Is arguing pro choice because "a woman has the right to control her body" (very obviously) invalid?

Says so here, that

the argument already assumes that the conclusion of the whole debate, namely that the fetus is just like any other body part of the woman, and so it should not be illegal for her to remove it.

For me, "the conclusion of the whole debate" is not that "the fetus is just like any other body part", but that "it should [or should not] be ok to remove it".

I think, that the argument is only "mind blowingly stupid" if the debate is

  • whether "the fetus is just like any other body part".

I don't even think that the argument about "control" relies on that claim to be valid! Things don't need to be in any other way alike in order for one to depend upon the other.

The only way I personally can make the argument "mind blowingly stupid" is if the the "right to control her body" is a moral absolute. As it leads to the absurd conclusion that she is morally permitted to "control" whether or not she keep a baby at whatever stage in her pregnancy.

Or perhaps if moral foundationalism is in some sense "mind blowingly stupid"?

Foundational beliefs or basic beliefs possess noninferential justification; derived beliefs do not. A foundational belief does not owe its justification to logical inference from other justified beliefs. A derived belief gets its justification through inference, either directly or indirectly, from foundational beliefs.

Really, I'm lost.

  • mind you, i agree that "guns don't kill people" is a bad argument. it seems to imply that only people can feature in rights and duties, because only they can do evil (here murder).
    – user25714
    May 22, 2017 at 22:26
  • I suppose the reason it seems absurd is that it's not obvious how strangling someone to death is not any less "control" over the body than an abortion. But I'd imagine that with the latter the "control" is exerted differently: strangling someone does not normally mean your body is freed of their influence.
    – user25714
    May 22, 2017 at 23:08
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    Let's say we have conjoined twins and one of them strangles the other under the theory that "she has the right to control her body". One could say that whether the other twin was part of her body is just semantics, but it becomes substantive if we assume that the affirmative answer justifies the strangling (as is the assumption in the case of abortion debates). With this ellipsis the "right to control her body" argument is either circular or misses the point, depending on semantic conventions.
    – Conifold
    May 22, 2017 at 23:38
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    In my experience, most of the arguments on both sides of the abortion topic are not chosen because they are the basis of a sound logical debate, but rather because they can be screamed at the top of one's lungs. They are designed to silence the other side's arguments as quickly as possible so that the argument may be deployed by many who lack sufficient debate experience to actually discuss the real issue at hand.
    – Cort Ammon
    May 22, 2017 at 23:48
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    This is a straw man. The argument is actually never that the fetus is part of her body. It is that her uterus and her blood are. If I take up residence in your eyeball, I still can't reasonably claim to be part of your body. But you can evict me.
    – user9166
    Jan 15, 2019 at 13:09

7 Answers 7


I don't think it's the best argument for someone on the pro choice side (apart from being useful at persuading others perhaps).

The reason I don't think it's a very strong argument (and I'm pro-choice) is that it doesn't actually engage with the reasons pro-life people have concerns about abortion. Pro-life people are concerned because they believe (or want to be cautious about) that the fetus should be viewed on the same terms as human beings who are born. Thus, saying something like "that argument doesn't hold because women have a right to bodily autonomy" is just sidestepping the main concern. Pro-life feel that all human beings have a right to life. A lot of them would probably agree that in general women should have a right to their body, although when two rights come in to conflict, they'd probably go with the former right, the right to life.

It's easy enough to see how the autonomy thing can lead to bizarre suggestions if it's an absolute right. Autonomy implies a woman should be able to disconnect herself from the fetus at 39 weeks, a couple of hours before birth. Most people consider that once a baby is born, it automatically has those rights to life. So it seems odd that a couple of hours difference could alter the morality of letting the fetus/baby die. Another place where most people abandon the bodily autonomy thing is just after the birth. If a mother left the newborn at home, never fed, and the baby died, most people would agree the mother was not acting morally. If she said "well I have a right to what I do with my body, you can't force me to use it to feed the baby" people would say they are misusing the idea of the right to bodily autonomy. One of the reasons people have that reaction is that they think that the baby's right to life trumps any apparent right not to have to do anything with your body to keep the born baby alive.

Coming back to abortion, can you see now how the bodily autonomy right argument is not going to convince pro-life people, because the bodily rights argument is, to a lot of people, trumped by the right of the fetus? The real issue is whether or not the fetus deserves the status pro-life people believe it does. People who use the bodily autonomy argument have mostly already decided the answer to that question. Pro-lifers, who are either unsure about the status of the fetus, or believe it has a sacrosanct right to life, will not be convinced by the bodily right argument because of the general hierarchy of rights.

