Abortion, Life and Personhood: A Philosophical Experiment

Creepiest protest photo ever, complete with abstract fetus excised from a woman’s body as though she does not exist. This, fellas, is how you do misogyny: make women invisible except for the contents of their wombs.

A little while ago, Libby Anne at Love, Joy, Feminism posted a link to an article by Valerie Tarico on abortion:

What the Right Gets Right about Abortion and the Left Doesn’t Get

Abortion opponents may be driven by Iron Age sexual scripts, but they are advancing their cause primarily by appealing to universal, secular and –ironically, progressive– ethical principles. If history has a moral arc, the curve has to do with one simple question: Who counts as a person? Who deserves autonomy and opportunity and freedom from unnecessary suffering? Who merits our compassion or respect? In other words, who is morally relevant?

America’s history is one in which generations of our ancestors have asked and answered this question. Time and again they fought and won rights and dignity for those who previously were considered unworthy: the landless poor, religious minorities, Black slaves, workers, First Nations, women. In doing so, they were saying, “These, too, are persons— fully deserving of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Today, when activists fight for rights for gays, immigrants, animals, and once again, women, they are saying the same thing. Battles over who counts as a person have defined the progressive movement for the last two hundred years.

First of all, I’m deeply uncomfortable with a discussion about religious ethics that begins with the founding of America. Immigrants to North America inherited a long tradition of philosophical thought, from the Greeks and Romans to Catholicism. In the sixth century, Catholic philosopher Boethius defined a person as an individuated being possessing both intellect and will. This took place in the context of a debate about the Trinity, defining the personhood of God. The ideas we have inherited about the sacredness of personhood and being come from this original association with the divine.

The idea of the human being, the rational agent, as “created in the image of God,” undergirds secular humanism as well. Our intellect and free will, humanists claim, are what separate us from animals. Separation has thus always been at the center of the personhood debate: whether it was making sense of the Trinity or endowing rights to the Enlightened, white, property-owning male, defining personhood meant giving persons power over non-persons (slaves, wives, children, horses, land). God was above all because he possessed the fullness of the rational nature of which individual human souls took part. The white man, seeing himself as the pinnacle of Creation, likewise saw other human beings as incomplete, lacking the perfection of rationality found in his own person.

An assumption undergirds the history of personhood, which was made explicit early in the Catholic tradition: a person is not just a soul, but also a body. One soul, one body. For Catholics, the joining of soul and body occurs at conception – for Jews, it occurs at quickening. But what’s entirely overlooked in personhood debates is how little abortion disrupts this. Abortion is not, in fact, incompatible with fetal personhood. It’s not even immoral in the light of fetal personhood.

The doctrine of “one soul, one body, from conception until natural death” does not invalidate a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy. Why? Because no person has a right to two bodies.

Tarico dismisses this argument as “libertarian”:

Acquaintances have pointed out that an argument can be made for abortion rights regardless of fetal personhood status. Even if a fetus were fully a person, in no other arena do we force someone to act as involuntary life support (or as a blood donor or organ donor) for another being. In all situations except pregnancy, such donations are voluntary. Once again fiction helps us to explore the ethics of involuntary donation: My Sister’s Keeper, House of the Scorpion, Never Let Me Go. Involuntary donors are second class persona non grata, as are involuntary incubators as in The Handmaid’s Tale. As stories like these illustrate, the conditions of involuntary donation are incompatible with basic human decency. This argument about human rights might be a legal or ethical trump card in the abstract, but in the court of public opinion libertarian arguments fail when pitted against the idea of protecting children from harm.

A pro-life advocate might say, “Hey, that cuts both ways – a woman doesn’t have a right to her fetus’s body!” Only it’s not that simple.

To run with this idea a little farther: if a fetus does not have a right to a woman’s body, she does have a right to remove it. The rest of the abortion argument becomes less about abortion than euthanasia.

Most abortions are performed so early that there is no chance of viability. Therefore, the resulting death of the embryo or fetus is inevitable, and an abortion is conducted to prioritize the health and safety of the woman. Attempting to save the fetus by inducing labor too early, if even possible, would be an act of cruelty to both the pregnant woman and the dying fetus – forcing her to endanger herself to no purpose and forcing it to die naturally due to undeveloped vital organs. Hence euthanasia.

