If abortion is a right, then equal rights are a fiction
Slogans often hide controversial and undefended assumptions.
#MyRightMyDecision is the hashtag abortion defenders used as the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments recently in an abortion-related case. Abortion is a right, the slogan claims, so people should be allowed to decide whether or not to have one.
A "right" is generally understood to be a just claim or entitlement. If there is a moral right to abortion, then other people (or society as a whole) are wrong to deprive someone of it.
So is abortion a right? One way it could be a right is if pregnant women have sovereign authority over what happens inside their bodies. Many abortion supporters hold this kind of view.
But sovereignty is limited by the rights of others. A nation might have sovereignty over its borders, for example, but that doesn't mean it may do just whatever it wants to immigrants and refugees who have entered without permission. "Mere ownership," as philosopher Mary Anne Warren, a defender of abortion, writes, "does not give me the right to kill innocent people whom I find on my property."
This is also clear when we think about the treatment of unborn children outside the context of abortion. A pregnant woman may not ingest substances that deform or disable her unborn child. Bodily autonomy isn't a license to violate the rights of others.
Human embryos and fetuses, the science of embryology shows, are distinct human organisms at the embryonic and fetal developmental stages. Each of us was once one of them. And if they matter like we do, then dismembering and killing them (as abortion does) is no more a "right" than doing the same to immigrants, refugees, and other vulnerable and dependent people.
This leads to a second way that abortion could be a right. Maybe unborn humans just aren't very important. Maybe they don't have a right to life like older human beings do. Killing them, on this view, could be permissible for any number of reasons—and interference with that killing could be a violation of the rights of pregnant women.
But this position relies on a sharp moral distinction between members of the species Homo sapiens. Some humans have rights and deserve respect from others and protection under the law. Other humans have no rights and may be discarded for the benefit or convenience of those who do matter.
Most abortion defenders in the cultural and political arena rarely recognize this assumption, much less defend it. It raises all sorts of troubling issues.
If only some human beings have rights, then merely being human isn't enough, and the term "human rights" is actually a misnomer. (If abortion were really a human right, a right possessed by virtue of humanity, then unborn humans would have a right to abortion—but not a right to exist in the first place.)
According to this view, then, some other characteristic must be necessary for the possession of rights. And since any such trait (e.g., mental ability, independence or "viability," appearance) comes in varying degrees, people with more of that characteristic have greater rights than those who have less.
So abortion could be a right—but only if "human rights" is an incoherent concept and "equal rights" is a fiction. It's easier not to argue for (or think about) those presuppositions, though, and just tweet #MyRightMyDecision.
This article appears in the March 2020 issue of NRL News.