Pregnant people are people, too

I am pro-choice. 100%. Under all circumstances, and for any reason, I believe that the decision of whether or not to continue hosting a fetus inside of their body lies with the person who’s body is being inhabited by the fetus. And mostly, I leave it at that. But I also think it can be useful to explore the actual ethical quandaries that can be wrestled with in coming to this conclusion. Because I do think that a lot of people struggle with this issue, and that’s legitimate, but I also feel like there’s not always a good space to talk about it in a debate where one side tends to shut down any discussion of morality and the definition of life, and the other simply calls abortion murder, no discussion.

But I think that both of those positions are reductionist. it’s completely unreasonable to say that fetuses aren’t living things; quite simply, they are. And I also think that late-term fetus may even count as people (at least, they’re as much people as newborn babies are). And I wanted to actually put in words the reasons why I can hold these views and also still be 100% pro-choice in every instance.

Because I actually don’t fully buy the “well it’s a personal moral choice” argument, and the “right to privacy” grounds on which abortion is legal in the US have never made even the slightest bit of sense to me. If, in fact, abortion were tantamount to murder, these arguments would imply that murder shouldn’t be illegal on the grounds of privacy and personal moral choices, which is ridiculous.

The thing is, I don’t think that the question of whether a fetus is a person (or when a fetus becomes a person) has any real bearing on whether abortion should be legal or not. It’s not news that every fetal “personhood” argument ever made has completely erased the personhood of the person that the fetus is living inside the body of.

Because, for me, this is the crux of the whole thing. I don’t care if the fetus is a person or not, because no person should ever have the right to live inside of another person against their will. In this model, the death that results from abortion is self-defense, (or possibly a mercy killing, since removing the fetus intact and simply letting it die would be comparably cruel) and not murder. This is not a difficult moral issue for me, but I’ll play along and try to anticipate some of the objections to this.

But the fetus can’t live outside the womb! It’s not deliberately invading your body! it just needs you to survive!

This is just completely irrelevant. Bodily violation is bodily violation regardless of intent, regardless of the whether the person (or fetus) violating someone’s body knows or understands that they are doing so. The person being violated is being violated regardless, and they have the right to stop the violation.

We are never legally required to sacrifice our bodies to save other people’s lives in any other circumstances. We aren’t even required to do so for our own children after they are born. I would be legally within my rights to deny a kidney, or even my blood, to my child, even immediately after birth. But for some reason people still insist that I should be required to carry the thing around for nine months inside my body. The inconsistency here is unfathomable. My right to bodily autonomy is not changed by the fact that I happen to be pregnant.

But you brought it on yourself! I mean, I can see a reason why abortion should be legal in cases of rape and incest, but you gave implicit consent for the fetus to take up residence in your body when you chose to have sex, (you slut)!

Um, no. That’s not how consent works – meaningful consent can be withdrawn at any time. Even if I have sex with the intent of creating a fetus in my body, if I later decide that I do not want said fetus in my body, I can kick it the fuck out.

That’s not even how natural consequences work. By the logic above, there’s a bunch of other conclusions you would have to come to that are patently ridiculous. We don’t, for instance, tell people that chlamydia is just a natural consequence of sex, and that to take antibiotics is to kill the chlamydia is wrong. (Again, even if for some reason I decided to have sex with the express purpose of getting chlamydia, I would be well within my rights to seek treatment for the consequent chlamydia.)

Or let’s look at other things relating to bodily autonomy. I’m registered on the list of bone marrow donors where I live, which means that if someone turns up requiring bone marrow that matches mine, I may be contacted to donate. Being on this list has positive consequences for me – it makes me feel good about myself. Maybe not as good as sex, but still, it’s a thing I chose to do of my own free will and for not much other reason than because it made me happy to do so.

And yet.

If I were called on to donate marrow to someone, I would not be obligated to follow through. Similarly, just because I enjoy having sex sometimes does not mean that I am morally obligated to carry a resulting fetus to term. There’s just no logic by which this could possibly follow. Just no.

