Monday, June 1, 2009

Rights, Autonomy and Abortion

Daniel Larison at Eunomia says something totally interesting in an otherwise tangentiall related topic. He says, "It is rather like using the language of rights and autonomy to oppose abortion. At first, it seems like the smart move, because it speaks to people in a language they will readily understand, but by buying into the assumptions of one’s opponents the debate’s outcome is fixed before it even starts."

I find this statement immensely interesting. If I take him right, he acknowledges that the idea of rights and autonomy is opposed to the position he holds, along with many other conservatives. His statement is an admission that if the question is framed as one of rights and autonomy, anti-abortionists cannot support their position.

So, if it isn’t a matter of rights and autonomy, then what is it that undergirds their position with respect to abortion? They can no longer use the death of the fetus as an argument, because that goes directly back to the rights of the woman as an autonomous being. So just what authority to conservatives can turn to support their position?

I can imagine that one source is someone's interpretation of the will of God. And it would have to be a more or less modern interpretation, because the bible is all but bereft of references to abortion incidents - and what there is, is in the old testament. Not the best source for modern life.

I asked Daniel to amplify his remarks. We'll see what happens. He is articulate, passionate, and mostly logical. If he answers, it will be thoughtful and eloquent.

Truthfully, though, I expect no answer.


Update - Daniel did respond, and I am grateful. Here is what he said, "This whole discourse of competing rights is what lead to the creation of abortion rights in the first place. As I understand it, abortion is wrong because it violates the dignity of the human person, desecrates the image of God and ignores the obligations we have to the weak and defenseless. It also sunders in the most violent way the obligations of parents to their children; it is a kind of impiety directed toward children. In the end, competing rights claims are competitions over power, and unborn children can never effectively contest for that power because they are dependent and helpless. The very dependency that serves as the basis for denying the child the rights of a full person is the thing that obliges us to protect that child. In my view, it is ultimately far more effective and much more true to think of this question in these terms. I have not encountered many pro-lifers who share that view as of yet, but I will keep working on it."

As I said, thoughtful, articulate, eloquent, passionate and mostly logical.

I don't agree that dependency grants the fetus rights superior to the woman's. In the end, Daniel's response comes down to this, "... abortion is wrong because it violates the dignity of the human person, desecrates the image of God and ignores the obligations we have to the weak and defenseless."

Abortion violates the dignity of the fetus. What about violating the rights of the mother? Is dignity more important than rights and autonomy? How do we even compare such things?

Abortion desecrates the image of God. So does murdering Tiller. Christians of all stripes (which is not to say all Christians, or even many) are glad he was murdered. I guess it's a numbers thing. That makes it kind of for sale, doesn't it? I'll trade you one Tiller for a few thousand dead babies.

We have many obligations to the weak and defenseless, most of which we conveniently find ways to ignore. We do not have the right to take away a woman's autonomy to expunge our guilt. Whatever guilt is to be borne, is hers and hers alone. A woman is an independent and soverign being - we don't get to decide for her. Application of the laws of this nation constrain choices by consequences, but current law says there are no legal consequences for choosing abortion.

I am okay with Daniel stating that God says abortion is bad. God didn't tell me that. Who is to say who is right? Until we get proof recognizable to all that God says a blastocyst a few hours old is a human being whose rights supercede that of the mother, I remain pro-Choice.


  1. Daniel's written about this several times, but you seem not to be getting his point. In the first place, the death of the fetus is exactly what's wrong with abortion; his objection is just to the idea that the wrongness of that death should be understood in terms of a violation of rights. Moreover, I don't think he'd agree with the summary you offer in the second paragraph; it's not that pro-lifers "cannot support their position" in the language of rights (because they clearly can), but rather that that language is corrosive of our moral and political discourse in a host of other ways.

    In any case, why not appeals to charity, or dignity, or mercy, or the Imago Dei in explaining what's wrong with abortion?

  2. John, if it is "death" of the fetus that is at issue, then it is arguably a question of rights. The right of the fetus to life vs the right of the woman to autonomy. There is no way to win that argument, which is Daniel's point - the woman does not have an obligation to preserve the fetus' life that overrides her autonomy.

    I get your point that the death is the issue. But nowhere else in law or even common ethics, including Christian ethics, is one person required to give up their autonomous rights in order to preserve the life of another being. Jesus chose to give his life, for example. He could have chosen not to. It was his choice. Take that choice away, and it is no longer a gift but a brutal sacrifice.

    I agree with you that an appeal to charity, dignity, or mercy, or the Imago Dei is perfectly acceptable - as long as the woman has a choice. When it becomes a matter of law, that is a much different standard.

    If ant-abortionists could support their position in the language of rights, we wouldn't be having this discussion.

    Let's use Tiller's murder as a starting point: Tiller was murdered not just because he offered abortions, but specifically late term abortions. Some of those late term abortions were of fully functional "babies", and they were legal because the woman would die if the baby were "born" alive in any normal sense of the word. The law permitted Tiller to perform those abortions because the right of the mother to her life was judged to be greater than the right of the baby to his or her life. That question is purely one of rights, and it is one upon which anti-abortionists do not prevail.

    If rights and autonomy enter the picture, pro-choice prevails. That is the import of Daniel's words in the first quote in my post.