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Foetus' right to life vs women's bodily autonomy

(574 Posts)
AmberTheCat Fri 15-Aug-14 12:04:55

I've just been reading a paper written by a friend of a friend, arguing that a foetus should be seen as having the same right to life as a postpartum human, because there are no lines that can be drawn between a foetus and someone post-birth that couldn't also be drawn between two postpartum humans. He added a note to say that clearly there is a question of how this right to life relates to women's autonomy, but that this wasn't something he was addressing in this paper.

Given that this is surely THE question, can you help me refine my arguments for the primacy of bodily autonomy? My instinctive view is that I can't see any way of denying that a foetus is a human being, or at least has the potential to become a human being, depending on how developed it is, but that the decision of whether or not to allow that (potential) human to grow inside her must still always remain the woman's. I'm quite out of touch with the thinking around this, though, so would welcome pointers.


PetulaGordino Fri 15-Aug-14 12:28:29

"He added a note to say that clearly there is a question of how this right to life relates to women's autonomy, but that this wasn't something he was addressing in this paper."

how marvellous for him that he thinks that he can make such a throwaway remark, but he can't separate women's bodily autonomy from the question of whether a foetus has a right to life. it's nonsensical to separate the two

CaptChaos Fri 15-Aug-14 12:47:30

Foetuses don't have any right to life, only born people do, the same goes for bodily autonomy, only born people have that. Governments set arbitrary dates after which a woman's right to bodily autonomy is curtailed (but not ended) but that doesn't confer any rights to the foetus with regard to it's life, foetuses can still be aborted to term under certain circumstances, in the civilised world, born people can't be killed under any circumstances. A foetus isn't a potential human being, it is a foetus, it obtains the rights, responsibilities and privileges of being a human being at birth. I am a potential corpse, this doesn't mean that someone can treat me as if I am one now.

Nice of the male researcher to grudgingly accept that women's bodily autonomy might be an issue, but he's just not going to think about that right now. It is intrinsic, you can't have a discussion about one, without a discussion about the other, so I would have to conclude he is either a religious fundamentalist or not terribly bright.

wingcommandergallic Fri 15-Aug-14 12:50:59

It's my body, fuck off.

pretty much sums up my philosophy.

AMumInScotland Fri 15-Aug-14 13:13:01

How can a foetus which is incapable of even breathing for itself at this stage of development be said to have it's own set of 'rights'? Everything that it has is contingent on its mother's body sustaining it.

It is not independent, it is not capable of independence.

I agree that there is a continuity between the moment of fertilisation and the developing foetus and the delivered baby, therefore yes it is difficult to pick a moment to say that one has rights and the other does not. Which is why as mentioned above the rights start at the moment of birth, and not at any time before.

In the UK there is a level of protection for it as a possible-baby from the time when current medical practice means that it could be born viable, which respects the idea that it would be inappropriate to end that without very strong reason.

But it's very existence depends on it's mother until that time, therefore her rights and bodily autonomy trump the concept of the foetus having 'rights'. Any other solution goes against any concept of an adult woman having any rights over her body.

He is missing the biggest, most important, and most complex part of the question by just dismissing it with a vague note that there are issues.

Any discussion of the rights of any group or individual has to take account of how one set of 'rights' is fundamentally incompatible with another set.

PetulaGordino Fri 15-Aug-14 13:33:40

he should have added a note to say that everything he was addressing in his paper was irrelevant because the woman's bodily autonomy is paramount

foolishpeach Fri 15-Aug-14 13:34:14

You might find this article interesting:

In Defense of Abortion by Judith Jarvis Thomson.

CoteDAzur Fri 15-Aug-14 14:02:10

There is no need for arguing "primacy of bodily autonomy". Woman in question is a person. The fetus is not a person. It is the seed of a person.

