Responding to Bodily Autonomy Arguments Part 1: Sovereign Zone and Uni-personal Arguments

/ Commentary

In my previous piece, I argued that many of the contemporary arguments used today by defenders of abortion are not adequate to refute the arguments pro-life advocates are making against elective abortion as it is currently being practiced in the world today, particularly in the United States. In other previous pieces, I also responded to the accusation that pro-life advocates, such as myself, are using the moral crusade against abortion to excuse our alleged callousness or indifference towards people who are suffering in other contexts.

To summarize, the essential pro-life argument is this: It’s wrong to intentionally kill innocent human beings. Elective abortion intentionally kills innocent human beings. Therefore, elective abortion is wrong.

Pro-lifers argue the preborn are fully human, albeit very immature in terms of development. We contend there is no essential difference between those preborn and “post-born” which allows us to justifiably kill the preborn. Just like race, sex, and other characteristics are not justified criteria for deciding who is worthy of care and protection, the differences which exist before birth (e.g., size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency) are similarly not characteristics which justify purposely killing another human being to further our own ends.

There are some who fully acknowledge this argument but still argue abortion is permissible. “Not so fast,” we are told. The debate over abortion is primarily about letting a woman exercise her own bodily autonomy. Alyssa Milano's infamous "sex strike" was called for on the basis of a perceived loss of bodily autonomy.

According to many abortion supporters, since women, like men, are autonomous individuals, restrictions on the ability to seek out an abortion are an unjust infringement upon the exercise of one’s personal liberty. This is probably the best argument for the basis of abortion rights, and poses a serious challenge for the pro-life advocate. The autonomist will readily agree to the preborn’s humanity and full personhood, but will then argue it really is not the point. Those characteristics are simply irrelevant. A woman’s autonomy is the relevant factor in the debate over abortion. As Erika Bachiochi notes, it has become increasingly difficult for pro-abortion activists to dispute the preborn’s membership in the human family and her full personhood. Hence, autonomy arguments have become popular.

However, these bodily autonomy arguments are far from convincing and are fraught with problems if the time is taken to adequately understand and respond to them.

As Helen Watt and Trent Horn observe, there are three categories of bodily rights arguments: (1) the Uni-personal argument, (2) the sovereign zone argument, and (3) the right-to-refuse argument.

  1. The Uni-personal Argument

One of the most common sound bites used by defenders of abortion is the “My Body, My Choice” mantra. We are told since the preborn are a part of a woman’s body, she has say over what she does to them. Abortion turns out to be no more morally problematic than having a tooth pulled. Complaints against pro-lifers take on a number of different forms under this view. I.e., “Who are you to tell a woman what she can do with her body?” This is a common assertion, but one which is quite silly. Of course women have rights over their own bodies, but bodily autonomy is not an absolute when it comes to other individuals and their natural rights. No one, man or woman, has a naturally inherent right to undress or urinate in public, to assault another individual, to shout “Fire” in a crowded theater, commit sexual assault, purposely expose other people to secondhand smoke, or act in such a way that another individual is hurt by the action. Laws restricting any of the above behaviors are rarely criticized as unjustified infringements upon one's bodily rights. As a civil society, we actually do place quite a few limits on what citizens can and cannot do with their own bodies.

As Francis Beckwith notes, the assertion is a form of question begging—it assumes there is no second individual involved in a pregnancy. However, this is false. To say the preborn is a part of a woman’s bodily structure requires one to admit certain absurdities: A woman would have to have four arms, four legs, two heads, two DNA structures, and in about half of all cases, male sex organs. If her child has a congenital defect, her mother would by extension also have that defect for a period of nine months. That cannot be right.

A humorous example of the problems associated with the Uni-personal view involves a court case where a couple using the services of an IVF lab accidentally received another couple’s child in embryonic form (in this case, children). A white couple gave birth to black twins, and later sued the IVF lab over their carelessness. Debates over the ethics of assisted reproduction aside, the case helps shed light on the reality of human reproduction; the preborn are not merely body parts, but are distinct living organisms of the human family. Because of this, the preborn would also qualify as autonomous individuals with a right to autonomy, even if unable to exercise the right at their given point of development. As Beckwith also notes, the defender of abortion commits the fallacy of special pleading—by asserting since one has a “right” to bodily autonomy, but failing to acknowledge possession of the right by others (in this case, the preborn), one has arbitrarily picked out evidence for one’s argument while ignoring counter-examples (i,e. one should not kill another human being, because doing so would violate their autonomy).

