Housekeeping update since it’s been a million years since I’ve written anything: I own a house now and there’s a baby on the way. I’m like a fully formed grownup. This will likely do wonders for my busy schedule. Anyway.
The reason I’m writing this particular post is in response to the leaked Supreme Court ruling that will likely overturn Roe v. Wade (though, technically, it hasn’t happened yet). Quick side note: if you think this is me “getting political,” you’re welcome to go fuck yourself. The abortion debates that I’ve read and heard seem to have mostly calcified into two sides that disagree on one fundamental thing: is a fetus a person?
If you think that a fetus (or even a fertilized egg) is a human being deserving of all the same rights that a conscious, breathing adult is afforded, then the rabid anti-abortion crowd makes some sense. After all, the pro-choice crowd is attempting to literally get away with murder, right? That’s genuinely how they see it. Yes, there are almost certainly people with ulterior motives in this debate, but there are lots and lots of people who think that abortion is genuinely murder, and pro-choice people don’t give those beliefs enough credit.
If you don’t think that a fetus is a person until it’s born, then the situation is equally clear-cut the other way. Even in the best of circumstances, pregnancy and childbirth are dangerous and arduous processes. In the US, they can also be wildly expensive. My wife and I both have full-time jobs and decent insurance and we’re expecting to pay somewhere in the neighborhood of $6000 for our kid to be born, and that’s if nothing goes wrong.
Even in a socialist utopia where raising a child is as close to free as it’s possible to get, having a baby is still hard, and pro-choice advocates believe that no one should be forced to go through with it just because a condom broke.
There are lots of other points to be made, too, none of which I intend to explore in detail:
- Lots of women don’t have the means to raise children
- Women who are made pregnant by rape shouldn’t be forced to raise a living, breathing reminder of that trauma
- Lots of women have health issues that make pregnancy and childbirth extremely dangerous to their own lives
- Lots of babies are born with defects that significantly reduce the length and quality of their lives
- American infrastructure for unwanted babies (foster care, adoption, etc.) is appallingly bad
- American social programs to help struggling mothers and children are also appallingly bad
- The same people that want to ban abortion don’t seem to give a shit about helping poor families or children once they’re actually born
And so on. I have lots of thoughts on all these things, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about. The point that I want to make is one that I haven’t seen said much, if at all, anywhere else in this discussion:
It does not matter whether a fetus is a person.
In 1971, Judith Jarvis Thompson wrote an essay called A Defense of Abortion that included the following thought experiment:
You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. [If he is unplugged from you now, he will die; but] in nine months he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.
The metaphor is clear: the violinist needs you to survive, so he’s the fetus. Do you have the right to demand that you be unplugged from him, thus allowing him to die?
Thompson argues that you can unplug yourself because you’re merely depriving the violinist of something to which he has no right to begin with: your own body and its functions. Thompson fully grants that the violinist is a person with the right to life, but that his right to life does not supersede your own right to bodily autonomy.
My problem with this thought experiment is that it’s too hard for most people to wrap their heads around. It also assumes that the mother is completely blameless in the fact that she’s pregnant, which is not always the case. Sometimes, women have sex entirely intentionally, become pregnant unexpectedly, and want to abort. The violinist metaphor doesn’t cover that. The proper framing of this issue, in my opinion, is actually simpler.
It’s Not Illegal to be Selfish
Here’s the simple fact of the matter: in no other circumstances is anyone required by law to violate their own bodily autonomy to save the life of another person. Ever. We all know this. If your brother needs a new kidney and you’re the only match, you can absolutely say no. If your child needs a bone marrow transfusion and you’re the only match, you can still say no, even if it means letting them die.
Let’s take it to one extreme: your child has some weird disease and all that the doctors need is a swab of saliva to synthesize an antibody. There is no legal authority on earth that can force you to submit to that swab. Are you a selfish monster for refusing such a simple and minor inconvenience when the stakes are so high? Almost certainly. But you still have that right.
Let’s use a more reasonable example. Only 54% of Americans are registered organ donors, which means if the other 46% of people die in a car crash, we’re not allowed to use their organs to save other people, despite the fact that doing so comes at no cost to the person who obviously doesn’t need them anymore. Is it selfish to be possessive of your corpse after you’re dead? I think so.
37% of the American population is eligible to donate blood, but only 10% of them do so even once a year. There is always a need for more blood in hospitals, and yet 90% of the American populace is perfectly content not to help with that problem, despite the minimal hassle and almost nonexistent risk of doing so. Are you legally required to give blood if eligible? You are not.
Let’s take it to the other extreme. You’re a perfectly healthy individual with two perfectly functional kidneys. There’s a long line of people waiting for kidneys. Without a new kidney, those people will either die or need expensive dialysis machines forever. This isn’t a hypothetical, it’s the exact situation most of you (and me) are currently in. We don’t need two kidneys, and giving away a kidney would save lives without question.
But if someone tried to pass a law saying that everyone with two kidneys was required to report to their nearest hospital and give up a kidney in a potentially dangerous surgery in order to save the life of a stranger, you’d think it the most dystopian possible future.
Pregnancy is much closer to the last example than the rest. Even if we grant that the fetus is a child — your child — you shouldn’t be required to surrender your bodily autonomy and subject yourself to nine months of potentially life-threatening pregnancy, followed by a potentially life-threatening birth, to save their life.
That’s really all there is to it. It doesn’t matter how you got pregnant. It doesn’t matter if you can afford the child. It doesn’t matter if you could put it up for adoption, or if you live in a country with free healthcare, or if you’re guaranteed a relatively hassle-free pregnancy and birth. It doesn’t matter how hard birth is, how morally wrong it might be to abstain from saving the life of a child, or how your family might judge you. It doesn’t matter if your religion tells you that ending a pregnancy on purpose is wrong.
None of these things matters. Have all the moral arguments you want. Quote the Bible. Lie awake at night wondering if you’re a bad person for not donating blood or organs. All of this is irrelevant.
What we are talking about is the law. The law does not — and should not — ever dictate that any person is required to surrender any portion of their bodily autonomy, no matter how trivial or how serious, to help another person. And if we agree on that, as we have in every other circumstance in our lives, then we can agree that the personhood debate doesn’t matter.