This is the logic that is so often used to control women’s bodies and actions – you shouldn’t be out alone at night, or drunk, or dressing outside of certainly narrowly defined and contradictory “rules,” or rape is a direct consequence. You shouldn’t be pretty at work, or getting hit on by your boss is your fault. You shouldn’t be ugly at work, or getting fired is your fault. You shouldn’t try too hard to be conventionally attractive, or harassment is your punishment. You shouldn’t stray too far from conventional attractiveness or harassment is your punishment. You shouldn’t have sex with other women, or corrective rape is your punishment. You shouldn’t have no sex at all, or someone will have to rape you to teach you that sex is good. But you shouldn’t enjoy sex too much, or babies are your punishment.

And yes, I do fully analogize the bodily violation of rape with the bodily violation of being legally forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy. That shit wreaks havoc on your body and on your mental health. Birth is not a simple thing, it’s painful and exhausting and ugly.

Fuck. That. Noise. Consenting to sex does not imply consent to anything other than having sex in that moment.

But isn’t it the nice thing to do to let the innocent fetus use your body? And the nice thing to do is the right thing to do, after all.

Um, yeah, I guess it might be the nice thing to do. It would also be the nice thing to do to donate half of my income to charity, but most people would understand that weighing the hardship that would befall me if I did such a thing outweighs the desire to be nice. Once again, choosing to carry a fetus to term is a very big commitment, with far-ranging impacts on quality of life, ability to work, mental health, and many other things. Sure it’s nice, but it’s grand gesture nice, and not common courtesy/moral obligation nice.

…So, have I missed any of the big arguments?

14 comments

    1. I read it. It’s very well written, and you pointed out one of the problems that others have noted in my post, which is that I do conflate legality with ethics, and they are separate things.

      I’ll go through your article point-by-point, then, if that’s ok.

      I’ve never contended that the fetus is a parasite, nor that it is morally at fault for living inside a pregnant person – I understand that the fetus has no choice in the matter either. This deals with your first two headings.

      My argument is only that the pregnant person is not morally obligated to continue playing host to the fetus. Your article addresses this by stating that “There is a moral obligation to sacrifice to preserve innocent life.” This is worth looking at, and I don’t disagree with it on its face. But the ethical dilemma, for me at least, is how much are we obligated to sacrifice for the lives of others? Some might believe that you have to sacrifice everything, but then none of those people actually follow through on their own claims, as they have homes and clothes and feed themselves rather than sending all of their money overseas to feed starving children.

      You might argue that pregnancy is not a large sacrifice, but I’d suggest that it is a subjective experience. Are you aware that most women seeking abortions actually already have other children, whose lives would be negatively impacted if their mother had to provide for yet another child? Do you really feel that you can adequately judge or understand the personal sacrifices required of someone to accept the responsibility of not just pregnancy, and the mental, physical, occupational and social risks it entails, but also the life-changing responsibilities and burdens of parenthood when they haven’t chosen that responsibility for themselves?

    2. I should also add that your analogy of the room with adequate food etc, to which a child is added, is not any more accurate than my own analogy about giving up a large portion of ones worldly goods. Being pregnant is not as simple as “well, there’s a fetus inside of me, but otherwise business as usual” – it can be an extremely physically and emotionally crippling condition, which prevents a person from properly taking care of themselves or supporting themselves because they are rendered incapable of fulfilling there normal work duties or other life commitments. It has a far-ranging impact on their quality of life, which, while it may not be commensurate to a halving of ones income in all circumstances, is individual to each person, and is more or less extreme depending on a wide variety of other circumstances. For some people, it is a very extreme burden (up to and including the point where pregnancy is actually life-threatening in some cases), for others less so. But only they are the ones who know exactly how burdensome it is.

    3. (I think you’ll find in the long run that we don’t disagree on all that much. I don’t contend that abortion is necessarily a moral right in all circumstances, but rather that the pregnant person in any individual situation is better able to judge the situation than I am, and thus that I must leave the decision in their hands, for better or for worse.)

      1. Thank you, I’m glad you think it well written. Your post is one of the better articulations of the argument I was responding to, which is why I cited it. I understand that you were not making the claim that the fetus is a parasite, but the arguments you used are the framework for the fetal parasite argument. I was replying to that argument, not to your post specifically.

