Abortion rights and bodily autonomy: The one argument advocates should keep making

Last month, in Atlanta, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams told the audience attending her panel discussion that “there is no such thing as a heartbeat at six weeks. It is a manufactured sound designed to convince people that men have the right to take control of a woman’s body.”

Her remark became a thing, and it’s not hard to see why. Abortion arguments often coalesce around the question of heartbeats. If you’re antiabortion, then you might be deeply invested in the idea that embryos have signs of life at a few weeks’ development. Conversely, if you support abortion rights, then you’ll want to make Abrams’s argument: Embryos at this stage might show “cardiac activity,” but not a heartbeat. What a patient hears at the doctor’s office is actually the electrical impulses of pre-heart infrastructure, translated into sound by a sonography machine. A genuine heartbeat doesn’t appear until around week 10.

And this is where the abortion debates have landed, three months after the fall of Roe v. Wade. Quibbling over terminology, hairsplitting the medicine, trying to litigate when life begins — a question that science and spirituality haven’t even begun to sort out. We’re in the weeds.

We need to get out of the weeds.

I will happily accept any sound science that keeps abortion legal, but Embryos don’t technically have heartbeats is not the most compelling point to make in discussions about abortion rights. (When I had my emotional seven-week sonogram for my now-daughter, after multiple early miscarriages, I did not tearfully exclaim, “listen to that pre-heart infrastructure!”) Nor is Can we at least agree on rape and incest exceptions? Nor the arguments about whether abortion patients regret ending their pregnancies (even though, overwhelmingly, they don’t), or about whether abortion is dangerous (even though, overwhelmingly, it isn’t).

The point to begin with is this: Regardless of when life begins, in the United States, nobody can force you to donate your own body to save another person. Even if you are physically capable of doing so. Even if that person will die.

The United States does not require you to donate your kidney or liver to a person in need of a transplant, even if you are a perfect match. If the president himself was going to perish unless he was surgically attached to a citizen’s abdomen for nine months, nobody could force that citizen to agree to this assignment. You might argue that agreeing would be the noble thing or the moral thing or the humane thing, but it would not be a compulsory thing.

It wouldn’t be compulsory even if we were talking not about a president but about a child.

The philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson, in 1971, put forth the most famous version of this argument as it related to abortion: Imagine that a woman woke in bed intravenously hooked up to a famous violinist, Thomson wrote in her seminal and controversial essay, “A Defense of Abortion.” The musician in this scenario suffered from a rare medical ailment, and only this woman’s circulatory system could keep him alive. His survival requires her to sacrifice her own bodily autonomy. Must she? Is she a murderer if she does not?

Detractors of Thomson’s argument pointed out the obvious differences between a famous violinist and an unborn fetus: The woman did not choose to be hooked up to the violinist, whereas she did choose to have sex, and pregnancy is a possible outcome of sex. Thus, she must now see the pregnancy through. She asked for it.

Over the years, philosophers have found more nuanced ways to express their disagreement. In the New York Times, Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren recently wrote, eloquently and poetically, that “no human has complete bodily autonomy from birth to death. The natural state of human beings is to be deeply and irrevocably interdependent on one another.” (Of course the burden of “interdependence” placed on a pregnant person is, as Warren does acknowledge, vastly greater than pretty much any other example we might find in the real world. There is a difference between an elderly person needing help getting into the bathtub and a woman being required to donate her body, 24/7, to a pregnancy.)

Warren aside, even the most poetic phrasings often end up concealing an unpoetic argument: that a woman should be forced to birth a child because she asked for it. She asked for it by slipping up on birth control, or she asked for it by not immediately knowing to get the morning-after pill, or she asked for it simply by daring to be a sexual being. And “she asked for it” is the unofficial slogan of misogyny.

It’s worthwhile to note that even the folks arguing that heartbeats do exist at six weeks often support rape and incest exceptions. Meaning, they’re making one of two incoherent arguments: 1) Life begins when there’s a heartbeat except in cases of rape, or 2) Life does begin when there’s a heartbeat but if a woman was raped then murdering the fetus is fine.

Does personhood begin with a heartbeat? If your answer is yes, as many antiabortion activists say it does, then Thomson’s argument follows that the six-week-old “person” inside a woman’s uterus should have the same claim to that woman’s body as does any other person, which is to say, limited claim — even if, in your opinion, she asked for it. In Thomson’s view, a pregnant individual’s right to bodily autonomy permits them to unhook from the violinist, so to speak, no matter anyone else’s view of what is noble or moral or humane; therefore they should be allowed to terminate the pregnancy if they wish.

If your answer is no, personhood does not begin with a heartbeat, then an embryo at six weeks of pregnancy is not a person yet; therefore the pregnant person should be allowed to terminate the pregnancy if they wish.

Of course, it’s more complicated than that. Pregnancy is the most liminal of states, a nine-month-long transition into existence. A growing of bones, of fingernails, of the lungs whose first cry of life comes during a mother’s last cry of labor — the moment at which the two beings are, at last, fully two beings. For centuries, before we knew of Dopplers and ultrasounds, a pregnancy became real only at the point of “quickening,” the moment when an expectant mother first felt her baby move, somewhere in the second trimester. “Quick,” in old English, used to mean “alive.” I am not exaggerating when I tell you that experiencing that first movement is, for a person who wants a baby, a lightning bolt to the soul.

But the starting places for discussions about abortion should not be the weeds. The starting place should be above the weeds, at eye level with the person who owns the body where these mysteries are meant to unfold. The debate about the legality of abortion should begin with that person’s right to bodily autonomy even in the face of decisions that others might personally disagree with, or believe they would make differently.

As I started writing this column, I thought I should try to interview Judith Jarvis Thomson — to see how she felt her argument had aged, to see what she would make of this current era in which the potential lives of fetuses are increasingly (if certain lawmakers and legislative bodies have their way) viewed as more important than the actual lives of women. It turns out she died in 2020, at the age of 91, leaving behind a staggeringly important body of work related to what it means to make moral decisions.

I would have loved her guidance on how to think through this moment: when heartbeats become heartbeats, or when a heartbeat constitutes life, or when embryos might become people with rights. I would have loved her guidance on what you do when so many politicians are so good at making the argument that six-week pregnancies are people, but so bad at making the argument that women are people, too.

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