I’ve had something of a writing block for the last month or so, so I’m thankful to Hemant Mehta over at Friendly Atheist for providing me with some fodder to dissect. I’ve always figured that there had to be some folk out there whose anti-abortion stance wasn’t built on a foundation of religion, as the latter simply isn’t logically necessary for the former. Plenty of people hold ignorant and poorly thought-out positions, appeals to god are simply gap fillers: people can also either fill in the gaps with a non-religious non-explanation, or just ignore them.
Such is the case in the guest post by Kristine Kruszelnicki, titled “Yes, There Are Pro-Life Atheists Out There. Here’s Why I’m One of Them“. An alternative title would be “I’m unaware of how shallow my arguments are, but here they are anyway”. That is, perhaps, unfair: it’s possible that Kruszelnicki is aware of how shallow these arguments are, but she claims that they are compelling….
I’m going to raise up Judith Jarvis Thompson here, because Thompson is the 800lb gorilla in the room: ignoring the gorilla doesn’t make them go away. I wrote about this some time ago (poorly, I’ll grant), but the bottom line is: if you present arguments that are anti-abortion, then you need to run them past Thompson’s. A failure to do that indicate either ignorance, or a lack of actual interest in your position. Thompson wrote her paper in 1971, so Kruszelnicki is currently 43 years behind the times. She is, to people with a passing knowledge of Philosophy and/or Feminism, unaware of the existence of word processors. Imagine how ridiculous it would be if someone were to make an argument of writing with a pen over a pencil, completely ignoring the existence of the electronic word processor. And yet here we are, publishing someone who, analogously, is unaware of the floppy disk. [You can skip my commentary and go straight to Thompson’s paper via wikipedia if you prefer]
Let that sink in a moment. The sheer ridiculousness of it.
Kruszelnicki has clearly had to deal with a number of uninformed detractors, and that’s unfortunate. Her responses are mainly responses to those completely ridiculous complaints, and are basically at the same level. I’m going to deal with the only real point that Kruszelnicki makes.
Even if the unborn are human beings worthy of personhood even in their earliest stage of development, under normal circumstances, no one has a right to use someone else’s body against their consent.
This is true. And, likewise, under normal circumstances no one should be killed for being too young to care for themselves independently. Unfortunately, pregnancy is completely unlike any normal circumstances or normal human relationship. What happens when both a woman and her developing fetus are regarded as human beings entitled to personhood and bodily rights? Any way you cut it, their rights are always going to conflict (at least until womb transfers become a reality). So what’s the reasonable response? It could start by treating both parties at conflict as if they were equal human beings.
Here, Kruszelnicki evades the question by focusing on the completely irrelevant “under normal circumstances”, and blunders directly into Thompson’s main argument: let’s treat both parties at conflict as if they were equal human beings. Notice that Kruszelnicki stops her point there, whereas it’s a starting point for Thompson. Unlike Kruszelnicki, Thompson wants to consider several scenarios. The first (and here I’m repeating my own summary from the previous link):
A person is in desperate need of [insert medical attention of choice], which is not available (dialysis is an example that fits the argument). They will die without it. The only solution is to connect them to you, for your body to keep them alive, as you are the only medically compatible person available.
Thompson’s argument here is to create an analogy for rape: this was done without your consent. For Kruszelnicki, all children are, apparently, born of consenting adults. But we can upgrade this to an argument about intentional pregnancy:
The strongest possible case (i.e. to make disconnection as objectionable as possible) is: you consented prior to the tubes being connected to being connected. You are going to be connected for 9 months, and you know (and knew, prior to consent) that some health complications are likely to occur. The person you are connected to is a fully autonomous, intelligent, thinking human being, above the age of majority (of whatever age that may be). They are (to make the extreme case) a genius in their line of work, and it would genuinely be a loss to the world for this person to die ‘prematurely’, so to speak.
Are you ethically compelled to maintain a connection throughout the 9 months? It happens to be the case that there are no alternative people to whom this person can be connected: it’s you, or they die (and their death is guaranteed). Do you have an ethical obligation to remain connected?
Ultimately: no, you do not. Your autonomy includes the right to change your mind. While it is certainly unethical to break a contract, autonomy is a gold-standard, it’s foundational: society may punish you regarding your breach of contract (by refusing to offer you contracts in the future), but society cannot prevent you from breaching a contract here and now. (Clearly, “the government” cannot ethically dictate that you may not become pregnant in the future, and this would be a ridiculous extension to make; but it would be well within the rights of a future partner to decline creating a baby with the woman for whatever reason they chose, including “you had an abortion in the past”)
Let’s entertain the notion that yes, the unborn fetus, has full rights of autonomy: how does that translate into a right to remain in someone’s womb? Sure, the fetus has the right not to be killed, but no-one has the right to someone else’s body: bodily autonomy trumps rights to food and shelter. Moreover, even in the best of cases, being pregnant poses a risk to the life and health of the pregnant person. Even if the person consented to those risks, in the abstract, we are still entirely within our rights to change our minds about what contracts we enter into.
Kruszelnicki repeatedly conflates born children out in the world, and fetuses in a womb, as if these are comparable scenarios: the financial, temporal, and psychological demands of dealing with a child are not the same as the biological, financial, temporal, and psychological demands of pregnancy. To repeatedly conflate these, to use arguments about the former to argue about the latter is to demonstrate a lack of understanding here.
The bottom line: bodily autonomy is absolute. If you are presenting an argument (as Kruszelnicki is, regardless of whether she understands that she is) that ‘bodily autonomy may be violated’, then you absolutely must explain how your arguments do not apply to, we’ll say, someone requiring a transplant from your body. To argue the one but ignore the other is to implicitly argue (intended or otherwise) that ‘bodily autonomy may be violation, so long as we’re talking about women‘.