        You said that you agreed with my first contention, but a part of tit was that because the fetus is an innocent human life it is immoral to kill it. If you agreed with that then your entire case fails. I am assuming that you somehow missed that part.

        As for what you said about no one sending all their possessions overseas, there is an ethical distinction we must draw between preserving innocent life by giving resources and preserving innocent life by not taking life. As you say, the first may not always be morally mandated, or may be morally mandated only to a certain point. The other is always morally mandated. A pregnancy is a giving of resources, so one might make a case that they have a moral obligation to only give so much. The problem is that in the case of a pregnancy the only “shut-off valve” is to terminate the pregnancy, taking the innocent life, which is never acceptable. Abortion is not just a withholding of resources; it is a deliberate killing.

        My example is more accurate than yours for all of the reasons I listed in my post. You must refute those reasons before you can legitimately say that my example is no more accurate than yours.

      2. You say that your example is more accurate than mine for the reason that there is a moral disctinction between action and inaction, but I never contended that my analogy was better than or the same as yours on that count. I acknowledge that my analogy did not deal with that distinction – it was not designed to do so. And I’ve already directly addressed the problems that made your analogy at least as weak as mine. Yours addresses only the one place where my analogy falls short while ignoring all of the actual real-world and real life context in which abortion takes place. A pregnant person’s body is not a world out itself; as I have repeatedly pointed out and you have consistently failed to acknowledge, a pregnant person’s life is deeply affected by pregnancy and birth in very profound, and often negative ways. But your closed-off room example deceptively erases all of that context, explicitly and dishonestly suggesting that all a fetus does is take resources that the person’s body is not using anyway.

        A more accurate analogy (though probably still very imperfect) would look more like this:
        There is a child living in a room, who for some reason is psychically linked to you. He is unaware of his psychic link or the effects that his thoughts and actions have on your life, but when he chooses to play with his toy trucks, you become severely nauseous and unable to eat. When he plays with his dolls, your back and breasts ache. When he plays dress-up, you have headaches. And he often plays with all of his toys at once. You have no way of communicating to him about the harm he is causing you, and while it is all unintentional it is undeniable that he is the cause of the harm.

        You are at risk of missing so much work that there will be permanent damage to your career.

        You also know that one day, he will decide to leave that room. At that time, the psychic link will be broken, but the process of that break will involve hours of the worst pain you have ever felt. The effects on your body will be devastating, and possibly permanently disabling, if not potentially fatal. And then, to add to the cruelty, our society expects you to love and care for this being who has caused you nothing but pain.

        Now, at any time, you have the ability to press a button, and the child will die in a relatively painless manner. You will be saved the suffering, which is not your fault, and is directly caused by him even though it is unintentional. Is it inherently immoral to refuse to accept that suffering on behalf of another living person? I honestly don’t think so, and I do think that my giving your money way analogy illustrates the fact that people are hypocritical on this count quite well.

        If you want a different example, consider a drowning person who grabs onto you. If you are not trained in how to deal with this situation, the drowning person, while they may need you to live, is putting your life in danger, and as such I would argue that you are morally entitled to push them away to save yourself.

        Or, what if I alter my money example as follows:
        A very generous person has set up their bank account such that whatever balance it carries the day before her paycheque goes in is automatically transferred to a charity dedicated to saving lives. Thus, any money that she does not require for her own daily upkeep goes to this charity. Is it immoral for her to decide to buy a coffee? This is a deliberate action that results in someone’s death. And yet I still don’t think anyone would consider it immoral of her to treat herself now and then, and to buy things that she does not need to live. We are, every day, absolved of making choices that directly or indirectly have negative and fatal impacts on other people’s lives, and I do not see the difference between this and abortion.

        If it makes you more comfortable though, I suggest that you might look at abortion as a pregnant person taking an action that would normally make regardless of pregnancy – they are seeing a doctor and asking that doctor to return their body to its normal healthy state, so that they are able to continue to fulfill their many life commitments. That doing so has the side effect of the loss of life is no different to me than the knowledge that my decision to buy coffee renders me unable to give that money to a charity that would use it to save a life.

  1. @Jordan: do you have any objection to a hypothetical abortion procedure which cuts the umbilical cord first?

