The right to bodily autonomy is easily the most compelling pro-choice argument advanced by abortion proponents. We can all sympathize with the idea that we have an inherent right to do whatever we want with our own bodies. This is a fundamental feature of self-ownership as a basic human right. However, the right to bodily autonomy isn’t a sufficient defense of abortion. Here’s why.
The right to life is the foundational human right. All human rights are predicated on the existence of the individual. Before anyone can make a claim to, or practice a right, they must first exist. Before any degree of bodily autonomy can be recognized, the individual claiming such must first come into being. Thus, the right to bodily autonomy is predicated on the right to life, not the other way around.
The right to bodily autonomy, like most rights, is not unlimited. It’s common in law and morally permissible to restrict the bodily autonomy of people who pose a risk to themselves and others. All 50 states (and D.C) have laws governing short-term and long-term involuntary commitments for individuals who pose a danger to themselves or others. We have laws that actively discourage sexual exploitation of vulnerable populations such as women and children, regardless of the consent of the exploited.
This isn’t meant to equate women seeking abortions with mentally ill individuals or violent criminals; it’s just a recognition of some commonly accepted restrictions to bodily autonomy. Building from those commonly accepted restrictions, we can begin to explore if abortion restrictions are comparable to other commonly accepted norms with regard to bodily autonomy.
Let’s consider a few facts. The unborn meet the scientific definition of life. Admittedly, this is a low threshold, but an important distinction between the living and the inanimate. The unborn are genetically Homo sapiens; they aren’t alien or animal lifeforms. Over 95% of biologists affirm that human life begins at fertilization. Furthermore, the unborn are genetically distinct from the mother with a unique DNA. Lastly, the fetus exists through no fault of its own, it’s innocent of any culpability. Thus, abortion represents the termination of an innocent distinct human life. Such an action applied in any other context would be severely restricted, condemned or punished.
For the sake of argument, let’s momentarily concede that abortion restrictions equate to an erosion of bodily autonomy. That, in and of itself, isn’t a compelling reason for a death sentence. In civil society, we rarely sentence actual culpable criminals to death for egregious violations of another's bodily autonomy. Yet, somehow it’s appropriate to apply such an aggressive penalty to the innocent unborn. With few exceptions, pregnancy rarely results in a total loss of bodily autonomy and is a temporary condition that can be resolved with the preservation of the life of both the mother and the unborn, neither has to die.
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Admittedly, extreme cases of rape and/or health complications create ethical gray areas. Understandably, the debate around those extremes isn’t likely to be resolved anytime soon. However, the vast majority of abortions are the elective preference of the mother. The termination of a distinct human life resulting from consensual sex is effectively legalized murder. Such barbarism shouldn't be tolerated by civil society under an extraordinarily erroneous interpretation of bodily autonomy.
Williams is the policy director for the North Dakota Young Republicans. He’s an active economist who has worked for numerous liberty-based academic research centers and think-tanks. He earned a bachelor's degree in economics at Florida International University and his master's in financial economics from the University of Detroit Mercy. He is a co-host of The Policy radio show on 88.1 KPPP-FM and a regular contributor to The Forum's opinion pages.