pregnancy than by having a child. And if health complications arise during pregnancy, or a woman lives in a society where she will face violence or other forms of oppression for being pregnant, then pregnancy can be incredibly restrictive of general autonomy too. But we think that it is true that for most women, the prospect of unexpectedly having to care for a child is usually much more worrying than experiencing nine months of unplanned pregnancy: and that this suggests that most women are more worried about their general autonomy than about their bodily autonomy.

Is abortion about avoiding pregnancy or avoiding having a child?

We can bring all this out by doing a thought experiment: if humans didn’t get pregnant – if, after having sex, a baby just hatched from an egg in a week – would demand for abortion vanish? We don’t think so. People would still want to be able to avoid the unchosen responsibility of having a child. The influential pro-choice philosopher Kate Greasley lends some support to this idea: in a piece for the New Statesman, ‘Will Artificial Wombs End the Debate Over Abortion Rights?’, she suggests that even if working artificial wombs were to be developed, they wouldn’t make the pro-choice position redundant. That’s because, she writes:

… liberation from the burdens of pregnancy is not the only, or indeed the main, interest women have in abortion. The other, and arguably more significant [our emphasis], interest protected by abortion rights is the interest in procreative control: the right to decide whether and when one will become a parent.

Now, we might disagree with Greasley about when exactly a person becomes a parent, but the broad point she’s making remains: in our terms, that people seeking abortion are at least as concerned about their general autonomy as they are about their bodily autonomy.

What about adoption? If the real worry is about having a child, then why don’t more people adopt instead of abort?

Greasley again:

I think it plainly clear, though, that what many women are seeking to avoid through abortion, far more so than the burdens of pregnancy, is either one of two scenarios: becoming a mother (or a mother again), or having a biological child adopted by others. Both are meaningful interests. While some might deny the objective importance of pure biological relations, there is no denying their emotional resonance for many (which is why adopted children often seek out their genetic parents). Preventing a situation whereby there exist biological progeny with whom one is unconnected can be significant human interest in itself.

Of course, all this raises a question: if the impositions on general, day-to-day autonomy from having children are a bigger concern for most women than the impositions on bodily autonomy inherent in being pregnant, then why is the official media debate so much more focused on the latter than the former?

We’re not entirely sure, but we have guesses. One reason might be that focusing on bodily autonomy makes for a more effective debating strategy for pro-choice activists and media spokespeople (look at the widespread use of the term ‘forced pregnancy’ in media debates). Another is that ending the life of the pre-born seems more palatable if it’s described as  ‘ending a pregnancy’ rather than ‘stopping a child being born’.

Regardless of the reasons, though, by focusing almost exclusively on bodily autonomy and pregnancy, and neglecting general autonomy and having a child, we’re making the abortion debate that bit more detached from most people’s most fundamental concerns.

Ciara and Ben