Why I Do Not Believe in Absolute “Body Autonomy”

My recent post on abortion brought about some interesting reactions. A few responding comments were well-thought-out, reflective, reasonable ones. Many, in my opinion, illustrated well the problem at the center of my message–people’s deeply entrenched, unreflective, extreme positions. (I don’t consider a position “reflective” unless it has taken seriously opposing views.) Some of the responses were simply knee-jerk and without merit in any civil discussion. Most of those I simply deleted.

One response from pro-choice advocates struck a chord with me–a conflicting one–one that causes cognitive dissonance. That is the argument for unlimited abortion rights based on “body autonomy” (or “bodily autonomy”). I do believe in body autonomy with important qualifications. I do not believe in body autonomy without qualifications and limitations.

And I have trouble believing anyone believes in absolute, unqualified, unrestricted, limitless body autonomy. But the moment they admit they don’t, they have to consider the possibility that abortions should rightly be limited–something they (extreme pro-choice advocates) won’t do. So, in my opinion, they have to pretend (even to themselves, perhaps) that they do believe in absolute body autonomy. But I think they are either fooling themselves or just being obstinate.

First, very importantly, we have to distinguish between two issues related to belief in body autonomy: moral versus legal. I don’t know anyone who thinks everything they think is immoral should be criminal. Many people, religious and otherwise, think blatant lying for no other reason than to make oneself seem grander than is the case is immoral. None of them think that all such lying should be criminal. (Please don’t jump in here and comment that you do believe all lying should be criminal. I won’t believe you.)

So, with regard to body autonomy: as a Christian and communitarian (both but it could be either) I believe many things people do with their bodies are immoral but should not be criminal. As a Christian I cannot believe in absolute body autonomy. I don’t need to provide “chapter and verse” to anyone who knows their Bible or Christian tradition. As a communitarian I cannot believe in absolute body autonomy; community requires that I consider the good of others including in what I do with my body.

However, the debate over abortion, at least in the “public square,” is rarely about whether abortion (some or all) is moral or immoral. It’s about whether all or some abortions should be legal or criminal (or something in between such as legally forbidden without actual criminalization).

A person can believe all abortions are immoral, even sinful, and yet not believe they should be legally banned or criminalized. It’s difficult to imagine someone believing abortions are murder without believing they should be criminal, however. Still, the possibility exists that a person thinks abortion is morally wrong, sinful, perhaps even the unjust taking of a human life, without thinking government should ever interfere in a woman’s decision whether to have an abortion or not.

So, second, we have to realize that when we are debating abortion in the pluralistic, public square (which is usually the case unless the context clearly indicates otherwise) we are debating the role of government power in relation to abortions.

These two contexts MUST be clearly distinguished in any and every “abortion debate.”

Here, in this discussion thread, the issue under consideration is whether abortion should be legal or criminal. Even then, however, it’s complicated. Which abortions are we talking about? Most of the public debate does not revolve around the “when” but around the “under what circumstances?” I could create a spectrum here–from one extreme that says “never legal” (under no circumstances should an abortion be legal) to “always” (under any circumstances so long as the abortion is voluntary).

I suspect most Americans stand somewhere between those two extremes. But it’s difficult to know where people stand, so long as they do not stand at an extreme, without much conversation. I suspect most people haven’t figured out exactly where they stand between the two extremes and “gravitate” toward one end of the spectrum or the other.

Now, here, in this post, my concern is to consider the argument for unlimited access to abortion based on body autonomy. When I hear this argument I’m torn. (Remember, right now, here, at this moment, I am ONLY talking about legal issues, what role government should play in limiting or not limiting abortions.) On the one hand, I remember that there are many things I believe do with their bodies that I consider immoral but do not wish government to punish. I am loath to see governments “legislating morality” when that means criminalizing everything the majority considers immoral (or anything JUST because the majority considers it immoral). On the other hand, I think permitting everything a person can do with his or her own body would be dangerous and harmful to society.

