Personhood vs Bodily Autonomy – the Central Arguments of Pro-Life Advocacy

Personhood vs Bodily Autonomy – the Central Arguments of Pro-Life Advocacy May 6, 2020

Anthrotheist made a strong point on another thread concerning what the central argument should be in the abortion debate:

The abortion debate isn’t about personhood or whether or not a nonviable fetus is a human being. That angle is purely a red herring introduced by the pro-life movement to distract people from the fact that they are advocating a policy that diminishes the level of bodily autonomy and right to self-determinism from where it currently is. They are trying to deflect from their attempt to stifle a woman’s right to control her body by creating a false dilemma over a fetus’s biologically determined status or philosophically defined conditions.

The pro-life position cannot logically be taken any further than to insist that a fetus’s right to bodily autonomy is as sacrosanct as the woman’s. That is the absolute end-game of the pro-life stance. It’s only possible result, the only rational resolution that it can truly support, is that if the woman chooses to end her pregnancy she must do so without physical harm to the fetus. Anything more than that erodes the legal and moral precepts that define why systems like slavery or forced organ/tissue donation are strictly forbidden. The end result for the fetus is the same, prior to the point of it being biologically and metabolically viable; the end result for the woman is a much more invasive and dangerous procedure which results in zero benefit for anybody. At that point it becomes a debate of whether deontology dictates that we must preserve the fetus’s rights regardless of result, or whether consequentialism demands that we do as little harm as possible to the only entity that has any chance whatsoever of surviving the procedure.

I think there is a lot to be said for this approach, though I would disagree to the extent that arguments aren’t mutually exclusive. As Ficino said in answer to Anthrotheist:

The abortion debate isn’t about personhood or whether or not a nonviable fetus is a human being.

Right… but it is in fact about that question as well as about the question that you raise. The debate that goes on does include the question, from many participants, “is it a person with moral rights?”

Anthrotheist replied:

I disagree with you there. The issue at stake right now, in the pro-life vs pro-choice debate, is whether or not a person’s right to bodily self-autonomy can be rescinded by any degree by society. Once that has been resolved, then the question of whether or not a nonviable fetus is entitled to that right of bodily self-autonomy can be debated and settled.

The pro-life movement is trying to shift the focus to the fetal entity, completely ignoring the fact that if they win their case (that bodily self-autonomy can be rescinded in some amount by society), they actually weaken any arguments they make afterwards regarding the sanctity of the fetal entity’s right against harm. The only line of reasoning that absolutely protects the fetus from being harmed against its will, also logically protects the woman from being forced to continue an unwanted pregnancy against her will.


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