The Basic Problem with “My Body, My Choice”
“My body, my choice” – that is the main argument I have heard from abortion advocates, or at least the one that I’ve seen get the most traction. But included in that statement is a much more important claim: namely, that there is only one body involved, the body of the would-be mother. To judge the validity of the broader argument, we must first decide whether this claim is true.
Is it your body? This depends on whether a fetus is a person, because if ‘it’ is really a ‘he’ or ‘she,’ then it follows that there are two bodies, and one of them is not yours; it is ‘his’ or ‘hers;’ it is your child’s. And then, of course, it follows that it is not your choice. In my mind, then, there is only one important question when we consider the general legality of abortion (let us leave aside the minority of cases involving rape, incest, and grave danger to the mother): is a fetus a person?
We must decide which side of the line we fall on. Because if we determine that the fetus is a person, all arguments about choice collapse. (Even if we’re not sure, we are talking about what could be the life or death of an innocent child; it seems best to err on the side of caution if there is any possibility we might be murdering hundreds of thousands of children each year.) When we weigh the value of human liberty against the value of human life, life wins; that is why we have laws against, say, drunk driving. So everything hangs on whether or not a fetus as a person has a right to life, and this means defining ‘person.’
Let us look at a few categories of definitions. The first category is made up of external circumstances: whether one has been born, or how far along a pregnancy is. But this, in itself, seems to be a very strange condition. Am I to understand that, merely by being pulled from one place into another, I suddenly gain personhood – agency, will, choice, reason, human rights, etc.? This seems unacceptably arbitrary, which is why I believe these deadlines to be based on a different sort of reasoning.
This second possible category is made up of physical development: whether one has a certain number of functioning organs, is capable of rational thought, and so on. But there are still problems with this definition. First of all, many philosophers would argue that human beings are as a whole incapable of rational thought (we’ve all met people who seem to bear out this theory). Secondly, many undeveloped abilities, like thought and memory, that apply to fetuses, also apply to infants and those with extensive brain damage. Thirdly, this is still arbitrary; why am I suddenly endowed with agency and will and rights merely by continuing on my normal path of development?
This is why a special circumstance is often added: a fetus is a person when it can exist independently of the mother. But this definition is still arbitrary, because there are different levels of independence, and different levels of development where a fetus can be viable once delivered. Besides, some twins are born unable to live separate from each other and yet are considered separate persons, and I don’t believe I will cease to be a person if I need life support to survive at some point (although one of my philosophy TFs would disagree). So I don’t think this works, either.
I think that the problem goes still deeper: we are misunderstanding what sort of thing a person is. We are trying to define persons by what we can see – by their physical development, or their completed births, or their stage of mental growth. But this isn’t what a person is; it is only what a person is made of. I am not my body; I can imagine myself without or in conflict with my body. I am a chooser, a willer, a reflector, a law-abider or law-breaker, a moral and rational agent. None of these qualities can be measured, nor does a particular date or development bring them about. These are simply what I am.
If we get it backwards, if we reduce humanity to a series of traits, it becomes nothing at all. If personhood is only a type of arrangement of atoms, or a deadline on a calendar, it is nothing but a convention of speech; it has no real meaning. It is arbitrary. But I am not merely a kind of arrangement of atoms or set of traits; I cannot be duplicated. That is, if you copied me, down to the last cell, and made another me, it wouldn’t be me; it would be someone else – very much like me, but with her own will and consciousness, separate from mine. I, and I alone, have a claim on my identity.
Why can I say this? Because an individual is not just a type of arrangement of atoms or set of traits, called a person by convention. A person is a particular thing (sometimes called a soul) – a non-physical thing – but one thing, one being or entity, that cannot be duplicated. This entity does not arise arbitrarily or partially; it either exists, or it doesn’t. There is no middle ground in identity, as philosophers have long agreed.
But how can we tell if such an entity is connected to a fetus, if there is no way to measure it physically? Simple: each person I know exists in tandem with a particular body, and has developed along with it. I think we can continue to assume that every human body, in whatever stage of development, has a person associated with it, who will grow and be harmed and die just as his or her body does. And so, I would conclude, if you are pregnant, the body inside you is not yours. It (miracle of miracles!) is that of a separate person, a person over whose life you do not have the authority to end, except perhaps in the most extraordinary of circumstances.