So, someone who appeals to “body autonomy” to defend absolutely unrestricted legal access to abortion has my ear, but only for a few moments–until I think of several things I CAN’T believe should be unrestricted.

A person who defends legal access to abortions without limitations or qualifications MUST logically (otherwise they would be qualifying and limiting) consider it legal for a woman who finds out that she is carrying a female fetus, for example, toward the end of her pregnancy to have an abortion SOLELY because she has decided she doesn’t want a girl. I have trouble even imagining anyone thinking that. But, troubling as the thought is, I believe there are some pro-choice extremists who will even then argue it should be the woman’s legal right.

What else must a person who appeals to absolute body autonomy believe should be legal? Well, walking naked in the mall with children in view. Why not? Body autonomy requires its legality. Oh, you say it doesn’t? Why not? The moment you back off and suggest such behavior should NOT be legal, I don’t think you really believe in absolute body autonomy. And if you don’t believe in absolute body autonomy, you can’t use body autonomy as a rational argument for ALL abortions being legal.

Also–a person who believes in absolute body autonomy MUST believe a person addicted to “cutting” or starving themselves should be able to pay someone to help them do it as painlessly as possible which, in turn, means it should be legal to set up a small business that makes money from teaching people how to cut themselves or starve themselves so as to relieve anxiety but with as little pain and scarring or side effects as possible. Imagine such a society.

Also, belief in absolute body autonomy MUST allow individuals legally to sell themselves to others–as slaves. Now don’t anyone say “Yes, people should be allowed to sell themselves but people should not be allowed to buy others.” The same argument could be made about abortion: “Yes, women should be allowed to have abortions but people should not be allowed to perform abortions.” Virtually every limit on body autonomy could be made that way because there are very few things you can do to yourself without someone else somehow being involved. Imagine a society in which foreign companies exist on line brokering or buying U.S. citizens who sell themselves (e.g., to pay off their or others’ debts) and then leave the country to enter into slavery. Absolute body autonomy would have to oppose any legal restrictions on such selling of oneself should it become common (or even uncommon) practice.

Extreme examples, you say? Sure. But whenever someone claims an absolute right you have to consider the extremes to test whether they really do believe the right is absolute.

Also–a person who believes in absolute body autonomy MUST believe a person should be free to attempt suicide as often as they wish without the “danger” of being committed by anyone, police or social workers or relatives, to an institution against their will.

Also–a person who believes in absolute body autonomy MUST believe a person should be free to clone himself or herself at any time for any reason. Horses and sheep are already being cloned. Without serious doubt the technology now exists to clone human beings. Imagine a society in which a seventy-year old man can go to a “clinic” and have himself cloned just because he wants identical progeny as a kind of immortality. The progeny, however, the clone, will be seventy-years old at “birth.” And likely have some, perhaps multiple, birth defects. Still, the tissue used in the cloning process is the man’s own body; absolute body autonomy logically includes his legal right to do with it whatever he wants to.

I could go on and on listing and describing things people COULD do with their bodies that virtually no one thinks they SHOULD be able to do–legally. They may SAY they think they should be able to do them, but I will doubt their claim. I will think they are only claiming that BECAUSE they have adopted an absolutistic pro-choice position about abortion and cannot bring themselves to admit that absolute body autonomy should not, cannot, reign in the legal sphere.

So, I am not impressed by any argument for absolute, unrestricted abortion rights based on belief in absolute body autonomy, which is not to say I don’t believe in limited, qualified body autonomy (in terms of legality).

I think an argument for legal early abortions can be made from body autonomy–before there is any viable fetus that can reasonably be recognized as a distinct human being, for example. I don’t dismiss such arguments out of hand because I do believe in limited, restricted body autonomy. (For example, I believe a legally mature person has a right to pay someone to cut off his nose but not to cut off his underage son’s nose.)  (Nor does my admission mean anything with regard to what I think is moral or immoral.)