Because of the problems with the Uni-personal argument, few sophisticated defenders of abortion will rely upon it, even though it remains popular among street-level abortion activists.

2. The Sovereign Zone

Taking a somewhat different approach, many defenders of abortion will fully acknowledge the preborn’s basic humanity, but will still argue what happens in and to a woman’s body is her choice alone. To them, the humanity of the preborn is just not relevant. What is relevant is the exercise of a woman's autonomy.

Unfortunately, well-meaning but naive pro-lifers tend to miss this. Typical snarky pro-life memes will have, for example, a quote such as the famous picture of Dwight Schrute (a character from The Office), “If it was your body, you would be the one who dies.” Pro-lifers do a major disservice to themselves and their audiences by failing to adequately understand their opponents’ contention, and these memes/tweets/soundbites are no exception. Memes are generally a terrible way to make an argument and should not be used in place of good arguments by anyone, pro-life or pro-choice.

The sovereign zone argument takes many forms, but essentially it is as follows: Since a woman's body is her own (just like a man's body) she has the right to decide what happens in and to her body, including as it regards pregnancy.

This sounds reasonable, but the logical conclusion of this argument proves far more than the average abortion advocate is willing to admit.

This becomes readily apparent in the ongoing debate surrounding late-term abortions. After the passage of recent laws in New York and Illinois providing legal protection for late term abortions, pro-abortion  activists were quick to dismiss the criticisms raised by pro-lifers by asserting late- term abortions (including the infamous “Partial Birth Abortions”) were only performed in cases of dire medical necessity, such as when a mother’s life was endangered by the pregnancy. Pro-lifers were often shouted into silence with remarks such as, “No woman would want an abortion the week before birth!”

Setting aside for the moment the statistical problems with such an assessment, for defenders of the sovereign zone, why is this a problem to begin with? If whatever happens to whatever is located in a woman's body is her own choice, then why is it problematic if she wants to have an abortion the week before birth for any reason she pleases? Most defenders of abortion become uneasy at this suggestion, but why? Abortion choice advocates love to dismiss arguments about partial birth abortion as too rare to merit concern or only used in such dire circumstances where mother or child will die; however, taking the “My body, my choice” mantra to its logical conclusion, it follows there would be no abortion worth criticizing. If a mother wants a partial birth abortion solely to see what it would feel like, then there would be nothing morally wrong in doing so.

If a woman’s bodily autonomy is the sole deciding factor in the morality of abortion, there is no abortion which is immoral. Indeed, nothing she does to her child in utero would be open to criticism.

Multiple scenarios illustrate this clearly. The “Planned Parenthood baby parts” scandal is one. After the investigative journalism by the Center for Medical Progress revealed that Planned Parenthood was selling the bodily remains of preborn children killed in abortion, pro-choice activists rushed to deny the claims. But what is the problem? Under the absolute autonomy view presented by sovereign zone defenders, the only injustice would have to be the fact many pregnant women were “ripped off” financially and were unable to receive a share of the profits in the enterprise.

Let’s take this a step further. Suppose a young woman, realizing there is a profit to be had in the market for fetal body parts, impregnates herself for the sole purpose of carrying a fetus to the second or third trimester, then she has an abortion so she can sell the body parts to the highest bidder. Would this be wrong? Most pro-abortion  activists are very uncomfortable with this sort of a scenario.

Other examples bring the problems with the sovereign zone to light. In the mid 20th century, doctors would prescribe the drug thalidomide to pregnant women in order to help alleviate the symptoms of morning sickness. However, the drug had a devastating side effect⁠—it could cause severe birth defects in preborn children’s limbs and hearts.

T.W. Sadler, in Langman’s Medical Embryology and Teratology (13th ed.), writes:

“It was subsequently established that thalidomide causes a characteristic syndrome of malformations consisting of absence or gross deformities of the long bones, intestinal atresia, and cardiac anomalies. Studies indicate that the fourth and fifth weeks of gestation are the most sensitive period for induction of limb defects. Because the drug is now being used to treat AIDS and cancer patients, distribution of thalidomide is carefully regulated to avoid its use by pregnant women.” (pg. 170)

Suppose a woman, knowing full well the dangers of thalidomide, decides to get the drug off the black market in order to alleviate her morning sickness. In doing so, when it comes time to give birth, her child has no arms or legs. Would it be right to hold her accountable? It sure seems so.

