In no other case except pregnancy, do we legally compel one human to give up their bodily autonomy to sustain the life of another human.
So, newsflash: I’m pro-choice. In my opinion a fetus is a collection of cells, which should not be afforded the same rights as a human being because it isn’t a human being. It’s a fetus. But this isn’t going to be an article arguing about when human life starts. In fact, I’ll concede the point and for the rest of the article work on the assumption that a fetus is a human life. I’m still pro-choice, and this paragraph from Melissa McEwan’s Shakesville article explains why:
“Granting the premise that a fetus has the equivalent value of the born uterus-having person carrying it, I will observe…that my life, right now, is not so precious that any other human being could be compelled to use their body to support mine for the next nine months (at least). No other human being is obliged to give up an organ for me, even if it would save my life. Nor bone marrow, nor blood, nor skin. People who are forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term are being asked to do something no other people are asked to do for another person, which exposes the truth of the anti-choice position: Fetuses are valued more highly than the people who carry them.”
I bolded the bit that I think cuts to the heart of the issue. Basically, in no other case except pregnancy, do we legally compel one human to give up their bodily autonomy to sustain the life of another human.
A friend’s step-father is in desperate need of a kidney. His have stopped working and he’s on dialysis. For a variety of reasons, my friend is unwilling to even get tested to see if she would be able to donate one of her kidneys. There is absolutely nothing anyone can legally do to compel her to donate her kidney because her body is hers to control.
The same cannot be said of her uterus. Legally, the state can compel her to essentially donate her uterus to gestate another human being if she became pregnant, regardless of whether she wanted to remain pregnant.* In both of these cases, one could argue that a human life depends on my friend giving up part of her body. Yet, in only one case can the government force her to do so: pregnancy.
The argument could be made that we expect parents to take responsibility for, and have a responsibility to their children in a way we don’t expect in other familial relationships. In fact, we have laws and entire government agencies that are built to ensure that parents do not neglect their responsibility to their children. Parents can be arrested and have their children removed from their care if they endanger them. We expect parents to sacrifice a certain amount of autonomy for the sake of their children. So, doesn’t this suggest that we have a legal framework which supports forcing a woman to sacrifice her body for a short time for the sake of her unborn child?
Here’s the thing: Though we do legislate ways that parents have a responsibility to their children, we don’t legislate that parents must sacrifice their bodily autonomy for their children. If I had a child that was diagnosed with leukemia, for example, there is nothing the state could do to compel me to donate my bone marrow were I to refuse to do so. Refusing to donate marrow for my own child may very well be a moral failing on my part (depending on one’s individual moral system), but that doesn’t make it an issue in which the state can intervene. I’ll go one step further, if I were a chain-smoker and my child developed lung cancer due to increased exposure to cigarette smoke, I still couldn’t be legally compelled to donate a lung. Heck, I couldn’t even be legally compelled to stop smoking. Why? Because of bodily autonomy; I have control over what I do to my body.
So although there is no objective difference between all my hypothetical examples of bodily autonomy and a pregnant woman’s body, there are quite a few cultural differences. Therein lies the problem. During the recent testimony given in Texas, one anti-choice witness compared a pregnant woman to a dog. On my own blog, I’ve seen comments comparing pregnant women’s bodies to cars and houses. We think of pregnant women’s bodies as no longer being human bodies. We think of them as wombs, as no longer deserving of autonomy because another human being (the fetus) relies on them for survival. We forget that attached to that womb is a woman, and she’s deserving of absolute bodily autonomy, just like anyone else.
Anti-choice laws force a pregnant woman’s body to be used to sustain life in a way that isn’t legally compelled from any other human body. And that’s straight up discrimination.
*This article focuses on women, but trans men can get pregnant and should be able to choose abortion. Considering the invisibility of trans men in the mainstream, and the way that the mainstream conceptualizes trans mens’ bodies (when it considers them at all), I think the issue of trans men and abortion is a complicated one. One that I’m definitely not prepared to discuss with any kind of authority.
Heather N is a Californian living in the United Kingdom. She’s a failed PhD student in archaeology currently studying an interdisciplinary humanities Masters degree focusing on alterity (otherness). She is a sex-positive, queer, intersectional feminist gamer who spends far too much time blogging and Tweeting.