  2. I think my problem with so many of the arguments on both the pro-life (anti-choice) side and the pro-choice side is that morality and ethics is extremely murky and complex and many people don’t agree on the fine details. I don’t believe the choice to have an abortion is valid simply because of the burden pregnancy can be on someone, or because freedom of choice itself is super important. No, it’s because: “I disagree with the premise that abortion should be classified, ethically and/or legally, as murder” and “I disagree that the harm caused by killing the fetus outweighs the harm caused by carrying the pregnancy to term”. It’s because even though adoption is an option, there is already an overpopulation issue in the world and plenty of kids who need families who haven’t been adopted and it feels morally complex to me to add another child into that mix. It’s because if you try to get down into the nitty gritty of why “killing an innocent life” or even just “killing human beings” is wrong, that’s a complicated thing to answer, but killing a fetus seems like it is not morally wrong to me.

    Not saving someone else’s life when it is possible for you to, for instance me not going on a list for donating my bone marrow, or even smaller/less painful things like living in a capitalistic society and not donating as much money as technically possible to charity, perhaps IS something that is morally wrong in a significant way, and perhaps we should be having more of these conversations and not just assuming that because it’s the status quo to protect so much freedom of bodily autonomy means that this is actually just and right and THE reason abortion should be argued to not be morally wrong.

    I understand the pro-choice sides of the arguments and agree, in general, with most of them on a gut level, because I am pro-choice myself. Yeah pregnancy can, depending on the person, be horrific/a burden a person should not be forced to bear. Yeah consent to have sex doesn’t = consent to be pregnant, etc – but often it feels like the “But abortion is MURDERING a child” side of the argument isn’t being properly refuted. Why is it not okay to kill your baby when they’re 1 year old, why is it not okay to murder a random stranger on the street, and why is “murdering” a fetus not the same level of harm – why is it acceptable when those first two things I listed aren’t? Shouldn’t people be engaging more in some of those discussions?

    1. I mean, 1 – year-old children or random strangers on the street generally aren’t non-consensually living inside of other people’s bodies. To a great extent I see abortion as very basic self-defense against an extreme invasion and attack on one’s body.

      1. To me, I guess this argument isn’t fully compelling. It is partially so! I do get where you’re coming from!

        But I feel like this self-defense argument implies: “it’s justified to kill the fetus, but it’s still just as sad that this person had to die as if they’d been a 15-year-old in a tragic accident,” and to me that’s just not true. My 15-year-old self knew I didn’t want to die. My fetus-self had no self-awareness. I am of the opinion that if my mother had aborted me/terminated her pregnancy when I was the fetus I would not know/would not care. I did not properly “exist” yet.

        Maybe I just come at this from a different angle than a lot of pro-choice people.

        I think bodily autonomy matters a lot, but as long as the pro-life person I’m arguing with is focusing exclusively on “what the fetus deserves” then essentially *I* feel simply saying “it doesn’t matter what the fetus deserves because what the mother deserves ‘obviously’ outranks that” misses the entire point that this is not obvious to the person I’m debating.

        Basically, why are we not working furiously toward a scientific breakthrough where fetuses can be transferred out of a person’s body and into an incubator? Why are are not thinking it’s a travesty that so many innocent fetuses are dying and why isn’t there a ton more focus on preventing as many unwanted conceptions as possible with regards to the FETUSES actually taking center of those arguments? Why are there so many pro-choice people NOT arguing that abortion is only ok if it’s likely to be a “hard-enough” burden for the pregnant person? Why is the actual fetus itself not a concern for the pro-choice crowd?

        I am not saying the fetus SHOULD be the concern. I actually believe it’s an insignificant harm to terminate the life of a fetus, personally. But generally the “Abortion is murder” crowd does NOT see it that way. That’s all.

        1. I think I meant something different than “Travesty” btw… that word doesn’t mean what I thought it meant. Maybe “tragedy” would be better, or even “crime”.

        2. I see where you’re coming from! And I do agree with you. I think we all just get a little squidgy about determining at what point destroying an entity-with-human-DNA becomes murder. And yeah, the question of “what if it becomes possible to give fetuses a home outside of the pregnant person?” is definitely a relevant one. I don’t have an answer really :/

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