  • J.E. Edwards

    I certainly agree with you that I loathe to see a legislation of morality. However, what about when immorality is legislated? The only reason this discussion exists is because (to many people) immorality has been legislated. Talk about being cynical about a government….sorry I couldn’t resist. If our government can regulate something (even killing), they will find a way to legislate it.

  • Rob

    I think you correctly identify the central issue of abortion law. Is this an issue of private/personal morality or an issue of justice? The implication being that if it is private morality then it should not be under the purview of law and if it is an issue of justice than it should be.

    Although I understand that this view constitutes the very cornerstone of classic liberalism, I find it ironic that it represents a complete inversion of the original understanding and meaning of criminal law.

    Criminal law developed to punish law-breaking. In criminal law, the category of lawfulness is the fundamental category–and it does not relate the defendant to any injured parties! Victims of a crime function essentially as occasions for law-breaking and they typically do not receive any compensation. Law-breaking is a category intelligible and punishable apart from any relation to an injured party. When we find a law-breaker, we must show him/her to have had a mens rea and then we pronounce his/her guilt. Guilt is a fundamentally monadic state of law-breaking that does not relate one to any other party.

    What we now refer to (dismissively) as issues of “morality” is what Thomas called lex or law! The monadic states of lawfulness and law-breaking were seen as in some ways fundamental compared to issues of justice which relate one party to another.

    Of course I understand that criminal law has changed in form and since liberal democracies consider citizens autonomous (self-legislating) with respect two activities that do not relate them to others, the question of whether abortion should be legal or not really just comes down to whether or not there is an injured party. We might concede that abortion is unlawful (immoral) but if we deny that a developing human possesses any rights, then no one has been harmed. It may be cruel to kill a bear, but it certainly is not unjust. A case must be made for the fetus as having rights if we are to criminalize abortion.

    • Roger Olson

      I suspect it will be difficult, if not impossible, to prove that a fetus is a person with rights. But, then, it’s also impossible to prove (if the bar of proof is set high enough) that a newborn infant is a person with rights. My concern is that IF we slide the scale too far forward (one only becomes a person with a right to live at birth) there will be little reason not to slide it further forward (one only becomes a person with a right to live when the cerebral cortex is formed and some evidence of reasoning appears). Some philosophers, as we both know, have taken that step to slide the scale of right to life beyond birth toward the appearance of at least potential reasoning ability. So long as the fetus is able to be considered at least a potential person and not just a developing lump of cells, I think the safest thing is to protect it unless protecting it endangers the mother’s life.

  • labreuer

    And I have trouble believing anyone believes in absolute, unqualified, unrestricted, limitless body autonomy.

    This has me confused. Don’t we often have situations where one right trumps another? Why add the qualifications you have, given that many rights have precedences (like multiplication first, then addition)? Perhaps this is because there are some who think that ‘body autonomy’ as an ‘absolute’ implies “cannot be trumped by another right”?

    • Roger Olson

      I think you’ve missed my whole point. Do I need to repeat it? I add the qualifications to show those who claim to believe in absolute body autonomy that they don’t and can’t. It then becomes a specious argument for absolute abortion rights.

      • labreuer

        Please consider my question one of clarification. What I was trying to argue is that a right being ‘absolute’ does not mean it always trumps other rights. But perhaps this is wrong? Does ‘absolute’ mean “unqualified, unrestricted, limitless”?

        I’m reading Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Justice: Rights and Wrongs (2010), I think because you blogged about it. He doesn’t use ‘absolute’ in the manner you and I are using it, here. Perhaps the error is in calling only some rights ‘absolute’? There would still arise a problem though, if two ‘absolute’ rights come into conflict.

