My Body, My Choice: How To Effectively Refute Common Bodily Autonomy Arguments

/ Commentary

By Petra Wallenmeyer

We often hear the slogan from abortion-choice advocates: “My body, my choice!” The phrase is short, simple, and on the surface, quite powerful. I see many pro-lifers on social media immediately respond to this slogan in an extremely unhelpful manner. My purpose here is to help pro-lifers recognize a specific type of bodily autonomy argument, the logical implications of this argument, and how to better respond to the people using this argument.

You have probably seen these types of figures used in response to a bodily autonomy statement—or perhaps you have used such figures yourself:

Technically, these figures are correct. Maybe you have seen written responses to the “my body, my choice” statements which reflect what these figures point out; biologically, a preborn human is not the woman’s body or a part of her body. A preborn human is a complete, whole, distinct, separate, living organism.

However, many abortion-choice advocates understand basic biology. They are perfectly aware human embryos and fetuses are not a part of a woman’s body, like her heart, stomach, kidneys, limbs, etc. are. We do not need to throw science in their face if they already know the science. Doing this may alienate people with whom we could otherwise have a productive conversation about the abortion issue. They may be making a bodily autonomy argument, not a biology argument; it is possible they just do not know how to frame their view more clearly.

The first step to take when you hear or read someone say, “my body, my choice,” or use the words “body,” “dependent,” or “non-viable,” to justify abortion is to ask a clarifying question. Whereas pro-lifers approach the issue of abortion from the standpoint of the developing human, the other person is likely approaching the issue from the view of the pregnant woman.

Asking a clarifying question is also helpful because many abortion-choice advocates mix their arguments together; they may refute the personhood of the preborn and believe in bodily autonomy of the mother. A good question to ask would be, “Do you mean you think a human fetus is literally a part of a woman’s body like one of her organs is?” Most people will say, “No, of course not!” and then clarify their position.

It will become apparent most abortion-choice advocates, though not all, acknowledge the humanity of the preborn (though perhaps not its personhood) but still think the mother has the right to kill it. Therefore, if you assume a person has a problem with basic biology and respond with a condescending meme, you have lost your chance to have a productive discussion.

Now, bodily autonomy arguments come in two main flavors: “Sovereign Zone” and “Right to Refuse.” The Sovereign Zone (SZ) argument goes something like this:

  • The woman’s body is her sovereign zone.
  • Therefore, a woman can do anything she wants with anything inside her body.
  • Since the fetus is inside her body, she can do whatever she wants to it, including have an abortion.

The SZ argument is the more powerful-sounding of the two bodily autonomy arguments, but it is also the weaker argument for the very reason it sounds so powerful: it has a large scope. The more quickly we realize this weakness, the better we can productively and graciously engage with people who use the SZ argument.

From the amazing people over at Equal Rights Institute (ERI), I have learned there are several logical implications — that is, statements which must be true — if a woman’s body is truly a sovereign zone. Bringing these implications into the discussion on bodily autonomy can help an abortion-choice advocate see the extremism of the SZ argument. (They list five logical implications in the linked article, I simplify to four implications for the purposes of this article.)

1. There should be no restrictions on abortions at all.

You could make the above statement, or you could simply ask: At what stage of pregnancy should abortion be legal? Under what circumstances should abortion be legal?

Most abortion-choice advocates are uncomfortable with late-term abortions, unless there are certain extenuating circumstances present. They are also usually uncomfortable with sex-selective abortions or abortions for reasons besides health of mother, rape, or incest. But if the woman’s body is a sovereign zone, there should be no restrictions on abortion for any reason (age of fetus, fetal sex, fetal disability, etc.), or the position is incoherent and inconsistent.

This first implication is sometimes enough to make a person realize the extremity of the SZ argument. However, it may just make the person uncomfortably concede the point. Now it is time to move to the second implication.

2. A woman should be able to legally take thalidomide for morning sickness (or any other teratogen for any other medical condition).

