In debates surrounding abortion ethics, questions about the personhood of the fetus steal most of the attention. This is somewhat understandable, as the personhood of the fetus is what determines whether abortion is prima facie wrong. However, it is vitally important to make sure that the personhood of the pregnant woman is not lost in translation.
Unlike fetuses, women have thoughts, feelings, awareness, knowledge, happiness, sadness, goals, hopes, and dreams. Women are complex human beings who, by virtue of the capacity to experience both great suffering and great joy, are personally invested in the things that happen to them. A lack of abortion access has real impacts on the lives of women. Therefore, if there is major conflict between the interests of women and the enforcement of abortion restrictions, then that fact counts strongly in favor of abortion rights.
I hasten to add that it would not count decisively in favor of abortion rights. In order to provide a decisive argument in favor of abortion rights, all relevant considerations must be taken into account. The personhood of the fetus is one such consideration. Even if abortion restrictions violate the compelling interests of women(more on this soon), that might not justify the killing of an innocent person, and if the fetus is a person, then abortion would be the killing of an innocent person. Hence, this post defends a more modest proposal: Unless the fetus is a person, women should have the right to abortion
Women Have a Strong Interest in Reproductive Control
In the book Abortion Rights: For and Against by Christopher Kaczor(pro-life) and Kate Greasley(pro-choice), Greasley, a lecturer in Law at University College London, gives three strong interests that women have in obtaining abortion. First, women have a strong interest in in reproductive control. Second, women have a strong interest in avoiding the bodily burdens of pregnancy. Finally, women have a strong interest in sex equality in regards to social relationships. Let’s start with the interest in reproductive control.
Procreation is one of the most intimate and personal aspects of human life. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a more vulnerable activity on a physical, emotional, and social level. As Greasley puts it, “Becoming a parent, with everything that entails, goes to the heart of one’s personal identity and life story—it changes who one is in potentially transformative ways”(11).
Given the above, if abortion does not entail the killing of an innocent person with significant moral status, we should allow people to exhibit sovereignty over this deeply meaningful dimension of their lives. That means allowing women to decide against parenthood by getting an abortion. Only the most powerful counter-considerations can justify the nullification of reproductive control.
Crucially, the possibility of adoption is not enough to satisfy the interest of reproductive control. The interest in reproductive control applies to both social parenthood and biological parenthood. As Greasley herself notes, “Becoming a biological parent to a child from whom one is then separated, even through choice, is not without its emotional costs and its ramifications for one’s personal identity and self conception”(12). Empirical research verifies Greasley’s point. Women who must carry an unwanted pregnancy to term and who then give up the child for adoption often experience regret and poor mental health years after the adoption. Abortion provides a way for women to avoid two undesirable outcomes: being forced into social parenthood and being estranged from a biological child that is known to exist. Reproductive control requires abortion rights.
Women Have a Strong Interest in Avoiding the Bodily Burdens of Pregnancy
This bring us to the second compelling interest: the interest in avoiding the physiological burdens of pregnancy. Pregnancy and childbirth are physically demanding processes and this fact cannot be overstated. It is much too common for the pain of pregnant women to be glossed over in favor of a romanticized myth
Women often experience bodily suffering as a result of pregnancy. Even if the pregnancy is perfectly healthy, women can experience nausea, vomiting, fatigue, back pain, labored breathing, and water retention. Of every ten women who experience pregnancy and childbirth, 6 need treatment for some medical complication, and 3 need treatment for major complications(Estrich and Sullivan 1989, 126) Furthermore, labour and delivery impose extraordinary physical demands, whether over the 6-12 hours or longer course of vaginal delivery, or during the highly invasive surgery involved in a Caesarean section(ibid)
By banning or restricting abortion, governments impose these serious physical burdens on women, albeit indirectly. At least prima facie, this is grotesquely immoral by virtue of the flagrant disregard for the bodily integrity and health of women. A very powerful reason is needed to justify forcing such bodily burdens on unwilling participants.
In light of this, if the fetus lacks significant moral status, abortion restrictions cannot be defended except insofar as they are themselves necessary to protect the wellbeing of pregnant women.
Women Have a Strong Interest in Sex Equality With Respect to Social Relationships
The last compelling interest relates to sex equality. Specifically, the fact that abortion restrictions harm women as a class. The female-exclusive nature of pregnancy and childbirth has profound implications for the social standing of women and their equality with men.
Women without abortion access can find themselves unable to work or to progress in their career, precluded from getting an education, kept financially dependent on men, and stuck in a situation of domestic violence. Things are especially bad in developing countries where women have less legal rights and protections. These life-altering consequences of unwanted pregnancy are not equally experienced by men who procreate.
This obvious sex inequality greatly affects the social dynamics between men and women surrounding reproduction. As feminist scholar Catherine McKinnon states, “Although reproduction has a major impact on both sexes, men are not generally fired from their jobs, excluded from public life, beaten, patronized, confined, or made into pornography for making babies…women, because of their sex, are subjected to social inequality at each step in the process of procreation”(Mackinnon 1991, 1311-1312)
Abortion access allows women to have sexual relationships on the same terms as men. That is, abortion access allows women to form social relationships with men without fear of unwanted pregnancy and all the suffering that entails.
To conclude, it is worth reiterating what I brought attention to at the outset: women have thoughts, feelings, awareness, knowledge, happiness, sadness, goals, hopes, and dreams. It is in virtue of these capacities that women have a personal stake in what happens to them. So, any analysis of abortion ethics must take into account how abortion restrictions(and lack of abortion access more broadly) affect the lives of women.
As we have seen, a lack of abortion access thwarts many strong interests that women have. Restricted abortion access curtails reproductive control, bodily integrity, and sex equality. Only counter-reasons of incredible proportions could warrant obliterating these fundamental interests. Consequently, our thesis has been established: Unless the fetus is a person, women should have the right to abortion.