TortoiseUpATreeAgain Fri 15-Aug-14 14:05:15

So his argument is basically "there are no lines that can be drawn between a foetus and someone post-birth that couldn't also be drawn between two postpartum humans. Well, there are, obviously, but I'm not planning to address them here and that's pretty much the same thing as their not existing, isn't it?"

TheGoop Fri 15-Aug-14 14:06:15

Does he eat eggs?

larrygrylls Fri 15-Aug-14 14:09:08

There clearly is a trade off, here (or, to phrase it better, 99% of the human race believe that a nearly born baby is a person with rights). Some of the arguments used above fall at the first hurdle.

A foetus (up to a point) cannot exist independently. Nor can a born baby under about 30 weeks. That born baby requires extensive support to survive. Should a mother (or anyone else) be able to withhold this as the baby (really foetus outside the womb) is incapable of independent life?

CaptChaos Fri 15-Aug-14 14:12:19

Thanks for mansplaining that Larry.

PetulaGordino Fri 15-Aug-14 14:13:18

what are you talking about larry?

CoteDAzur Fri 15-Aug-14 14:22:10

"A foetus (up to a point) cannot exist independently. Nor can a born baby under about 30 weeks"

Independence is not a criterion in the definition of a "person". Individuality is.

A fetus inside a woman is not an individual. It is a seed of a person that, under favorable circumstances, is likely to develop into a person. Once it is born.

larrygrylls Fri 15-Aug-14 14:27:04

Pleasure captain.

I don't know what proportion of women would agree with injecting a toxin into a healthy 8 month foetus then dismembering it in utero. Not many, I suspect.

What does bodily autonomy mean, anyway? Is it the right for no one to interfere with your body or the right to ask others to interfere with your body. There is a well known legal case with masochistic men hammering things into one another. They were done for assault even though it was consensual. Seems the law thinks if bodily autonomy in the former rather than latter sense.

Booboostoo Fri 15-Aug-14 14:27:21

Let's assume the foetus has a right to life, there is still the question of what that right entails. For example, I standard cases the right to life is interpreted negatively as a right that should not be taken away rather than positively, I.e. Entitling one to assistance to remain alive. So, for example, I as an adult have a right to life but if I need a kidney donation to remain alive I cannot appeal to my right to life to expect you to give me one of your kidneys.

The foetus, for the majority of its gestational period, is in an almost unique position in that its continued existence is dependent on the mother's cooperation. So even if we accept that the foetus has a right to life we'd still need a further argument to show that this right places requirements on the mother. Such requirements may vary from the mother having to risk her own life to preserve the foetus's right, to having to agree to nine months of pregnancy to preserve the foetus's right.

Judith Jarvis Thompson's paper uses an analogy to make this point. Suppose you are visiting a friend in hospital and you press the wrong button in the lift (this analogous to contraceptive failure, a variant of the example suggest you being kidnapped which is analogous to rape), as you step out of the lift you are taken by the doctors anaesthetised and when you wake up you find yourself linked to a famous violinist. It turns out the violinist's life is under threat unless you agree to remain connected to him for nine months, no one else can take your place. Now the violinist has a right to life but this doesn't tell us anything about your obligations to him. You may chose to give up nine months of your life or you may not, nothing about his right to life tells us anything about your obligations to him.

Eggsaregoodforyou Fri 15-Aug-14 14:32:13

Oh I love all these wonderful euphemisms!! "Seeds" and the like. Currently grown adults who are fully capacitous cannot legally seek assistance to end their own lives but yet it's seen as morally and legally possible to end the life of a human being in utero right up to birth.

MaryWestmacott Fri 15-Aug-14 14:35:04

Larry - the point is, once you have been born, you stop being part of another human being. Until my children were born, they weren't separate entities, they were part of me. Attached to me. Using my blood, the air I breathed.

Once a child has been born, they can be independent of the person who gave birth to them. That doesn't mean they automatically can survive independently of any assistance, but it does mean they don't need me to provide that. Noone else can help them survive at the point they are part of me, that stops once they become a separate entity to me.

