Rethinking Abortion Advocacy
written by Coleman Hugh
Last Tuesday, the Governor of Alabama signed the most restrictive anti-abortion bill in America
into law. The new law bans abortions even in the case of rape and makes performing an abortion
a Class A felony, punishable by up to 99 years in prison. Despite the low probability of this law
going into effect, it has provoked a slew of commentary from both sides of the aisle. To call it
“commentary,” however, suggests that people are engaging in thoughtful attempts to persuade
one another. In reality, the abortion debate has had all the intellectual rigor and emotional
maturity of a pissing contest.
In an effort to be part of the solution, I’d like to explain why I’m pro-choice. Without doubt, my
position will put me at odds with pro-lifers. But it will also put me at odds with many
pro-choicers. Indeed, part of the reason I feel motivated to defend my position is because of how unpersuasive I find the central argument of the pro-choice movement. It’s painful to watch a
movement use bad reasons to defend a position when good ones are available.
The bad argument I’m referring to—often sloganized as “my body, my choice,” or its corollary,
“they want to control women’s bodies”—can be summarized as follows:
1. It’s a woman’s right to choose what to do with her body.
2. A fetus is part of a woman’s body.
3. Therefore, it’s a woman’s right to choose what to do with her fetus.
The first premise makes sense. A person should be free to do as they wish with their own body. If
someone wants to pierce their ears or donate a kidney, it’s their right to do so, because those are
their body parts. No one else’s moral concerns need to be traded off against theirs. The second
premise, however, is false because a fetus is not merely a body part. Given enough time, a fetus
will become something with distinct moral worth: a baby. The same cannot be said about a
When someone gets an ear pierced, they don’t stop to consider the event from their ear’s
perspective. After all, their ear is a part of them —which is to say its ethical concerns align with
its owner’s by definition. If a fetus were really akin to a body part, there would be no reason not
to abort it the moment before delivery, on a whim—like an impulsive ear piercing. Given the
widespread repugnance of that conclusion, and given that there are far better pro-choice
arguments available, the “my body, my choice” argument should be retired permanently.
On the other side of the debate lies an equally bad argument, namely that life or personhood
begins at conception because science says so. To the contrary, there exists no consensus among
biologists about what, specifically, divides life from non-life. Moreover, science doesn’t even try
to tell us when personhood begins because none of the ethically important dimensions of being a
person—for example, conscious experience, the ability to feel pain, the capacity for
self-sustaining growth, and so on—flips...