It’s interesting to note these regulations are not subjected to the same enraged scrutiny abortion laws are. No one seems to complain about a “War on women” in the form of thalidomide regulations. We do not see protestors donning red cloaks and white hoods to protest against thalidomide laws or making silly comparisons to gun laws, largely because we know better.

To use another example from Dennis Prager, suppose a couple finds out they are pregnant. Through genetic testing, they are able to find out their child’s sexual orientation when they grow up. The parents find out their child will grow up to be gay. Wishing to avoid this, either because of prejudice or to protect their child from experiencing prejudice, as an author at The Federalist put it in a recent thought experiment, they abort their son or daughter. Is this justified? Under an absolute bodily autonomy view, this is hard to swallow. Absolute bodily autonomy begins to look more monstrous when this scenario is considered.

Some are quick to point out these are extreme cases, but are they really? Take the real life example of Yale art student Aliza Shvarts in 2008. Working on her senior art project, Shvarts purposely impregnated herself multiple times, then self-induced abortions with the intent of using the fetal remains and blood for an art project. The event inevitably sparked outrage, but are we prepared to admit she did something wrong? Yale required Shvarts to retract her project, but few (aside from the borderline insane) would see this as an unjust attack on her autonomy. Under absolute bodily autonomy, it is hard to see how it could possibly be wrong.

Other examples can be cited here, but through reflection, it’s easy to see absolute bodily autonomy in the form of a “sovereign zone” argument is pretty hard to defend. It also works against the pro-abortion claim.

As Christopher Kaczor notes, a right to bodily autonomy provides a solid reason to reject abortion. If all human persons have bodily autonomy, and the fetus is a human person (using the terminology of abortion rights activists) then it follows the preborn human being also has a right against unwanted bodily intrusions. Writes Kaczor,

“However, supposing that the fetus is a person, this fetal person will also have the right to bodily integrity. The person in utero will likewise have the right not to be used simply as a means to realize someone else’s desires, including the desire not to be pregnant and not to continue to be a gestational mother. The lethal and total violation of bodily integrity in abortion is a much more serious and irreversible loss than the partial violation of bodily integrity involved in donating a kidney or continuing pregnancy. Likewise, avoiding death is a more serious reason for allowing a side-effect than voiding the difficulties of unwanted pregnancy. Indeed, the fetus has two goods at stake, bodily integrity and life itself. In normal cases of pregnancy, the woman does not.”

This means that every time a mother chooses abortion, she has actually chosen an action which will violate the bodily integrity or autonomy of another human being. Reading the instructional guides of abortionists, it is not hard to see how.

As Dr. Warren Hern describes abortion procedures in his book Abortion Practice and as Dr. Maureen Paul (and colleagues) describes in her book A Clinician’s Guide to Medical and Surgical Abortion, abortion is a very violent attack on the body of the preborn human being. Some abortion rights activists are quick to point out that suction abortions are the most common procedure early in the first trimester, not dismemberment abortions as in the second and third. While this is true, it does not remove the moral problem. It is for a simple clinical reason which Warren Hern alludes to in his book: early in pregnancy, bone and muscle tissue is relatively soft and malleable, and can be removed easier with suction.

Hern, referring to early second trimester abortions, notes "[f]etal tissues are significantly softened, permitting easy dismemberment” (pg. 145). It’s not hard to imagine the softer tissues being even easier to remove in the first trimester via suction. Hern admits as much in the context of abortions at 13 to 14 weeks:

“Usually, a significant amount of amniotic fluid is aspirated in this fashion (suction) and some placenta or fetal material will enter the tubing. This is more likely at 13 weeks fetal age. At 14 weeks fetal age, tissue is more likely to become lodged in the cannula (suction tube). When this happens, it is a good procedure to put the suction tip aside and proceed with the forceps.” (pg. 147)

To put the damage of suction into perspective, it would be like an adult being sucked through a 747 jet turbine, or into a meat grinder, or into a woodchipper. The fact it is performed on a very small and weak member of the human family does not remove the gruesome nature of the act. It is not hard to see exactly who is killed in first trimester abortion procedures, as imagery taken in utero through 4-D Ultrasound and Fetoscopy shows. Abortion rights groups must account for this, not smugly deflect it by dressing up as characters from dystopian novels.

