• Alwia

Abortion Isn't A Simple Matter of Body Autonomy

Man...this post is gonna be a bit heavy. To be honest, the topic of abortion has been on my mind for a loooong time, but for some reason, I've never really felt ready to talk about it. Well, it's a touchy subject for a lot of people, so I've always stayed away from it. But now, in the context of the latest Alabama abortion laws, I think it's time to shed some light on the ethical complexity of abortion which tends to be reduced by a lot of pro-abortion individuals to being just a simple matter of body autonomy and reproductive rights. Now I'm not exclusively anti-abortion. Most things in life aren't black and white. However, I don't think many regular 'pro-choice' individuals understand the ethical and philosophical complexity of the topic and so they tend to give a lot of sarcastic and shallow arguments during debates that have no philosophical bite. To be honest some pro-life arguments also oversimplify certain things, but that's a post for another day. Anyway, let's start!

1- It's my body. It's my choice.

Body autonomy is such a common argument used for abortion but the problem is this: is a fetus part of a pregnant woman's body? Where do you draw the line between your body and that of a fetus? I mean scientifically speaking a fetus is a different 'being' than its mother with it's own unique DNA. To be honest, fetuses when you think about it, are more like parasites (I mean this in the kindest way). They rely on their host for nourishment and their survival but they're not their host. And yes, of course as the host you can decide to not support this being but it doesn't logically follow that doing so is intrinsically ethical. Suggesting that any choice you make regarding your body is ethical, simply because it is your own body isn't logical. Also remember, not 'supporting' a fetus isn't the same as withdrawing life support from someone. In the second case, you're leaving the person to die on their own. Whereas abortion actively kills a fetus.

A lot of people in the West believe wholeheartedly in the body autonomy argument, not just with regards to abortion but many other things. People always feel that they have some God-given right to do whatever they want to their own bodies, and no one has the right to tell them otherwise. But what we have to remember is that this argument is coming from an individualistic ideology. In other ideologies that focus more on the community's well-being, what you do to your own body is everyone's business. And what you choose to do to your own body can be ethical and unethical depending on the circumstances. Some will argue, if a living creature (whether it's an alien, an animal, a human, a plant) is relying on you to live and you take measures to end their life for personal reasons, you need a good reason for that. Saying you want to do what you want to do with your life and body isn't a strong argument in my opinion. In fact, it can come across as a bit selfish.

But Alwia a fetus isn't the same as even an animal or a regular person. It's just a ball of cells. This brings me to the next point.

2- It's just a ball of cells. It's not an actual person.

Okay, so first things first. In terms of fetal development, a baby looks like a literal blob of cells around four/five weeks gestation. Insert weird pics from my app:

Women find out they're pregnant around that time and sometimes later. I heard my baby's heart beating at 7 weeks- two weeks after the usual time you would usually find out you're pregnant. That's super early. In any case, I don't think many people are going to fight over the abortion of a 6 week or 7 week fetus. In the US and UK you can abort a baby any time before 24 weeks. You guys...this is the heart of the issue. A 23 week old baby is a baby. It doesn't look like a blob or an alien.

The reason for the 24 week mark is based on fetal viability. Basically, at 24 weeks a baby can survive outside the womb and that's when abortion is illegal. But this in itself is ethically complex. What determines the personhood of a fetus? Are we saying that a 22 week baby is less human than a 24 week baby? Are we saying that if someone needs support to live then that makes them less human? By that logic, what does that say about people on life support? And more importantly, when do we consider a fetus to be a human with all the rights of a human? These aren't easy questions that you can brush off with, 'it's not a real person.' Also fetal viability isn't an exact science, as prenatal care develops and technology develops, it could perhaps be possible to improve fetal viability or offer better support to premature babies. The cut-off abortion point may not be as accurate as we think it is and may need to be adjusted in the future. All these points are heavily debated among moral philosophers and there aren't many indisputable conclusions.

3- The mother's rights are more important. Her quality of life is more important.

Okay... but why? Is she more human? Better deserving? Another ethical rabbit hole.

It's not her fault she got pregnant. It was an accident.

This brings us to the concept of accountability. We know if a woman is raped, logically she can't be held accountable for her pregnancy. This is why 'most' people agree that abortion is ethical in this case. But what if you were just lazy with contraception? What if you made a miscalculation? What if the contraception used didn't work? Who is accountable?

In certain circumstances you can see how it wouldn't be the woman/couple's fault. But this changes depending on the context. But what we do know is that no baby has ever chosen to be conceived. So in the battle of accountability, in my opinion, the baby will always win- except in the case of rape. How is it fair for a person to be irresponsible, get pregnant, then decide at 23 weeks to abort a developed baby a week short of being viable. Now I'm not saying that this is a common scenario. I'd like to think and hope that most women who want to abort do so at the earliest possible time. But the law theoretically allows this. This is when things get tricky.