That's the point a child can have their own rights, the point when they aren't part of someone else.

MaryWestmacott Fri 15-Aug-14 14:37:06

And a foetus isn't a person, it's a potential person. When I had a MC, we didn't hold a funeral for the 11 week foetus, it wasn't a person yet, it potentially could be, but many, many foetuses that are aborted would never produce a living child anyway.

Booboostoo Fri 15-Aug-14 14:42:41

If I have not bored you too much read on.

A human being is a biological species definition like a feline or a reptile. A person is a philosophical term referring to a being of moral importance, a being who should be accorded moral status, who should be treated with respect, possibly one who has rights (one would still have to determine what rights but let's leave that to one side). The question is in virtue of what property or characteristic does an entity qualify as a person? Disputed entities may be foetuses, children, various kinds of animals, people in persistent vegetative states, psychopaths and aliens. Depending on your definition of personhood different disputed entities are or are not persons.

Possible answers to the criterion of personhood:
1. Being alive. The problem with this one is why does life matter as such (in a moral sense), what are the boundaries of life (are plants alive?), when does life begin and when does life end (end of cardiopulmonary function brain stem death, etc).

2. Sentience. Again there is a definitional issue, e.g, how do we figure out if an animal or an alien is sentient, and why does sentience as such confer moral status.

3. Rationality. A popular candidate especially when linked to a capacity for moral thought and therefore to an argument that says we have moral obligations towards those who understand the concept of morality. Deeply problematic in that severely mentally disabled people, children and psychopaths are then not persons, which is for many a repugnant conclusion.

4. Being capable of experiencing pleasures and pains. A very popular answer as it captures something about the importance of these experiences. If you ask why should I refrain from causingain to this creature that can feel pain what better answer than the understanding of the nature of pain itself. All you need is to have experienced pain yourself to understand the significance of avoiding pain. This criterion lets in most animals but excludes at least early foetuses before the creation of the nervous system.

cote individuality is generally rejected as a criterion as there are examples of identical individuals (e.g. Twins) where we would be reluctant to deny personhood and because it is not clear why being one of a kind anyway is morally relevant (a vase may be one of a kind but no one would want to claim it is a person).

CaptChaos Fri 15-Aug-14 14:44:19

Well, this one went in a particular direction fast.

You cannot place a not born person's rights above those of a born person. A post 24 week gestation foetus has no rights in law, however, the woman does have her rights to bodily autonomy curtailed from that arbitrary point in time. What this adds up to is that for 16 weeks out of an average 40 week pregnancy, the woman has no bodily autonomy at all. She is no longer a person with rights, she is merely a vessel for gestating another person. I believe this to be wrong.

Telling women that for 16 weeks she has no rights to bodily autonomy is inherently misogynistic. It erases women for those weeks.

PourquoiTuGachesTaVie Fri 15-Aug-14 14:49:38

It's my body and therefore I choose what to do with it and anything inside it.

Eggsaregoodforyou Fri 15-Aug-14 14:50:10

But with rights come responsibilities surely?

And where does human compassion fit in?

What does it say about our human beings, socially, culturally, existentially that they value the weakest, smallest and most vulnerable so poorly.

There will always be moral and ethical arguments that cast abortion in different lights hut ultimately it is the taking of a human life.

In some circumstances , yes it maybe necessary for that to happen but allowing women to abort almost on demand dehumanises us I think.

Eggsaregoodforyou Fri 15-Aug-14 14:51:58

But porqois that's not actually true.

You can't choose to sell an organ or even gestate another persons baby for financial reward. You can't indulge in masochistic practices with others ( if it constitutes assault under the law even if consensual).

You can't pay or ask another person to help you end your own life, even if this is your deepest wish.

CoteDAzur Fri 15-Aug-14 14:52:18

"cote individuality is generally rejected as a criterion"

You must know something that [[ Oxford Dictionaries] does not.

Person: A human being regarded as an individual.

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