Abortion advocates should remember our bodies don’t exist in isolation from society

Pro-abortion campaigners in Ireland (Photo: PA)

Is there anything new that can be said on the topic of abortion? Probably not. Laurie Penny has an article over at the Guardian which has the following to say: “Women cannot truly be the equals of men in any society where we are denied control over our fertility. The anti-choice backlash is couched in terms of care, but if women are denied basic bodily autonomy – if our fundamental human rights are confiscated by the state – we will remain second-class citizens.”

The phrase “basic bodily autonomy” reminds me that Ms Penny’s argument is essentially the same as that of the philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson in her famous essay A Defence of Abortion. It is quite a long essay, but it is well worth reading, and can be found here ; there is a summary here.

Thomson argues, using her analogy of the Famous Violinist, that carrying a child to term when you do not wish to is an act of Splendid Samaritanism; but the law cannot coerce us to anything beyond Minimally Decent Samaritanism. This seems a sound enough conclusion, but it surely points us in another direction entirely, namely towards the insufficiency of law to ensure the state of affairs that we would rationally choose. Law of itself is simply not enough: law only works when it points us to and guides our charity.

Now to return to Laurie Penny’s concept of “basic bodily autonomy”. Law deals with individuals, but individuals are abstracted from their setting, which is society, the web of relationships in which we live and without which we cannot live. There is certainly something called moral autonomy, all Catholics acknowledge, but that too is an abstraction. Our moral decisions are our own, but we come to them as creatures whose thinking processes are moulded by our human environment.

But what is bodily autonomy? Does this in fact exist? Our bodies do not exist in isolation, and the decisions we make about our bodies have to take into account the fact that we live as embodied beings in society. So, any claim to a right to abort based on bodily autonomy must lead us to ask what exactly the nature of such autonomy might be.

Do people who commit suicide exercise choice? Some may do. Is their choice a good choice? Few would think so. Would you let someone commit suicide on the grounds that they were exercising their free choice, once that was established? Or would you do anything you could to try and change their mind? And if someone freely took their own life, would you say that that was their choice, and their choice represented some sort of moral absolute? Or would you regret their action, see it is a tragedy, a loss to society, and a wounding of the human family? For in truth, we are all kin. What one does, affects all; when one does harm, all are harmed.