Some people claim that abortion can be justified even if an unborn child is a human being with the same right to life that you and I have. They argue that this right does not include the “right to life support”—in this case, the right to be kept alive through another person’s body. Sometimes the following comparison is made: “If I can’t be forced to donate an organ in order to keep someone else alive, then a pregnant woman can’t be forced to donate her body to keep a fetus alive.”
But this argument for abortion doesn’t succeed, because in some cases the right to life does include the right to be “kept alive.” More importantly, there are morally relevant differences between refusing to donate an organ and actively aborting a human embryo or fetus.
But before we examine this argument, we need to answer the following question: What does it mean for someone to have a “right to life”?
For most people, the right to life means the right to not be killed unjustly; for example, being shot, stabbed, or attacked in a way that causes death and lacks proper justification (such as killing done in self-defense). In this context, the right to life is viewed as a negative right that forbids others to hurt us instead of as a positive right that requires others to help us. As long as people leave me alone and don’t attack me, then they will have respected my right to live.
In some cases, however, leaving a person alone can violate his right to life.
If I am hired to take people into the open ocean to scuba dive, I couldn’t sail away and leave them to drift in open water. If I did and they died, I would have violated their right to life, because I had a duty to provide them safe passage back to shore. Or, to provide a more readily apparent example: if parents left their infant at home alone for a week and the infant died, they would be guilty of homicide. That’s because the child’s right to life included a right to be “kept alive” by being fed.
Since human embryos and human fetuses are also small children, it would make sense that their right to life also includes a right to be kept alive by their parents. Just as an infant has the right to food and shelter in his parent’s home, a fetus has the right to the food and shelter his mother’s body provides in the womb. This would mean that the child’s mother has a duty to remain pregnant, just as parents of born children have duties to care for those children.
But even if unborn children have a right to be kept alive like a newborn, some argue, does that mean the unborn have a right to use their mother’s bodily organs? After all, most people would agree that although it would be heroic to donate a kidney or bone marrow in order to keep your own child alive, such an action is not obligatory. A parent would not be guilty of murder if he chose to not donate an organ to his own child.
But abortion is not morally equivalent to refusing to donate an organ to a child. The refusal to donate an organ to a sick person merely fails to save that person from death; it does not cause that person’s death. Abortion, on the other hand, actively intervenes in a pregnancy and causes the child’s death via dismemberment or some other method of active killing.
Furthermore, I am not responsible for causing a person to be in need of my kidney in the same way a pregnant woman is (in almost all cases) responsible for causing a child to be dependent on her body. This means that, although I have no strict duty to the person dying of a kidney ailment, a pregnant woman does have a duty: to care for the child whom she has caused to come into being and thus to be dependent upon her body. Even some philosophers who defend legal abortion, such as Michael Tooley, see how this objection completely undercuts the “bodily rights” defense of abortion:
The anti-abortionist can argue that although people in general may be under no moral obligation to allow the fetus the use of their bodies, even when it is necessary if the other individual is to survive, a pregnant woman is, in general, under a moral obligation to allow the fetus the use of her body, since she is morally responsible for there being a fetus that stands in need of a life support system.
Finally, my kidneys and other bodily organs do not have a natural purpose of keeping someone else alive, so I have no natural duty to use them for that purpose. But the uterus’s sole purpose is to sustain the life of an unborn child. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that an unborn child’s right to life includes a right to the use of this organ, just as a newborn’s right to life entails the right to his mother’s breast milk if that is the only way to feed him. Both are ordinary, proportionate means for providing sustenance to human beings.
A pro-choice advocate may object that pregnancy is not “ordinary care” because it causes the woman’s body to undergo an extraordinary, uncomfortable transformation. But this is a transformation toward which women’s bodies are naturally ordered. We may say that puberty also involves large-scale and uncomfortable changes to the body, but no one says puberty is an “extraordinary” event on par with organ donation.
Likewise, throughout all of human history, fertility and pregnancy were considered ordinary events, and anyone reading this page was involved in such an event. Providing shelter and nutrition in the womb is simply an ordinary amount of care (even if at times it can be painful or uncomfortable) that we expect parents to provide to their unborn children.
For more on responding to this kind of pro-choice argument, listen to my 2017 debate with David Boonin at Stanford University.