4- It's better to have an abortion than raise a child in an unstable and unhappy environment. I'm just not ready for a baby.

By that logic, a lot of people shouldn't have been born. The possibility of having a difficult life doesn't mean the child is always going to be unhappy and live a bad life. Same goes for disabled children but that's more complicated. I wonder how this argument would sound to individuals from dysfunctional backgrounds:

'Maybe it would have been better for your mum to abort you. No one wants to live in your kind of house.'

As for not being ready, yes, maybe someone tried their best to not get pregnant and did anyway. Maybe it wasn't their fault, but it's not the baby's fault either. I mean if a woman had a child she didn't want and then abused it, still this isn't a logical argument for abortion. There's no way someone can determine for sure that unwanted babies are better off being aborted because their unhappy mothers will inevitably hurt them or themselves. No one knows that. Of course, if a woman is suffering from mental health issues and her doctor can clearly see that really bad stuff is going to happen to the mother e.g. she'll become suicidal and hurt herself or the child, you can see how there would be clear logical/ethical grounds to have an abortion in this case.

But in cases where it's just a matter of timing, maybe the mother wants a kid eventually but is expecting a promotion now, these are very ethically problematic. In my opinion the only way a woman can convincingly have an ethical abortion in these particular kinds of circumstances is if she argues against the humanity of the fetus. Once/if you establish the humanity of a fetus, it becomes very difficult to argue you're not ready just now for a baby without sounding a bit selfish. Once you say a fetus is not human, then really abortion is ethical in any circumstance. But you need to be careful about saying something like this because you're potentially dehumanising a baby. So what makes a human a human? If a fetus looks human, is it human? Or maybe if it's fully developed? But if so, wouldn't it be possible for people to argue against the humanity of individuals with physical deformities or disabilities? Doesn't a 20 week fetus look more 'classically' human than someone with amputated legs and arms? Isn't a healthy 23 week fetus 'more developed' than a newborn with serious congenital defects in their organs for instance?

5- Life vs humanity.

Another logical error I tend to come across is confusing life with humanity. You find this on either side of the arguments for and against abortion. The other day I came across a sarcastic thread on Twitter arguing that sperm are alive and therefore masturbation should be illegal like abortion because you're killing potential babies. There are loads of issues with this idea that I won't bother getting into. To be honest, it's just a really stupid thing to say. But what's important to note is this confusion between life and humanity. A cell is alive but it isn't human. I can accept someone arguing that a zygote or embryo is alive but not human yet. But I doubt anyone could convince me that a 23 week old fetus isn't human. Therefore, arguing against abortion shouldn't be founded on the notion of life, that the fetus is a living being. And arguing for abortion shouldn't be founded on the notion that life doesn't matter because everything is alive. Both of these arguments are weak. We all agree that human life matters. Deciding whether abortion is ethical in essence comes down to figuring out if and when a fetus is human. And I don't think we're going to find hard answers for this anytime soon.

6- Back alley abortions. 'Women will have abortions anyway. It's better to make them safe.'

This point is really quite difficult because it mixes politics with ethics. How do you balance the two? As a legislator you need to protect women from unsafe procedures but at the same time if you believe in the humanity and rights of a fetus, you have an ethical duty to protect unborn children from being aborted under unethical circumstances. So what do you do? You try many things: improve sex education and the availability of contraception and then try to figure out at what point and under what circumstances is abortion ethical and therefore legal. People will always come to different conclusions regarding this and they won't please everyone.

7- But should a government ever interfere with your body?

This one really comes back to body autonomy again. Is abortion an issue affecting one person (the mother?) or two humans (the mother and the child)? If you believe in the second then of course, logically, if there's a clash between the legal rights of the mother and the ethical rights of the unborn child, a government has the right to interfere. If you want to do something to your body that involves hurting another person then of course a government can argue that it has grounds to interfere. But again this all comes down to whether the institution in question believes unborn children have legal or at least ethical rights.

So yeah, basically you guys, it's a morally complex topic. I'm all for reproductive rights but really abortion isn't just about the needs and rights of women. Choosing to have an abortion isn't a trivial thing and shouldn't be treated as a trivial matter that just comes down to women doing what they want with their bodies. Imagine potentially making the mistake of dehumanising a human or overlooking the rights of a woman in favour of something we then discover shouldn't have been give human status? These are serious moral repercussion to how we choose to approach abortion. We need to be so careful about how we position ourselves and encourage women to make truly educated decisions before terminating a pregnancy. And this is why studying philosophy and ethics should be compulsory in secondary schools...but that's just me.

And that's that for this week's post! See you all next week for something more light...hopefully.


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