        I guess what I’m saying is that I think your post could be more clear, terminology-wise. You could talk about a variety of ‘rights’ all competing; which one comes out on top in a given situation? You’ve done this implicitly; I think making it explicit would make your argument stronger. Here’s a bit from Wolterstorff:

        The reason the language of rights has proven so powerful in social protest movements is that it brings the victims and their moral condition into the light of day. (Kindle location 503)

        Let’s talk about the rights that would conflict with the “right of bodily autonomy”, using the word ‘rights’.

        • Roger Olson

          I’m reading Wolterstorff’s Justice: Rights and Wrongs right now, too. But I’m only about two thirds of the way through it. I tend to agree with him about most things. However, in my post I was using “absolute body autonomy” the way some commenters here seemed to be using it–as unqualifiable, unconditional, trumping all other rights. My point was that even they don’t believe that–whatever they might say. So, yes, I believe body autonomy, like most rights, must be recognized as conditional. But that means I cannot use it as a slam dunk protest against all legal limits on abortions.

          • labreuer

            I suppose I could view what you’re doing as subversive. :-) It might not be a good idea to claim that a fetus has a right to not suffer the consequences of cocaine consumption, because it will be questioned whether a fetus has any rights. But surely a born baby has some sort of right to have been taken care of while inside his/her mother? I admit that the idea of a ‘retroactive right’ is weird. Furthermore, if such a ‘right’ is violated, that could perversely influence a mother to abort, vs. face the consequences. The situation is quite dicey!

            There is an analogous situation with respect to taking care of birthed children. Failure to properly take care of them is arguably a ‘right’ that comes from “bodily autonomy”, and yet failure to properly take care of them makes them more likely to e.g. become juvenile delinquents, which damages their right to have good prospects in the future.

            I don’t know if you intend to continue the discussion of the bad places ‘absolute’ individualism goes, but I’m quite fascinated!

  • Van

    I find it to be “double-speak” when supporters of abortion hold up posters that insist: “KEEP GOVERNMENT OUT OF MY BELLY!” And, yet, these are the same people who are quick to praise the governmental U.S. Supreme Court’s decision granting abortion rights. Go figure!

  • Guest

    i’ve said elsewhere before that it seems to me our pluralistic society is not really evolving (i don’t necessarily deny evolution but thats not the point) but rather de-evolving and going back to ancient greco-rome where babies were often killed when unwanted, especially if female.

    so much for our atheistic-naturalistic opponents to vilify christianity’s on the basis of the old testament (by the way, in general i’d say christianity’s morals are far superior vs the secular morals, which only goes to show how they pick and choose the morals that suit their tastes)

    cynical rant over

  • Peter Kirk

    Roger, I think you would be wrong to “doubt their claim”, because I think there really are people who genuinely believe all, or at least most, of the things that you don’t believe anyone can believe. Maybe I have come across more such people in relatively liberal England – but I’m sure you could find them also in New York or San Francisco. There are certainly many who believe that suicide, even with assistance, is a human right. In some countries it is routine to abort fetuses only because they are female. There are surely people with no objections to human cloning. Even in the USA we allow tattooing and body piercing, and promotion of extreme diets, so it is hard to see that selling services of cutting and starving bodies is clearly illegal. As for selling oneself into slavery, I guess no one would want it allowed under that name, but if it was presented as entering voluntarily into a long term work contract I’m sure some people (in this case more likely libertarians than liberals) would say that should not be restricted. So, while consistent believers in body autonomy may be rare, and may not be found in your circles in conservative Christian America, I would be surprised if they don’t exist at all.

    • Roger Olson

      You’re right. But my point is that I believe most of the people who came here to protest any limitations on abortion rights using absolute body autonomy as their basis do not really believe all those things I listed should be permitted and thus don’t really believe in absolute body autonomy. The fact that so few (only one I can think of) responded that they DO believe all those things I listed should be permitted confirms my belief. Yes, I know, I agree there are crazy people out there who would at least claim to believe all those things I listed should be permitted. But I doubt them BECAUSE I think if someone they love availed themselves of some of those “services” they would immediately cry “foul!” and attempt to get those “services” banned.


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