• Paul Stark

Abortion isn't freedom: Why autonomy arguments for abortion dodge the real issue



NARAL Pro-Choice America recently decided to adjust its rhetorical strategy. Its current favorite term? "Reproductive freedom."


Everyone values freedom. And it polls well with the people NARAL is trying to persuade—those who are "personally opposed to abortion" but could support "other people's right to access it free from government intervention," as an article in Vice explains.


Such rhetoric is nothing new, of course. Most positive arguments for abortion make some sort of appeal to freedom, choice, or autonomy. If there's a core moral claim driving the standard "pro-choice" view, this is it.


Here are four common ways freedom is invoked to advocate abortion—and why none of them justify the killing of unborn children.


#1: I may do what I want


Women have a right to choose. Trust women. Let them decide. The government should stay out of it. These are all popular appeals to freedom. And they all dodge the real issue.


We may do many things, but not everything. We have a right to choose what to eat for breakfast, and where to live, and how to spend our time. We don't have the right to choose to harm people or violate their human rights. We don't have the right to kill innocent human beings.


If that's what abortion does, then we don't have a right to abortion—and the government ought to protect against it as a matter of justice.


#2: Abortion lets me do what I want


Some rhetoric isn't about the freedom of abortion itself, but rather the freedom that abortion can provide. Abortion frees women from the challenges of parenthood. It allows them to better pursue their education, their relationships, their careers. It lets them determine the course of their own lives.


But none of these are reasons that justify the killing of a valuable human being. We don't think that infanticide should be legal in order to free parents to live the way they want to live. Human infants have human rights. That's why infanticide is unjust. If human embryos and fetuses have rights too, then so is abortion.


Nor does abortion provide the liberation some might imagine. A meta-analysis in the British Journal of Psychiatry concludes that abortion increases the risk of mental health problems—including anxiety, depression, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, and suicidal behavior—by 81 percent.


"There is a tremendous sadness and loneliness in the cry 'A woman's right to choose,'" author Frederica Mathewes-Green once wrote. "No one wants an abortion as she wants an ice-cream cone or a Porsche. She wants an abortion as an animal, caught in a trap, wants to gnaw off its own leg."


That's not freedom. Freedom is found when—through practical support and positive alternatives—a woman never feels like abortion is her only choice.


#3: I may do whatever I want with what is inside my body


Defenders of abortion often appeal to a more specific kind of freedom—bodily freedom. Pregnant women, they say, have a right to decide what happens inside their own bodies.


Bodily autonomy is important, but that autonomy must also respect the bodies of others. That's why we don’t think pregnant women should take substances that cause birth defects. Someone else's body is at stake.


If unborn children are valuable human beings, then harming them by causing birth defects is wrong. And killing them through abortion is even worse.


#4: I may refuse to let someone else use my body


Another autonomy argument contends that pregnant women should have the freedom to decline to provide bodily support to their unborn children. After all, we typically aren't required to provide assistance to anyone else.


But parents do seem to bear responsibility for supporting their own children. And, in any case, abortion isn’t like declining to provide help. Abortion is intentional killing, and it's usually an active attack on the bodily integrity of that human being, often through a brutal process of dismemberment.


If unborn children have human rights, then killing and dismembering them via abortion is a serious human rights violation.


The real issue


NARAL is wrong. Freedom can't justify abortion.


On the contrary, freedom, in its richest sense, is consistent with (and essential to) the flourishing of everyone. It doesn't dehumanize other human beings. It doesn't violate their fundamental rights. It recognizes that all of us matter.


Whether every human being matters is what the abortion debate is really about.


This article appears in the October 2019 issue of NRL News.

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