Much is in the news about recent laws in Alabama, Georgia and Ohio that greatly restrict a woman’s right to choose whether or not they can have an abortion. It is not difficult to see how these draconian laws are being compared to the images evoked in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale in which a quasi-religious, totalitarian government reduces women to a mere means to an end, rather than a person with feelings, opinions and agency. Social media has erupted, rightfully so, with disdain for the establishment patriarchy, the rights of women to reproductive freedom as well as the right to be free from religious doctrine disguised as government legislation. These are all important and completely valid concerns and arguments, but what may be getting lost in all those pleas is that this is also a very personal attack on freedom itself.
In 1971, moral philosopher, Judith Jarvis Thomson, wrote a compelling essay called “A Defense of Abortion” which outlines the argument for on-demand abortion. I highly suggest you read it yourself since I will not be able to summarize her masterful arguments and do them justice. In that essay, she grants that a “fetus is a person from the moment of conception” in order to redirect the argument to where it should actually be – body autonomy. Using the metaphor of an “unconscious violist” in need of a life-saving blood transfusion, she proposes the thought experiment that you are taken against your will and hooked up to the violinist for nine long months in order to save his life, regardless of the risk to your own. Ultimately, the moral questions Thomson raises in this essay are answered simply by writing “I have argued that you are not morally required to spend nine months in bed, sustaining the life of the violinist…”, but the lesson we should glean is that she is also stating that we should have complete autonomy over our own bodies. She states that a woman is granting the fetus permission to use her body and the woman should ultimately be the one to exercise her agency – her ability to make free choice.
This concept is not new in American history. Thomas Jefferson, when drafting the Declaration of Independence, added the words:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
He and the American Revolutionaries understood that the people of the Americas needed to be free from government involvement in their personal lives, to have agency. In the First Amendment, it clearly states in regard to religious freedom, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”. In the Fourth Amendment, they declared the right of all “persons, houses, papers and affects” against unreasonable search and seizure. Jefferson himself said in the case of Howell vs. Netherland (1770):
Under the law of nature, all men are born free, every one comes into the world with a right to his own person, which includes the liberty of moving and using it at his own will. This is what is called personal liberty, and is given him by the author of nature, because necessary for his own sustenance.
But, let’s forget for a moment what other people have said and really think about what we are condoning when we say that it is alright for one person to claim agency over another because that is what these laws are doing. They are saying to women, to all of us, that the government knows what to do with your body better than you do and they have the right to enforce their will upon you.
They are nullifying your agency. They are declaring control over your body and taking away your choices. They are closing doors of opportunity and putting you on a path that is not your choosing.
Is it unfair to make the slippery slope argument? How can you argue that it isn’t except to say to yourself “they would never do that” – whatever that is. If the government is dictating to a woman that they must give up nine months of their lives to be hooked up to the “unconscious violist” inside of them, then think of all the things they can now empower themselves to do to anyone at any time for any reason. As an example, here are some of the 613 commandments from the Old Testament.
- Men must not shave the hair off the sides of their head — Lev. 19:27
- Men must not shave their beards with a razor — Lev. 19:27
- Men must not wear women’s clothing — Deut. 22:5
- Women must not wear men’s clothing — Deut. 22:5
- Not to tattoo the skin — Lev. 19:28
- Not to tear the skin in mourning — Deut. 14:1
- Not to make a bald spot in mourning — Deut. 14:1
- To circumcise all males on the eighth day after their birth — Gen. 17:10
- To have children with one’s wife — Gen. 1:28
- The rapist must marry his victim if she is unwed — Deut. 22:29
With the exception of #9 and #10, how many of these are worse than forcing a woman to have an unwanted pregnancy? None. So what could stop the government from forcing circumcision? Outlaw tattoos? Dictate the clothes you wear (like Atwood’s Handmaids)?
These anti-abortion laws are actually a worst case scenario when you compare them to the first eight items listed. In fact, how much worse can it be after we have told women that they can no longer decide how their bodies are to be used? If not for the institutional patriarchy, what could possibly stop women in power from ordering the sterilization of men due to grievances such as unpaid alimony and child care payments?
What could prevent another group of any philosophical leaning to impose their will upon your person? What if the followers of someone like philosopher John Harris, the author of “The Survival Lottery”, had complete power and decided that you are now eligible to be forced to give up your life if it could save others? That’s right. You don’t have a choice. Your name is put into a computer and if the algorithm says you are the perfect match to save someone else’s life, then you are plucked off the street and put on the operating table to give up a few organs for a complete stranger even if it kills you.
The body you have is uniquely yours. No one can know how you feel because they do not have your sensations. They cannot know how you think because they do not have your brain. Yet, other people are making a decision for you without any regard for your feelings or thoughts and they are doing so without any culpability of their own. You will be the only one that suffers the consequences of a decision that was made for you. This is about more than reproductive freedom. This is about all freedom. Join the revolution.