Even though it’s possible to use the “one soul-one body” doctrine to claim that a woman has no right to the body of the “person” inside her and thus can’t kill it, it’s not possible to remove a 10-week fetus without it dying. The abortion (rather than early labor) thus reduces the duration of fetal suffering before the inevitable (if you agree that suffering is possible for a 10-week fetus – which I don’t, by the way).

Now, I’m aware that the Catholic Church also stands against euthanasia. But it is a separate issue.

I take Tarico’s point: the philosophy of abortion arguments are worlds away from the kind of soundbyte politics that drive elections and referendums. I also understand the argument that everything pales beside the idea of protecting children. But there are anti-abortion activists who want to make “fetal personhood” a legal obstruction to abortion rights, and somebody’s got to point out that the premise doesn’t match the outcome.

  • http://susanbarackman.freeservers.com/ Esbee

    our govt defines a baby as a non-entity or whatever when it defends and says it is ok for a woman to abort but defines the non-entity fetus as a living person when a criminal commits a crime that cause a pregnant woman to lose her baby…i.e. TWO murders are committed when a pregnant mom is shot and killed in a robbery and the fetus dies also.

    here is my 2 cents on abortion…though it may be wrong to do—when the baby is aborted it goes straight to heaven…if is lives and is raised in poverty or abuse it may grow up never have a chance to find Jesus and die in its sins.

    why don’t all these QF moms who want large families adopt these unwanted kids instead of wearing out their bodies….take care of the ones already here and in need of help and love.

  • Rebecca Trotter

    I see that hostility and hatred for women’s bodies isn’t limited to those who want to control them. To call the normal outcome of intercourse “something out of a handmaiden’s tale” is disgusting. We have bodies work in certain ways. When we eat, we’re going to poop. And sometimes when we have intercourse, we become pregnant. If the normal results of our bodies working the way they are designed to work is something out of dystopian novel, well then we women clearly got a shit deal with these shitty bodies of ours. This is why, despite being pretty liberal and strongly egalitarian I can never call myself a feminist; the hatred towards anything womanly – our bodies included – is revolting to me. Because anything that makes us not just like men makes us weak and unworthy victims, right? How free are women when the standard we use to measure ourselves by is what men do, desire and are free from? I’m not a man with alternate genetalia. Absolute autonomy is a man’s game that we should know better than to fall for. It’s a lie and the basis of a great deal of abusive and exploitive behavior. No human being has or was meant to have complete autonomy. It’s a bullshit man’s dream. We are interdependent. What we do affects other people (and even fetuses). Striving for a woman’s absolute autonomy – even from her own body through abortion is buying into the same sort of thinking that has made this world a mess. There’s an argument to be made for abortion rights, but any arguement that includes viewing women as victims of the normal functioning of their own bodies – ala handmaidens tale bullshit – is repugnant at best.

    • http://nonprophetmessage.wordpress.com Sierra

      I respect and broadly agree with you: pregnancy is not a disability. However, I do think it’s possible for fertility to be used against a woman to dominate and control her. I think choice is essential, because a woman who is forced to be pregnant against her will is violated in an especially intimate way. That does not make her a powerless victim, but it is an abuse. On the other hand, pregnant women (and more so if they chose to be pregnant) are still powerful, capable beings. You will probably like this post, where I argued that women don’t need the pill to be equal with men:
      http://phoenixandolivebranch.wordpress.com/2012/02/21/womens-equality-is-not-a-pill/

    • http://gravatar.com/sillyluis sillyluis

      Telling women that abortion (and contraceptives, while we are at it) have to be taken out of the question for them to have a “real” choice has the effect of taking away all their choices, whatever they want. If that’s not trying to control them then my english is more rusty than I though.

      And the same happens when you start defining a debate about health and qualiy of life in terms of morality or politics or whatever else. Does none remember the smallpox disaster in 19th century England when this happened over the “ungodly” vacines?