If they do not know what thalidomide is, be prepared to tell them. Thalidomide was a drug given in the 50’s and 60’s for morning sickness because it was extremely effective. After doctors figured out thalidomide resulted in babies with birth defects, thalidomide was made illegal to prescribe to pregnant women. Some “thalidomide babies” are still alive today. We do not want to dishonor these people by taking their existence and hardships lightly, so tread carefully here. Maybe have a photo or a story of a specific person affected by thalidomide ready, to re-affirm their humanity.

Ask the abortion-choice advocate: if a woman’s body is a sovereign zone, should she be allowed to take thalidomide for her morning sickness?

People using the SZ argument tend to get even more uncomfortable here. They may say: “Yes, she should have the legal right to do it,” or, “Even though I think it’s wrong, it shouldn’t be illegal for her to do it. It’s her body.” Time to move on.

3. A woman should be able to ingest thalidomide (or otherwise expose herself to any other teratogen) for any reason at all.

If the abortion-choice advocate has conceded the first two points, propose a thought experiment to further test the boundaries of the SZ argument. For example, you could talk about a woman who has no morning sickness but wishes to take thalidomide anyway, knowing it will disfigure her baby (if it lives). Perhaps she thinks having a baby with bodily deformities will give her a tax break, or rally her community to support her, or she will get extra attention from her significant other.  
Ask the abortion-choice advocate: if the woman wanted to intentionally deform the fetus by taking thalidomide, should she legally be allowed to do that?

Most abortion-choice advocates will say, “No.” You should then graciously point out if the woman’s body is a sovereign zone, it seems like she should legally be allowed to do that. If women should not have the legal right to take thalidomide, then the woman’s body is not a sovereign zone. This is the point where even the staunchest of abortion-choice advocates usually stop. They realize the ludicrous implications of the SZ argument. Even so, some people will concede this point. All you have left is one more implication. Do note, this is not a pretty place to take a conversation.

4. There is literally nothing a woman cannot do to her fetus because it is in her body.

Again, this point requires a thought experiment. You could come up with anything here, but generally, this is where you would put out the most extreme idea you can think of, such as torturing to death a fetus at a late stage of the pregnancy to get back at a cheating, pro-life boyfriend (thanks for the imagery, ERI).

If you do not want to come up with a gruesome thought experiment, you could simply ask, “Is there anything a woman cannot do to her fetus in any stage of pregnancy?”

Most people will have something in mind they do not think is acceptable. If there is even one thing they think is unacceptable to do to a preborn human at any stage of the pregnancy, then a pregnant woman’s body, by definition, is not a sovereign zone; she cannot do whatever she wants with anything inside her body. They have refuted themselves.

The SZ argument is a weak argument because it makes too big of a claim. The logical implications of the SZ argument are  women should be able to have abortions on demand up until birth for any reason (or no reason); should be able to take drugs for a temporary, non-life-threatening condition knowing it will deform the fetus; should be able to expose themselves to whatever teratogen they wish for whatever reason they wish; and should be able to do whatever they want with their preborn child, including torturing it to death late in pregnancy.

Most abortion-choice advocates think they are the ones being reasonable and compassionate. They may not have encountered any good pro-life arguments against bodily autonomy. Conversely, many pro-life advocates do not properly recognize and respond to bodily rights arguments.

An effective response to a bodily rights argument can catch a abortion-choice advocate off-guard and have a larger impact on them than hearing the same, tired, bad pro-life responses which never actually address the abortion-choice advocate’s beliefs. If our goal is to help change people’s minds about abortion, we can step up our game by better addressing the Sovereign Zone bodily autonomy argument.

[For a wealth of information on bodily rights arguments for and against abortion, consider heading over to the Equal Rights Institute's landing page for materials on these arguments.]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Human Defense Initiative.

My Body, My Choice: How To Effectively Refute Common Bodily Autonomy Arguments
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