Bodily Integrity and Abortion Part II: Sovereign Zone Argument

The Sovereign Zone Argument
Part 2 of my series on bodily integrity and abortion

This argument states that the boundaries of a person’s body form the boundaries of a ‘sovereign zone’, within which a person is free to take any action that they wish. For example, if a person decided to have an operation to split their tongue , the Sovereign Zone argument says that they have a right to have this done, as their tongue is within the sovereign zone of their body and is therefore theirs to do with as they please.

It’s easy to see how this applies to abortion. The unborn child, even though it is not a part of the pregnant woman’s body, is still within the pregnant woman’s body, and therefore encompassed by her sovereign zone. Thus – according to the argument – she has the right to do with the unborn child as she pleases.

I’d like to start with a few examples that show how our bodily integrity can be limited in a way that shows that the reach of the sovereign zone is not absolute, and that our bodies are not inviolable.

  1. Involuntary patients with a mental illness may be medicated against their will.
  2. Smoking is banned whilst driving with children.
  3. Recreational use of cocaine is illegal.
  4. Anorexic patients may be involuntarily hospitalised and treated.
  5. Female genital mutilation (FGM) is illegal, even with the consent of the prospective patient.

The important thing to think about with these examples is the reason why bodily integrity has been limited.  In all circumstances, it is for the protection of the individual, the protection of others, or both. To be specific:

1. The detainment and treatment of an individual with mental illness protects against self-harm and protects others against violent actions of that individual:

“because of the mental illness, the person requires treatment for the person’s own protection from harm (including harm involved in the continuation or deterioration of the person’s condition) or for the protection of others from harm”

Mental Health Legislation on Involuntary Treatment

South Australia Mental Health Act 2009

2. The smoking ban protects children from the harmful effects of the adult’s second-hand smoke.

3. The illegality of recreational drugs protects the individual from the harmful effects of the drugs.

4. Involuntary treatment protects the individual from the adverse health consequences of being severely underweight.

Consider how these limitations on bodily integrity shows that the sovereign zone can be breached with sufficient justification. Furthermore, consider the similarity between the goals of the limitations listed above and the goal of limiting bodily integrity in the case of abortion; primarily for the protection of the unborn child.

I’d like to give special attention to FGM, because I think this is the one that is most akin to abortion, in that most pro-choice arguments could also be used to argue in favour of allowing FGM. Firstly, I do need to say that I consider FGM to be a completely unnecessary and often horrific practice.  I firmly believe that it should be illegal, as it is in South Australia.  As I’ve stated, it is illegal even if the prospective patient has requested it. I want to stress that last part, to make it clear that we have a situation in which a woman may make an informed choice to have a procedure carried out on her own body, and yet have that choice denied. So why are women denied the opportunity to make this choice for themselves, even if that denial entails severe social and emotional consequences? It’s not medically necessary, this is true, but neither are numerous cosmetic surgeries.

Illegality of FGM

The (very valid) reasons for banning FGM are the same as the other examples; for the protection of the individual and the protection of others. The illegality of this procedure protects the woman from (a) being coerced into making a decision that she is not comfortable with, and (b) suffering the health consequences and risks resulting from FGM. It protects others, as the majority of FGM procedures are carried out on underage girls, and so a ban prevents them being subjected to such a procedure against their will (which would be a very real possibility if the law were changed to allow for FGM for consenting adults). It furthermore protects these women and girls by attempting to prevent the propagation of a sexually discriminate cultural ideal.

So once again, we see that bodily integrity can be legitimately limited, if the justification is sufficient. Therefore the Sovereign Zone argument is not sufficient grounds for abortion, provided that justification can be made for its limitation in this case. To parallel the examples given, the justification offered would be:

  1. For the protection of the individual from the harmful effects of abortion, from being coerced into making a decision, and from the risks of a medically unnecessary procedure.
  2. For the protection of the unborn child.
  3. To avoid propagating a societal discrimination against women and the inescapable biological fact that we bear children.

A little more on that last point: it is inarguable that men and women are biologically different. Any advances in equality need to recognise our differences and adjust our systems to account for them. As long as a woman has an ‘opt out’ option for pregnancy, there will be those with the perspective that concessions shouldn’t be made for pregnant mothers and mothers will young children – because ‘she didn’t need to be pregnant, she could have just got an abortion’. Respect for women and respect for the fact that we bear children and go through the process of pregnancy go hand in hand, and is only diminished by the thought that a pregnancy, once begun, is somehow optional.

Now to a more intuitive challenge to the Sovereign Zone argument. I’ve drawn from a few different sources for the following, but it is most clearly laid out here.

According to the Sovereign Zone argument, a pregnant woman has a right to do anything she pleases within the boundaries of her own body, even as this includes the embryo/foetus. Thus she has the right to abort the unborn child, even though it will result in their death. This may not sound unreasonable at first. But consider that the absolute nature of this argument also gives her the right to mutilate the unborn child. A commonly used example is that she takes thalidomide for morning sickness, knowing that it’s going to result in the deformation of the unborn child. A more direct idea is that she chooses to have the foetus’ arm removed, whilst leaving it alive. It sounds dreadful, but it is a logical conclusion of the Sovereign Zone argument.

Perhaps one could protest that the mutilation is wrong because it then affects the child once it is born. Therefore it is not that the act is wrong in itself, but it is instead wrong because of the impact on the born child. I would answer this objection in two ways:

  1. Consider the impact of a missing limb versus the impact of death. The child with a missing limb may miss out on some experiences in life (for a positive story of such an individual, go here), but the child killed before they were born can experience no life at all. I would argue that the non-living child has suffered the greater impact, and therefore this response to the Sovereign Argument cannot be dismissed on these grounds.
  2. Consider a situation in which a woman pregnant with a 39-week foetus takes the following course of action: she arranges for a number of chemicals to be injected into the amniotic fluid that will cause the foetus to be in extreme pain until, two or three days later, it eventually dies in utero. It distresses me to even write of such a thing, but the Sovereign Zone argument would permit this, even with a qualification that prohibited actions that would impact upon the born child.

It is clear that the Sovereign Zone argument permits abortion on-demand throughout the entire pregnancy. Many people feel uncomfortable with late-term abortions, or even medically unnecessary abortions, and yet the Sovereign Zone argument allows abortion at any time for any reason. The Sovereign Zone argument would also condone the woman who repeatedly and deliberately gets pregnant in order to abort (the reason why someone might do this is irrelevant, as the Sovereign Zone argument requires no justification for abortion). If you hold to the notion that bodily integrity is inviolable and absolute, and yet this scenario makes you uncomfortable, it may be that you realise that there are moral and ethical depths to abortion beyond the simplistic concept that a woman has a right to choose what to do with her own body.

To conclude, the Sovereign Zone argument fails because:

  1. Bodily integrity is not an absolute right and can be limited with the appropriate justifications.
  2. It permits actions that are morally reprehensible.


The next post will be on the Right to Refuse argument, which I personally consider the strongest pro-choice argument.

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Author: Elizabeth

I am in my mid thirties, a medical student and mother to four amazing little girls. My first venture into pro-life writing was when I wrote an essay on abortion in high school, but I didn't become passionate about protecting the unborn until after I had my first daughter in 2010. I hope my writing will help those who have questions about abortion, and help to build understanding of the arguments surrounding abortion.