In light of the issues surrounding the Supreme Court’s possible decision regarding abortion, there are a lot of explosive claims by pro-choice advocates floating around in the stratosphere. Unfortunately, these claims are generating far more heat than light. Indeed, virtually all of them are irrelevant, resulting in obfuscation and distracting people’s attention from the fundamental moral issues. Perhaps the most egregious example is the old canard that a woman has a right to make decisions about her own body, which is a false claim in the only sense relevant to the abortion debate. I aim to show why this is misleading and false.
To begin with an obvious point, just because something resides within the spatial boundaries of one’s body, it does not follow that it is part of one’s body. For example, suppose Jill possesses a small but treasured diamond. Further, she decides to have this precious item with her at all times, so she has surgery in which the diamond is attached to the outer wall of her stomach. In this case, the diamond is inside Jill’s body, but it clearly is not a part of her body. Like the diamond, the human person growing in a woman’s womb is inside but not a part of her body. After all, he/she has its own DNA, it is a self-contained living being, and in no way does it function like her genuine body parts — e.g., her heart and other organs. Granting that a woman has a right to make decisions about her own body, that right still does not include the living being spatially inside her. Let’s see why.
First, there are two senses in which a woman’s body is hers. One is true but morally irrelevant to the abortion debate. The other is relevant but false. Those two senses are indwelling and owning. Clearly, we all indwell our bodies. We are after all, embodied beings, at least in this life. But does a woman own her body? Not in the relevant sense.
To understand this distinction, it will be fruitful to take a page from St. Augustine’s treatment of suicide. He was the first Western thinker to give a systematic treatment of suicide, most importantly in The City of God, Book I, chapters 17-27; Book IV, chapter 19. Augustine marshalled several arguments against suicide, but of special relevance to our discussion was his treatment of rational suicide defended by the Stoics and others. To oversimplify, advocates of rational suicide claimed that it was morally justified since it was a rational act and not an emotional reaction to bad circumstances, depression, and the like. But if the act was done dispassionately, with clear understanding of what one was doing, and performed for good reasons (e.g., the desire to live and finish well, rather than finish in a diminished way), it was morally permissible, even obligatory for some thinkers.
Against rational suicide, Augustine argued that it was still wrong because we do not own our own lives, including our bodies. Rather, they are given to us by God who remains their true owner. Thus, rational suicide is an abuse of something that belongs to another — God — and not to us.
Additional insight is found in John Locke’s “Of Property,” Chapter V, in his Second Treatise of Government. While I do not agree with everything Locke affirms, I do accept his main argument for justifying private property. According to Locke, one has self-ownership of something, rightful dominion over it, the exclusive right to use it as a resource, if and only if one has labored, worked, mixed one’s toil in obtaining it. Thus, ownership as an exclusive right to use something depends on laboring to get it (setting aside issues of inheritance).
By way of application to the pro-choice claim that a woman has a right to make decisions about her own body, consider the following. Suppose Bill Roth has worked hard with great toil and effort to earn the funds to purchase an apartment complex, which he secures. Bill owns the complex and begins to rent apartments to willing renters. One renter is Daniel Henderson. Let us ask this question: Does Daniel have the right to do whatever he wants with his apartment? He may have the right to do things with his apartment provided that they are within the parameters set by Bill as expressed in the rental contract. But clearly, Daniel does not have the general right to do whatever he wants with his rental dwelling place.
Exactly why is this the case? It is because Daniel merely indwells the apartment, but he does not own it. He lives in and occupies the apartment, but the ownership of said apartment still belongs to Bill.
Combining the insights of Augustine and Locke and applying them to the pro-choice claim within our purview, it becomes clear how we should assess that claim. It is true that a woman indwells her body, but she does so as a renter. A woman does not own her body, God does, and the lack of ownership is the morally relevant facture one should employ in assessing the assertion “a woman has a right to make decisions about her own body.” God created our bodies, and they are owned by Him. We indwell them as renters. Like so many of the popular assertions of pro-choice advocates, this claim in a tired old bromide, a hackneyed assertion of which it is time to let go.
But, you ask, what if there is no God? In that case, we are all renters with no owner, a rather incoherent situation indeed. Without a God of a certain kind, it becomes a difficult task to affirm the reality of natural rights as many have observed. Accordingly, legal rights are mere expressions of the adage that might make it right. Alas, defending these claims must be left for another occasion.