One common argument in favor of keeping abortion legal goes like this: We don’t force people to donate bone marrow, even if they are the only match and the other party will die without the donation, so why would we force a woman to donate her nutrients, oxygen, and body itself to sustain a zygote, embryo, or fetus? This argument, though, does have a weakness, as illuminated in this comment a reader recently left on a post about abortion:
I can’t even be bothered to read the long responses to pro-life arguments here in the comments since so many start with the illogical thought process of something like the following: “A fetus is a person, but no person has the right to live inside another person’s body without that person’s ongoing consent.” Newsflash: When YOU do the thing that makes babies, don’t be surprised when it makes a baby — INSIDE YOU. Stop hating your biology and deal with it, without shooting the messenger, so to speak.
In other words, this reader argues that the analogy to bone marrow donation fails because when a woman has sex, she is consenting to the possibility of being pregnant, and thus inviting the fetus in. But does having sex necessarily equal giving consent to become pregnant?* Let’s examine this question by way of analogy.
Cars, Sex, and Taking Precautions
Being involved in a car wreck and thereby sustaining injuries is a possibility every time someone gets in a car. In some sense, getting in a wreck and thereby being injured can be seen as the natural consequence of getting in a car. After all, without precautions, wrecks and injuries sustained from wrecks would be quite common. We take two types of precautions when it comes to driving cars:
- We have traffic lights, drivers ed, and other things that help prevent wrecks from occurring.
- We have seat belts, air bags, ambulances, and other things that help minimize damage in case of a wreck.
Having sex is similar in several ways. After all, without any precautions, pregnancy and having to carry to term would be the natural result of having sex. Fortunately, we have two types of precautions when it comes to having sex.
- We have condoms, the pill, IUDs, and other things that help prevent pregnancies from occurring.
- We have abortion to help minimize the damage in case of an unwanted pregnancy.
While the first set of precautions have lowered the number of car accidents that occur, just as the analogous first set of precautions have lowered the number of unwanted pregnancies that occur, they have not eliminated them. Car accidents can happen because of human error on a driver’s part, or because a driver refuses to adhere to the general precautions (think drunk driving), or through no one’s fault at all. Similarly, unplanned pregnancies can still happen because of human error in using birth control, or because of rape or birth control sabotage, or through simple birth control failure. And of course, just as some people drive when they’re tired or drunk and thus open themselves to greater risk of wreck, even so some people go without birth control entirely or use it only sporadically and thus open themselves to greater risk of pregnancy.
Saying that we should do away with plan B or abortion because they enable people to engage in risky sex without having to face the natural consequences (i.e. pregnancy) is like saying that we should embed knife-like spikes into cars’ steering wheels in order to cut down on risky driving behavior (because a driver being slammed forward would be automatically impaled).** After all, things like seat belts and air bags decrease the risk of injury when getting in a wreck and thus lead to more risky driving. Even so, things like plan B and abortion (which, let me point out, are not identical) decrease the potential harm suffered by an accidental pregnancy and thus, it could be argued, lead to more risky sex.
Legislating that a person involved in a car wreck could not have medical care would likely also lead to a decrease in risky driving. In fact, it might even lead to a decrease in driving at all, which would then bring the number of accidents down. Or, we might simply legislate that people who get in wrecks because they were driving drunk, ran a red light, or fell asleep at the wheel should be denied medical service. After all, this is exactly the suggestions made by those who argue that making pregnancy the natural consequence of sex (i.e. decreasing access to birth control and abortion) would bring down the rate of premarital sex (and probably marital sex as well, come to think of it) or that only women who have become pregnant as a result of rape or incest should have access to abortions.
In a Nutshell:
Saying that pregnancy is simply the consequence of sex is like saying that getting in a wreck is simply the consequence of getting in a car.
Saying that having sex means giving consent to carrying a pregnancy to term is like saying that getting in a car means consenting to bleeding to death without assistance in the case of a wreck.
Birth Control and Traffic Signals
Of course, some people who oppose abortion also oppose birth control. This is like thinking that not only should people involved in wrecks be denied the aid of seat belts, air bags, and medical attention, but also that people should not have the benefit of drivers ed and traffic signals. In other words, that getting in a car should bring a very grave likelihood of being in a wreck and sustaining injury. That people should not get in cars unless they are open to getting in wrecks and sustaining injuries. Or, to translate that for sake of the analogy, people should not have sex unless they are okay with becoming pregnant and having children. Or, to move in the opposite direction, saying that sex should naturally result in pregnancy is like saying that getting in a car should naturally result in getting in a wreck.
When we speak of driving in these terms – that we should eliminate precautions taken to make it safer and should simply see wrecks and injuries as the natural result of getting in a car – people see it as ludicrous. Yet some people think that talking about sex in these terms – that we should eliminate precautions taken to make it safer and see pregnancy and children as the natural consequence – makes sense.
I have to admit that until I stumbled upon this analogy I was a bit stumped by the argument outlined in the beginning of this post. As I thought about it I realized that the fact that having sex does naturally lead to getting pregnant does in some sense make it look silly when a sexually active woman seeks an abortion for an unintended pregnancy. Didn’t she know that having sex is “the baby-making thing”? Didn’t she realize that getting pregnant was a real possibility of being sexually active?
But the reality is that just like getting in a car does not have to result in a wreck, so too having sex does not have to result in getting pregnant, and just like getting in a wreck does not have to result in bleeding to death on the side of the road while passers by refuse to help because “he knew that was a possibility when he decided to get in a car” or “he wasn’t wearing a seat belt so it really was his fault,” even so becoming pregnant does not have to result in carrying the pregnancy to term because “she knew that was a possibility when she decided to have sex” or “she wasn’t using birth control so it really was her fault.”
If the government banned drivers ed, turned off stop lights, took down street signed, banned air bags and seat belts, required car companies to embed spikes into steering wheels, and prohibited doctors, nurses, and EMTs from giving medical assistance to those injured in car wrecks, I would conclude that their goal was to make driving so dangerous that no one would do it. And so, when people advocate banning comprehensive sex education, limiting access to contraception, banning plan B, and outlawing abortion, I can only conclude that their goal is to make having sex so risky that no one will do it.
* There’s another approach here too. If a person signed a contract saying they would give bone marrow if he is a match for someone who needs it, and then later wanted to get out of the contract after being notified that he is, indeed, a match for someone badly in need of bone marrow, I would be in favor of letting him out of the contract. In my opinion, forcing someone to give bone marrow would, regardless of prior consent, be violating their bodily autonomy.
** I am aware that comparing becoming pregnant to getting in a wreck and carrying a pregnancy to term to sustaining major injuries may be offensive to many. Yet I think it’s important to realize that for a some people, and for most people during certain periods of time, the idea of becoming pregnant is looked on with no more fondness than the idea of getting in a car wreck.