Whose Body Is It, Anyway?

In a recent post, I seem to have stirred up a bit of controversy regarding some stated opinions about feminism. One opinion I explicitly did not state was my opinion regarding abortion, as I felt it was at best tangential to the issues I was discussing at the time. It is a weighty and emotionally charged issue, and I did not want it to distract from the other issues I was trying to raise. However, it is also an issue worthy of serious discussion and debate, and I feel the time has come at last to lay out my position.

Before I begin, I want to make a few things clear. While I will do my best to discuss the matter as rationally and dispassionately as possible, that does not mean I am in any way immune to the emotional freight attendant to it. On the contrary, I am as invested as anyone in the matter. That having been said, I believe that any issue worthy of being debated as a matter of law, or even being considered as a matter of law, should be addressed as rationally as possible. The purpose of the law, in my view, is to allow us the time and distance to make decisions in a manner we would not and cannot in the heat of the moment.

All the necessary provisos aside, if it’s not clear from the title of this post, let me be clear now about my position: I am in favor of a woman’s right to choose. Before the gasps of shock or hateful comments begin, I ask that you read on to understand my reasoning; it is not something I came to by chance, nor did I simply go with what “feels right”. Like most everything else I believe, I started from the same base libertarian principles I have held for a very long time, and moving forward I have come to what I believe is the only logical conclusion. Also please note that I do not see it as an unlimited right, something else born out of those same libertarian convictions and that same logic. I welcome anyone to challenge me on the logic, or any point of fact, but please reserve points of faith for yourself, as I assure you that you will not sway me.

The first point I begin with is the fact that there is, indisputably, at least one person in this situation, a person who must be addressed, and that would be the woman in question. I know this might seem redundant, but sometimes it seems to me as if people who speak of a “right to life” have forgotten the existence of this person, or that she also has rights. Or does she? On this point, I turn to Murray Rothbard:

Let us set aside for a moment the corollary but more complex case of tangible property, and concentrate on the question of a man’s ownership rights to his own body. Here there are two alternatives: either we may lay down a rule that each man should be permitted (i.e., have the right to) the full ownership of his own body, or we may rule that he may not have such complete ownership. If he does, then we have the libertarian natural law for a free society as treated above. But if he does not, if each man is not entitled to full and 100 percent self-ownership, then what does this imply? It implies either one of two conditions: (1) the “communist” one of Universal and Equal Other-ownership, or (2) Partial Ownership of One Group by Another—a system of rule by one class over another. These are the only logical alternatives to a state of 100 percent self-ownership for all.

I highly recommend reading the entire piece, as Rothbard explores the full (absurd) implications of each of the two positions he lays out, as well as building a strong defense for the notion that every person has an ownership right in their own body.

Having established that there is at least one person who has rights, we are left with the question of whether we as a society have a right to violate her right to self-determination. I do not deny that there are times when we can do so in the name of a greater justice, but those times must be in extremis, and most often are done so when there is a direct and credible threat to the life or property of another person. This is of course the assertion of the pro-life movement; that abortion is in fact a threat to the life of a person, and should therefore be banned. Let’s test that assertion, shall we?

One slogan that is often resorted to is “life begins at conception”. Perhaps, although that’s not saying much. Any single-cell organism qualifies as being “alive”, and we do not ascribe the rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” to every living creature on Earth. According to the Constitution Society, “[u]nder Common Law existing at the time of the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, “natural personhood” was considered to begin at natural birth and end with the cessation of the heartbeat.” However, they do go on to note that “technology has created a new situation, opening the way for statute or court decision to extend this definition and set the conditions under which personhood begins and ends.”

So that’s not definitive, although I do think it gives some guidance. Even if technology has pushed back the boundaries of what could be defined as “personhood”, I don’t think that any rational person would call a sperm a person, and yet there are rational people who would declare a zygote a person. I have to admit I don’t understand this. By the same standard, I wouldn’t deny that a fetus one minute before birth is as much a person as a baby one minute after being born. So where do we draw the line?

Ultimately I have to go with the concept of “personhood”, and the best definition I can attach to it in a very real, philosophical and moral sense for myself: the idea of a singular, individual consciousness that exists separate from another. This requires that the fetus be able to exist viably ex utero in order to be ascribed the rights of personhood. While I understand that development is not constant in all cases, and I am not up to date on the latest science on when that point is, I am fairly certain that moment is not at conception, but it is sometime before birth. In the same way that we draw a line to denote when someone becomes an adult regardless of individual development, so must we do so here. Because that’s what the law is: a set of boundaries that we as a society have agreed to in advance.

If anyone reading this has gotten this far and is still discomfited by my suggestions or finds them lacking in some way: good. So do I. This is not an issue we should be addressing with laws and courts. This is an issue we should be addressing with empathy, personal discussion, and the greatest respect possible. The simple fact is that no matter what side of the debate you are on, you have to acknowledge that no one considers abortion lightly, if at all. But trying to control another person by force is not the answer; denying a woman her right to self-determination will not win the day.


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