"Nobody has a right to anyone else's body."
This is a common claim given in defense of abortion.
It's worthwhile to think (again!) about whether an argument in defense of abortion based on this claim is likely sound or not, as well as whether the argument is likely useful for supporting or defending pro-choice views.
To do this we must think about what the claim might mean. There are different types of rights so there are at least two options here:
- Nobody has a legal right to anyone else's body.
- Nobody has a moral right to anyone else's body.
To begin with the "moral" understanding of rights, the problem is that even if nobody has a moral right to anyone else's body (and maybe that's not true), nothing interesting must follow from it.
This is because not all moral obligations are due to moral rights. It can be that you are morally obligated to do something – there can be serious moral obligations – yet there are no rights involved: morally, you must do something, yet the other person (or being) has no right to that being done. Some moral theories don't appeal to rights at all, and even deny the existence of rights, yet they recognize that there are obligations.
So even if it were true that nobody has a moral right to anyone's body, that doesn't show that there aren't moral obligations that would make abortion wrong: pregnant women could be morally obligated, even to the fetus, to keep the pregnancy even if the fetus has no rights.
So the appeal to the lack of moral rights here doesn't entail that abortion is morally (or legally) OK.
A second problem is it might be that we sometimes have rights to other people's bodies. If we have some rights to assistance or benefits from others, since providing that could involve our bodies in various ways, that entails we could sometimes have rights to other people's bodies.
To better understand this, consider an imaginary case of a drowning child who you could easily save. Most would say you are morally obligated to save the child: it'd be wrong for you to not save the child.
But some will also claim that the child has a moral right to be saved. If they are correct, since saving this child will involve the use of your body, then the child has some right to your body.
Let's make the case more imaginative: suppose to get to what you need to save the child (say a life-preserver or a boat), you have to quickly put a drop of blood in a machine, or a tissue sample into the machine, and the machine makes doing that easy. Again, if the child has a right to be saved, then the child has a right to your body.
Finally, even more imaginatively (and outlandishly), suppose to save the child, you have to be put into a pregnancy-like state, but just for a few minutes. Again, if the child has a right to be saved, then the child has a right to your body.
Now, these are all quite different from real pregnancy and childbirth, of course. But they are enough to suggest that the claim that nobody (ever) has a moral right to anyone else's body (in any way) might not be true, if we ever have rights to assistance and benefit from others.
To the response that, "But pregnancy is so much more demanding than any of these silly examples here!" that's true, and that changes the argument by focussing on the demandingness of the right, not the existence of any right whatsoever. And suppose there was a pregnancy and childbirth that would be, somehow, super-easy, even pleasurable. Would the advocate of this argument think that in this situation the fetus has a moral right to the woman's body? Probably not.
In sum, even if nobody (ever) has a moral right to anyone else's body (in any way), abortion could still be morally wrong. And, of course, it could still be such that it should be illegal.
Let's consider the legal understanding of rights in the claim above:
nobody has a legal right to anyone else's body.
What this means is that nobody will be legally or criminally punished for not letting anyone else use their body. The famous McFall versus Shrimp case demonstrates this: in brief, someone's relative was not forced or compelled by the court to donate body parts, so to speak, to the other relative, even though that relative needed those body parts to keep living. This suggests that the legal right to life are not the right to everything you need to stay alive, even if what you need to live is someone else's body.
So, about abortion, the claim is that a fetus doesn't have a legal right to the pregnant woman's body and so she would not be compelled or forced by the court or police or criminal justice system to provide assistance to the fetus.
That sounds good to some, but the problem – for purposes of people understanding pro-choice positions and increasing the chances that they will support them – is that this can sound bad to many people, for plausible reasons. Why's that? Because:
- again, you can be morally obligated to do something, even if nobody has a moral right to that action being done; and:
- it can be that you can be morally obligated to do some action, and – even though there's no legal obligation to do the action – people reasonably believe that you should be legally obligated to do the action.
This is old news, but do you think these people who watched a man drown (and didn't help him) should have been subject to some legal or criminal penalties? #survey #ethics #law https://t.co/EkHWjuMyYr— Nathan Nobis . com (@NathanNobis) March 10, 2022
"Look, women cannot be legally compelled to continue pregnancies."
The problem is that there are many very morally wrong things that we can't (yet) be legally compelled to do: for example, saving drowning people. But perhaps we should be legally compelled to help people, at least sometimes: that is a plausible view.
So, if you observe what people say in defense of abortion, especially online, you'll quickly find people who say things like this:
- "About abortion, all that matters is bodily autonomy."
- "The only thing you need to know about abortion is that women have rights to their own bodies."
This is sometimes said when, e.g., there's discussion of whether any fetuses are persons, or whether any fetuses are human beings in a morally significant sense, and so beyond their being "biologically human organisms."
When it's explained why embryos and beginning fetuses are plausibly not persons, and aren't "human beings" in a more ordinary meaning of that term (something like "human organism with awareness, feelings, thoughts, emotions, etc".; or a biologically human person), some pro-choice person responds like the above, saying it's so naive and pointless to discuss such matters since to justify abortion, they claim, all that matters is a woman's right to bodily autonomy: that's all anyone needs to recognize.
But this is mistaken, and it's not useful. In discussing abortion, it's important to explain why abortion is very much not like letting someone drown, and it's not like pushing someone underwater either.
We have the moral right to do what's not morally wrong. And we sometimes do, and always should, have the legal right to do what's not morally wrong: we should never be legally or criminally compelled to refrain from doing what's not morally wrong. And so if abortion isn't wrong (or usually isn't wrong), we surely should have the legal right to it: the law shouldn't prevent anyone from getting them.
This is all obvious, but it can be applied to abortion only by thinking about the ethical status of embryos and fetuses, at various stages, and questions about personhood, what it is to be a "human being" in the morally relevant sense of the term (namely, not merely biologically human organism), whether indeed fetuses have "valuable futures like our futures" and more.
The suggestion that some people – women and girls – should be forced by the government and society to use their bodies in ways that nobody else (in particular, no men) is forced to do so is shocking and offensive for many people. That makes sense. But pro-choicers who respond to this shock by appealing solely to the vale of bodily autonomy do seem to be making a mistake that's harmful to their own cause, which isn't smart, wise, or ethical.
In sum, it is neither morally wrong for anyone to refuse to use their body, or let their body be used, by being that's not a person or a conscious, sentient being nor should the law compel or force anyone to do that, and so abortion is generally not wrong and should be legal. And explaining why this so requires more than appealing to simple dogmas about autonomy.