Second trimester abortions are no less gruesome, as Hern describes in his book:

“As the calvaria (skullcap) is grasped, a sensation that it is collapsing is almost always accompanied by the extrusion of white cerebral material from the external os (bone).” (pg. 142)
“The procedure changes significantly at 21 weeks because the fetal tissues become much more cohesive and difficult to dismember. This problem is accentuated by the fact the fetal pelvis may be as much as 5 cm in width. The calvaria is no longer the principal problem; it can be collapsed. Other structures, such as the pelvis, present more difficulty.” (pg. 154)

Abortionist Maureen Paul and her colleagues also describe second trimester abortions in their book on the topic, A Clinician’s Guide to Medical and Surgical Abortion. It is clear they are a direct attempt to destroy the fetal body:

“The degree of softening of fetal cortical bone affects the amount of dilation needed for D&E. Softening is facilitated by fetal demise...The most common pharmacological agents used to induce demise in developed countries are potassium chloride and digoxin...Wright and Watson reported successful use for 1 mg digoxin as a fetocidal agent for 5,000 D&E abortions at 19 weeks gestation or more. They injected the drug into the fetus or amniotic fluid without ultrasonographic guidance...Fetal death was confirmed in all cases by ultrasonography within 30 minutes.”(pg. 131) Potassium Chloride also happens to be the drug used in executions of criminals through injection.
“To locate fetal parts, rotate the instrument right or left while concurrently closing and opening the forceps. Upon feeling the calvarium(upper skull) or other fetal tissue, close the jaws firmly about it and draw it through the canal using a combination of compression and rotation.” (pg. 133)
“After completion of the D&E abortion, examine the pregnancy tissue. Although complete reconstruction is not always possible, verify the presence of major fetal parts, including the pelvis, torso, calvarium, and extremities...Measurement of fetal foot length provides a reliable estimate of gestational age during the second and third trimesters. Some providers routinely measure foot length after D&E as confirmatory evidence of gestational age. These measurements are also useful in some cases of presumed first trimester pregnancy based on dating and examination alone…” (pg. 136)

It is hard to see how this is really a justifiable right women are entitled to without question. While some contend second and third trimester abortions are only done for medical necessity (a point disputed by many medical professionals), this is irrelevant when viewed in light of a sovereign zone view of bodily autonomy. Would there be anything wrong with having these procedures done for pleasure? To "see what it's like"? Or for financial gain as part of a paid study? Or for an art project? If it is wrong to violate a woman’s autonomy by asking her to simply not seek someone out to kill the child she is carrying, then it seems a far greater (indeed, a monstrous) evil to assert it is permissible to directly attack the preborn’s body in the manner described above and elsewhere. If you have an absolute right to bodily autonomy, then it seems incumbent on you to not violate another’s right to bodily autonomy by dismembering them, ripping them apart through intense suction, poisoning them, or crushing their skulls.

In light of all this, the pro-abortion movement begins to inevitably look sinister and cruel. It is quite popular today for pro-abortion activists to dress as "Handmaids" from the hit Hulu series The Handmaid's Tale. Based on the novel of the same name by Margaret Atwood, the series is about the plight of women, the "Handmaids," forced into surrogacy, sex slavery, and "forced pregnancy" through denial of abortion by the fanatical religious regime the Republic of Gilead. According to many pro-abortion activists, this is what they believe pro-lifers want, a total loss of autonomy on the part if women.

And yet, as we have seen through the words of abortionists, abortion itself is the radical and brutal violation of bodily autonomy on the part of an innocent human being in the womb, through decapitation, ripping apart, lethal injections, and dismemberment. It so turns out the pro-abortion "Handmaid" Larping clubs have much more in common with the values and goals of Gilead than the average pro-lifer does. Their protest is much more insidious than one is led to believe. The sovereign zone view of pregnancy pro-abortion activists want is ghastly. Want to defend abortion? Then defend it as it actually is performed. Don't hide behind dystopian images by dressing up as TV characters.

Quite simply, a sovereign zone view of bodily autonomy provides a strong moral basis for rejecting abortion as a fundamental right to be upheld. It cannot provide the basis for a right to abortion because doing so would entail certain individuals have the moral and, by extension, legal right to violate another human being’s “sovereign zone” in ways far more brutal than a simple restriction on doctors performing abortion.

However, maybe abortion is justifiable on the grounds of being a right to refuse support to someone through pregnancy? That argument will be the focus of part two of “Responding to Bodily Autonomy 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.

Nathan Apodaca

Nathan Apodaca

Nathan is a staff apologist for the Life Training Institute, equipping pro-life advocates to make the case for life. Also a contributing writer at The Millenial Review and CampusReform

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