Answering The Bodily Autonomy Argument for Abortion
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Answering The Bodily Autonomy Argument for Abortion

The case for abortion can be handled rather simply from a scientific perspective. Even arguments against the unborn’s personhood shouldn’t intimidate Christians. However, there is a third kind of argument in favor of the pro-choice position, and that is the argument from a woman’s right to bodily autonomy. Basically, this line of argument grants the possibility that the unborn are human persons yet justifies killing them by affirming a woman’s absolute right to do whatever she wants with her own body.

This kind of argument was popularized by Judith Jarvis Thomson when she proposed a thought experiment which is abbreviated as follows:

You wake up one morning in a hospital bed to discover yourself attached by wires and tubes to a stranger lying unconscious next to you. The other occupants in the room quickly offer an apology and explain: “We are terribly sorry, but this man is a great violinist and he suddenly fell ill with a fatal kidney disease and is only compatible with your blood type. We did not realize that his more zealous fans would kidnap you like this, else we would have prevented them. Nevertheless, you are already hooked up and the toxins in his blood are now being filtered by your kidneys. To disconnect you now would kill the violinist. No matter, he is expected to recover in nine months, after which you will be free to go.[1]

Obviously, the violinist has a right to life. But are you obligated to yield your right of bodily autonomy in virtue of his right to life? While it would be awfully nice if you did, it does not seem that you would be morally obligated to use your body to sustain his life in that situation. In the same way, proponents of a woman’s absolute right to bodily autonomy argue that a woman is not obligated to use her body to sustain the life of the unborn.

Scott Klusendorf offers two basic responses to this argument:

Analyze the Parallels.

  1. Abortion is not merely withholding life-support. Rather, it is the active killing of an unborn human by either pulling off limbs, crushing the body or poisoning.
  2. A mother’s child is no stranger. One may not be obligated to sustain the life of a stranger, but one is certainly obligated to sustain the life of their children. This is especially true when the child is weak and vulnerable.
  3. A mother’s child is no intruder. The violinist was where he did not belong – it was unnatural. But where else could the unborn belong if not in the mother’s womb?
  4. Excluding rape, a woman cannot absolve herself of responsibility. The only natural way to produce a child is through sexual intercourse. Hence, it is natural, if not expected for pregnancy to result from that behavior.
  5. A mother is not imprisoned. For many, if not most, it is a positive experience.

Present Counter Examples.

  1. Klusendrof offers Dr. Rich Paupard’s thalidomide example. Thalidomide is a drug which effectively treats nausea and vomiting yet is known to cause horrific birth defects. Are we justified in refusing to write a prescription of this drug to a pregnant woman? What if the mother insists on taking the drug, knowing that her child will likely be born horribly deformed? Would that be immoral? If a woman has an absolute right to her body, such that she can kill the unborn, why should she be prevented from merely harming the unborn?
  2. Klusendorf also tells the real-life story of Melissa Ann Rowland in Salt Lake City. Rowland required an emergency caesarian section to save the lives of her unborn twins. However, she initially refused the surgery, claiming she would rather lose a child than have a scar on her body, preferring to go outside and smoke instead. Medical staff were finally able to convince her to accept the procedure, but by then one child had died and the other, like Rowland, tested positive for cocaine. Did she do anything immoral? If yes, then women do not have an absolute right to bodily autonomy such that abortion is morally permissible.[2]

Based on these two responses of parallels and counterexamples, arguments in favor of an absolute right to bodily autonomy become much less attractive.

One final word on strategy: whenever possible, one should approach sensitive issues such as abortion in a conversational, non-confrontational way. Remember, the goal of apologetics is not to win arguments, but to win people. With that in mind, if you encounter a proponent of the bodily autonomy position, don’t immediately launch into these objections. Always seek to understand the other person’s view accurately before offering a critique. You can’t read their mind, so don’t presume to know what they are thinking. Then, once you understand the other person, present your objections as strongly and as humbly as possible.

[1] “Judith Jarvis Thomson: A Defense of Abortion,” accessed June 20, 2019,,Fall02/thomson.htm.

[2] Klusendorf, Scott. “Advanced Pro-Life Apologetics,” internet download, accessed April 5th, 2017, (download no longer available), pp. 38-41.

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