An Ambivalent Outlook on the Right To Bodily Autonomy

I tried to compose a twitter post expressing a thought that I have had chasing around in my mind, but the brevity required in twitter simply did not do it justice.  Therefore, this will be a short post on that single thought.

My thought started with this: in pro-choice arguments, the right of the pregnant woman to bodily autonomy is considered of higher importance than the right of the unborn child to his or her bodily autonomy (also their right not to be arbitrarily killed, but a straight comparison serves my purposes better).

Nowadays, most pro-choicers will concede to the humanity of the unborn child.  My somewhat uncharitable thought is that this is a reluctant concession based on the undeniability of advances in modern medicine, such as ultrasound and the survival of very premature infants.

I’ve previously made the argument that human rights are granted on the virtue of our humanity; hence the unborn child is as deserving of these rights as their pregnant mother (read more about the Equal Rights argument here).

Yet.the pro-choicer might agree that the unborn is human (and thereby intrinsically deserving of rights), but still argue that the pregnant woman is justified in killing it.  So we have the situation that I described above, where there are two human beings with competing rights, and the rights of one human being is seen to supersede the rights of the other human being.

(Here is a point where I could potentially diverge into an in-depth discussion on why I think the unborn child’s rights supersede almost any justification for abortion.  But I have discussed such things before (e.g. here), and so I’ll move on.)

To lay it out simply:
Right of pregnant woman > right of unborn child

Let’s follow this pregnant woman back a bit.  Back a while, actually.  Let’s follow her right  back to before she was born, when she was residing in the uterus of her mother. If we accept that her humanity remains unchanged, then it follows that her rights also remain unchanged.  But the pro-choice argument is that the rights of her mother now outweigh her own;

Right of pregnant woman’s mother > right of pregnant woman > right of unborn child

So the right that is in the present time considered sacred enough to justify killing another human being, was previously considered insignificant enough that it could be over-ridden at the expense of the holder’s very life. The importance of the same right held by the same person has changed so extremely over time that it could once be violated on a whim, but now they can kill their own child on the basis of it.

Yes, the way our rights are considered can be altered according to the situation.  But this is such a marked alteration in how we might perceive the importance of the right to bodily autonomy that I feel there is a significant disconnect in thinking here.

The only way that I can see to resolve this ambivalent outlook on the right of bodily autonomy is to argue that the unborn child meets some definition of human being that excludes it from being deserving of rights.  But tread carefully! for such a definition must specifically exclude the unborn child whilst being sure to include every other living human being.

Is this a discussion you want to pursue?  Email me at my contact page.