Why I Do Not Believe in Absolute “Body Autonomy”

Why I Do Not Believe in Absolute “Body Autonomy” August 5, 2013

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.)

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