    • Rebecca Trotter

      For the record, I totally support a woman’s right to use birth control, refuse to engage in sex that risks unwanted pregnancy, etc. And I do get that fertility and a cult of fertiity can be a way to control and subvert women. I just can’t get to supporting a right to abortion, however. Although as a woman I understand why women get abortions and can’t condemn them, by and large. What sets me off is the idea that (other than cases of rape and abuse) a woman who experiences an unplanned/unwanted pregnancy as the result of normal, desired sexual activity must be able to get an abortion or she is being forced to be an incubator to what is essentially a parasitic life form. For me it goes way beyond sex and gender and speaks to the way that our culture views complete autonomy and men’s values as the gold standard for a good life.

      It’s inheritantly unhealthy to view our bodies as enemies to the good life. I also think that the “at all costs” drive to be completely autonomous people is kind of the mirror (as in reverse) opposite of the dysfunctional drive for control that characterizes those who would use women’s bodies and fertility (or the supposed reverence for them) as a means of control.

      I think that the idea of ying and yang is helpful in understanding life. That it is a balance between opposite, but inter-dependant forces. In this case, the drive for complete autonomy – even from one’s own body – and the drive for control of another (such as control of women) are the ying and yang. The balance is where productive, enriching life is found – not at either extreme.

    • Alana

      First of all, provided one doesn’t want to become pregnant, any vaginal sex is “sex that risks unwanted pregnancy. ” No birth control is 100% effective.

      Secondly, just because pregnancy is a ‘natural’ outcome of sex, that doesn’t mean that we should accept unwanted pregnancy as something that is not an attack on our personhood. You say that pregnancy is one of “the normal results of our bodies working the way they are designed to work”, but our bodies were designed to work the way they do by evolution, which has zero respect for personhood. Fighting unwelcome invasions of the body is in no way a hatred of the body. Sexually transmitted diseases are equally a ‘natural’ result of having unprotected sex — does that mean we shouldn’t fight them with medical attention? Of course not. Unwanted pregnancy is the same as disease — your body is being taken over and develops in a way that is at odds with what you want for it. Whether this happened as a result of consensual sex is irrelevant. Refusing to provide medically available help for someone whose body has been taken over in this way is morally atrocious — a far more constant, enduring, and intimate violation of both a woman’s body and her personhood than rape. I say this as a rape survivor.

      Thirdly, controlling the integrity of my body regarding reproductive choice is not “absolute autonomy.” Regardless of whether I terminate a pregnancy, I will still be enmeshed in the interdependence of society. I will still depend for many things on my partner, on my friends and family, on my neighbors, on the stipend provided by my graduate school, on the collective benefits of civilization we achieve through taxation. I agree that absolute autonomy is a silly thing to strive for — it doesn’t exist in modern society.

      That said, I reject the idea that there are certain values, such as “absolute autonomy” that are inherent in men and others that are proper for women. There are a variety of values that one can cultivate in order to pursue the good life — no one set works for everyone. Gender should not be a determining factor in this — arguing that women adopting “men’s values” is necessarily harmful for them is the same argument used to keep women subservient and in the home. Values that society labels as “men’s values” are great for some women; they are also horrible for some men. And yes, some of them might be unhealthy for society at large. But that has nothing to do with them being assigned to men rather than women.

      • Rebecca Trotter

        Sorry, comparing pregnancy to a disease is sick and morally repugnant. How hateful of life and woman can a person be?

    • Alana

      Why is it sick and morally repugnant? And why does thinking of unwanted pregnancy as a disease make me hateful of life and women? I certainly don’t feel hateful, although I suppose one doesn’t always need to feel hateful to be so. To me it seems morally repugnant to reduce womanhood to an unconditional embrace of pregnancy and motherhood.

  • http://gravatar.com/sillyluis sillyluisllyluis

    Yes, sorry, I didn’t intend to make my previous post a reply to yours. I must have clicked the wrong ”reply”.

    Any way, I agree, mostly, with your views about absolute autonomy except that abortion is not, in most cases (at least here, in Spain), about that: it’s about terminating a potentially traumatizing pregancy, it’s about teenagers or barely adult women who find themselves facing the end of their dreams for no reason other than that their contraceptive (or their mate’s) failed or because they didn’t know that what they were doing could make them pregnant or because … thousands of similar reasons. And believe me, when they find themselves with that problem they don’t stop to think of their autonomy, what they are is terrified; you can almost hear them think ”Oh god oh god oh god …”

    That’s why having choices matters. Just as much as having understanding friends.


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