One of the most common slogans in defense of abortion is “My Body, My Choice.” It’s an appeal to bodily autonomy, and it’s not all wrong. In fact, I think that there’s a lot that both sides can learn from it.
Although it’s just a slogan, “My Body, My Choice” captures something very real about the dignity of the body, and about each person’s rights to their own body. Christians would say that this is based upon our being made in the image of God. For example, the Catechism says:
The human body shares in the dignity of “the image of God”: it is a human body precisely because it is animated by a spiritual soul, and it is the whole human person that is intended to become, in the body of Christ, a temple of the Spirit.
But regardless of why the body has this inherent dignity, it seems that both sides of the abortion debate should be able to agree that the body has an inherent dignity.
This is closely tied to the fact that each person has certain rights over their own body. From the Christian perspective, we would this because we are body and soul: that is, we’re not just souls hanging out in a body. Our bodies are part of ourselves. Paragraph 2356 of the Catechism explains why rape is such a barbaric crime:
2356 Rape is the forcible violation of the sexual intimacy of another person. It does injury to justice and charity. Rape deeply wounds the respect, freedom, and physical and moral integrity to which every person has a right. It causes grave damage that can mark the victim for life. It is always an intrinsically evil act. Graver still is the rape of children committed by parents (incest) or those responsible for the education of the children entrusted to them.
And of course, rape violates “the respect, freedom, and physical and moral integrity to which every person has a right” whether or not the victim is conscious. Likewise, killing someone while they’re unconscious is an even graver violation of their physical integrity.
Obviously, not everyone will arrive at these conclusions using Christian lines of reasoning. But hopefully, we’re all arriving at the same conclusions: we all have a legitimate right to bodily integrity, and it is evil to violate this bodily integrity.
|8-week old fetus|
The chief failure of the “My Body, My Choice” argument is that it doesn’t go far enough. That is, it ignores that another person has a body in this equation, the unborn child. There are two things to point out here: (1) the unborn child has his or her own body; and (2) as a result, the unborn child has a right to bodily integrity.
This is an easy point to prove. The child has his own organs, limbs, etc. Taking the contrary position would be absurd: it would require holding, for example, that pregnant women are eight-limbed hermaphrodites with two hearts.
Or think about child support: the whole argument is that the child is as much the father’s as the mother’s. Biologically, legally, and morally, that’s all true. The child shares 50% DNA with each parent. That’s not to say that he’s half his mom, and half his dad, but that he’s a distinct person from them both. To hold the contrary position requires claiming that this thing growing inside the woman is part of her body, in which case the child isn’t as much the father’s as the mother’s. In other words, holding this position requires you to assume (or pretend) that women reproduce asexually.
So scientifically, this isn’t a particularly hard question or one that science is particularly confused by. The umbilical cord connects the mother and the child, but they are clearly two distinct people. Even abortionists recognize it: for example, when they abort a child because she has Down’s Syndrome, they don’t think that the mother has Down’s. So the fact that the child has her own body is inescapable.
Since the unborn child has her own body, she has every bit as much right to bodily integrity as her mother or anyone else. At its most fundamental level, that includes the right not to be poisoned, or dismembered or aborted in any other way. This is a simple argument, but I foresee a few objections:
- But the child infringes upon the bodily autonomy of the mother! Particularly in cases of rape, it seems unfair that the mother should be pregnant with a child that she doesn’t want. And in a sense, it is unfair: but that’s the fault of her rapist, not her child. We don’t allow the death penalty for rapists, so we certainly shouldn’t allow it for the children who are conceived in rape.
- This seems to give the fetus more rights than the mother! It doesn’t. It treats both of them as having a right to bodily integrity. But “My Body, My Choice” doesn’t give me the right to do things to your body. If someone pushes you into me in the subway, you’re as much an innocent party as I am, and I surely don’t have the right to punch you in the face (much less, to kill you). Nor does it give you the right to do things to your child’s body.
- But the unborn child isn’t even self-aware yet! In the case of early abortions, that’s true. It’s not for late-term abortions. But it doesn’t really matter either way. Just as rape is wrong whether or not the woman is aware that it’s going on (since it’s still a violation of her bodily integrity), abortion is wrong whether or not the unborn child is aware that it’s going on (since it’s still a violation of his bodily integrity). It may be worse to violate someone who is conscious, but it’s wrong either way.