Should a Woman Be Forced to Give up Her Bodily Autonomy and the Voluntary Use of Her Womb?

Question from a reader:

I read some of your ebook Pro-Choice or Pro-Life? that I got from my church, and I wondered what your response would be to the argument in this post. It seems slightly different to the situations you gave in chapter 3 in the book so I wanted to know if you have any other ideas. I want to know what to say in response.

Reasonable people can disagree about when a zygote becomes a “human life”—that's a philosophical question. However, regardless of whether or not one believes a fetus is ethically equivalent to an adult, it doesn't obligate a mother to sacrifice her body autonomy for another, innocent or not.

Body autonomy is a critical component of the right to privacy protected by the Constitution, as decided in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), McFall v. Shimp (1978), and of course Roe v. Wade (1973). Consider a scenario where you are a perfect bone marrow match for a child with severe aplastic anemia; no other person on earth is a close enough match to save the child's life, and the child will certainly die without a bone marrow transplant from you. If you decided that you did not want to donate your marrow to save the child, for whatever reason, the state cannot demand the use of any part of your body for something to which you do not consent. It doesn't matter if the procedure required to complete the donation is trivial, or if the rationale for refusing is flimsy and arbitrary, or if the procedure is the only hope the child has to survive, or if the child is a genius or a saint or anything else - the decision to donate must be voluntary to be constitutional. This right is even extended to a person's body after they die; if they did not voluntarily commit to donate their organs while alive, their organs cannot be harvested after death, regardless of how useless those organs are to the deceased or how many lives they would save.

That's the law.

Use of a woman's uterus to save a life is no different from use of her bone marrow to save a life—it must be offered voluntarily. By all means, profess your belief that providing one's uterus to save the child is morally just, and refusing is morally wrong. That is a defensible philosophical position, regardless of who agrees and who disagrees. But legally, it must be the woman's choice to carry out the pregnancy.

She may choose to carry the baby to term. She may choose not to. Either decision could be made for all the right reasons, all the wrong reasons, or anything in between. But it must be her choice, and protecting the right of body autonomy means the law is on her side. Supporting that precedent is what being pro-choice means.

Answer from Stephanie Anderson, EPM staff:

As I read this person’s scenario, I actually do think it is a modernized variation of the prochoice argument that’s addressed in Randy’s ebook in the chapter Pro-Choice Claim #3, as you mentioned (“Even if a fetus is a person, no person is allowed to live off the body of another person without permission”—see the section “‘Kidnapped’ for Nine Months?”). It’s the scenario Randy shares about someone being obligated to be connected to another person because they have a certain blood type (waking up strapped to a famous but unconscious violinist).

This part of Randy’s response is especially pertinent:

In this scenario, mother and child are pitted against each other as enemies. The mother is at best merely a life-support system and at worst the victim of a crime. The child is a leech, a parasite unfairly taking advantage of the mother and invading her privacy. Love, compassion, and care are nowhere present. The bonding between mother and child is totally ignored. The picture of a woman waking up in a bed, strapped to a strange unconscious man is bizarre and degrading to women, whose preg­nancy and motherhood are natural events.

Greg Koukl asks, “What if the mother woke up from an accident to find herself surgically connected to her own child? What kind of mother would willingly cut the life-support system to her two-year-old in a situation like that? And what would we think of her if she did?”

That’s the thought that occurred to me: does it change the calculus if the child that can be saved by the bone marrow transplant is one’s own child? I think it absolutely does. What kind of parent would refuse to save their own child through a bone marrow transplant (certainly not a pleasant experience, but not life threatening), especially if they are the only one who can help save the child? When a mother carries a child in her womb, she is carrying her own child who is receiving nutrients from her, not a random stranger in need of a bone marrow transplant (even then, someone giving their bone marrow to save a stranger’s life would be widely applauded and seen as a wonderful thing). A pregnant woman has not yet seen her baby’s face and heard her baby’s cries, but they are just as real and precious inside the womb as outside.

Now, about the first part of what this person wrote: “Reasonable people can disagree about when a zygote becomes a human life.” If there is question about whether or not the zygote could indeed be a human life (and we know from Scripture and clearly from science that this is indeed a unique, brand-new human life from the moment of conception), then we should err on the side of protecting that life. Randy writes, “If you’re driving through a neighborhood and see a cardboard box in the middle of the road that a child could fit into, wouldn’t you avoid running over the box? Wouldn’t you err on the side of life? If you have even the slightest doubt that someone could be harmed, surely the benefit of your doubt should go to human life, shouldn’t it?” (See When Does Life Begin?)

It was also an interesting choice of language: “… it doesn’t obligate a mother to sacrifice her body autotomy for another, innocent or not.”

Randy writes, “Regardless of the challenges, one person’s right to a lifestyle, or even bodily autonomy, is not greater than another person’s right to live.”

He also writes in his book:

Of course, any two people are equal and have equal rights. Hence, a mother has the right to live every bit as much as a child. I can’t emphasize enough that the mother’s rights are truly important, and society should protect them. But here is what pro-choice advocates routinely fail to recognize: in the vast majority of abortions, the woman’s right to live is not an issue, because her life is not in danger. Except in the rare case of pregnancy by rape, a woman carrying a child has made choices of control over her body that resulted in pregnancy. Women are free to choose to abstain from sex or to use birth control or to do neither.

But when a woman is pregnant, the choices she has made have produced a new human being. As one woman points out, “After a woman is pregnant, she cannot choose whether or not she wishes to become a mother. She already is, and since the child is already present in her womb, all that is left to her to decide is whether she will deliver her baby dead or alive.”

Undoubtedly, an unplanned pregnancy can be difficult, and a woman facing one needs compassion and support, not condemnation. But once the baby is born, the woman is again free to choose: she can raise the child or choose to place the child in a loving adoptive home with one of the two million families waiting to adopt.

When a woman chooses to have sex or to use birth control, those two choices are personal and private. But abortion is not personal and private. It directly involves the life of another person and therefore becomes the concern of a decent society. Just as society would protect the life of the mother if someone tried to kill her, so it should protect the life of the child when that life is threatened.

Photo by Lisa from Pexels

Stephanie Anderson is the communications and graphics specialist at Eternal Perspective Ministries.