As said above, I'm not against abortion being offered to women, although I do think the body argument is not very useful to bring in to the discussion as it bypasses the issue pro-life people have by presupposing the fact that fetuses do not have deserve the same rights newborns do. I think if pro-choice want to debate pro-life, they really need to see why pro-life people view it differently and try to address those issues. For example, come up with reasons that the 12 week old fetus isn't the same as a newborn - it doesn't have the capacity for suffering, it has no conscious interests, etc. I think that would go a lot more towards convincing others. Of course, there are many pro-life people who are pro-life based on religious reasons - "once the sperm has fused with the egg, it is a person". That is less amenable to debate

  • "it seems odd that a couple of hours difference could alter the morality of letting the fetus/baby die." -- No different than if you have sex with someone underage by two hours. If the prosecutor wanted to charge you, you wouldn't have a legal defense, although throwing yourself on the mercy of the jury might work. The law is the law and you have to draw a line somewhere.
    – user4894
    Jan 15, 2019 at 4:14
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    @user4894 Statutory law is not ethics. We do not make things right by legislating them, and legal defense is not moral defense.
    – user9166
    Jan 15, 2019 at 14:20
  • But that part of the argument is a straw man. In this case it is obviously not the time that makes the difference. Adoption exists, and so does foster care. The mother would have had the option to be released from her responsibilities, and chosen not to take it. That makes her liable. The pregancy gave her no such opportunity to reject those responsibilities, but letting it go on for several months is tacitly accepting them.
    – user9166
    Jan 15, 2019 at 14:27

The argument generally carries a time limit - a pregnant woman would not be allowed to abort a eight month foetus, for example; which shows that the argument is not universally valid; it's a point of compromise between two views, between the right of a woman to her own body, and that of the newly to be born.

The Aztecs were known to sacrifice their sons for the future prosperity of the nation - and because of this are seen as a rather brutal civilisation; perhaps if they could speak they might point out in their defence, that this right to abortion rather looks like a sacrifice of sons and daughters to be to the market gods, the real gods that many men and women worship, and then they might ask, who are they accusing of brutality? I'm just offering this perspective here as food for thought.

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    No. This right does not exist. We had the draft, we imprison and even execute people, we perform surgery on those who come in unconscious... What we do have is the right to freedom from unwarranted interference -- in the US, the 4th amendment. Then the question is not a compromise between rights, it is about the definition of 'warrant' in each situation. At what level of certainty of saving another's life can I use you temporarily as a slave? Obviously, I can arrest you and compel action within reason for a limited time if you are obviously dangerous. We can negotiate from there.
    – user9166
    Jan 15, 2019 at 13:06
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    @Cell I am saying that we do not have this right. We never have. And either everyone has bodily autonomy, or nobody does. Nobody does. It would be impossible. It would still outlaw jail and make emergency medicine impossible. There are four examples, strike two and there is still an argument. It is still impossible. We have instead the normal, limited right we have always had, and it is already adequate. Advancing any right meant to apply only to men or women is also not OK. Rights cover everyone, and we need to look at what historically it would mean for everyone to have that right.
    – user9166
    Jan 15, 2019 at 21:17
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    @jobermark I think you are taking bodily autonomy too literally. I have never heard of anyone defending bodily autonomy and also outlawing prison. There is a difference between say being arrested for public urination/defecation and being told you are not allowed to go to the bathroom. Or being arrested for stealing food vs being denied the ability to eat. Finally your examples are controversial; maybe conscription was wrong, maybe execution is wrong. Especially since laws involving them change.
    – Cell
    Jan 15, 2019 at 21:54
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    @Cell That is because a very limited set of people are pushing for this right, and they are not thinking about men. I am not changing the meaning, I am just applying it to all of reality, because that is what rights are -- general principles. What does bodily autonomy mean if I can lock you up and cavity search you? If I can determine your occupation for a range of years, set your wages by fiat, and do damaging things to you if you do not work? It means nothing. But that is prison. So bodily autonomy eliminates prison. It is not a trick. It is just not ignoring anyone.
    – user9166
    Jan 15, 2019 at 22:03
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    @Cell The intended example is controversial, but what I compare it to must not be? And some of them are not, emergency medicine is a good thing. And if I cannot open you up because I have to ask, that is over, too. So are required vaccinations, and a bunch of other stuff. It is the wrong focus, it is ad hoc, and it is impossible. I only stays seemingly relevant because our historical view of men is totally skewed.
    – user9166
    Jan 15, 2019 at 22:06

This is not, as the quote indicates, begging the question. There is no assumption, as that quote implies, that the fetus is part of the woman's body, only that her blood is. Asserting that you don't get to use my blood supply without asking me first is not claiming you are a body part of mine.

The famous argument by Judith Jarvis Thompson comes in here -- if someone randomly attached themselves to you as a Siamese Twin and made themselves dependent upon your blood supply, would you have the right to detach them? (Especially if you knew that the ultimate outcome of their remaining attached to you would be quite painful.) How much force would you be permitted to apply to get them detached? At what point would inaction on your part tacitly indicate consent for this to continue?

The argument is still invalid. There are not rights, in the ethical sense, that only some people have. And men demonstrably do not have a similar right to control their own bodies.

Most obviously, men can be forced to use their bodies as weapons against their will and at significant risk of death. The draft existed. It displaced men against their will, and co-opted all of their medical care, putting things into their bodies. It exposed them to dangerous chemicals and psychologically damaging environments and occasionally killed them. That would be not having control over their bodies. Freedom from this is clearly not a right -- we have maintained the mechanism of registration.

But in fact none of us have this right, which is clear for other reasons. If we all really have this right, we have to question the legitimacy of not just the draft, but all public health measures like mass vaccination, all incarceration, even all care given to someone who arrives at a medical facility unconscious. This is just not a right, unless we choose to reconsider all those things we would need to change in order to make it one.

There is a right that covers this -- freedom from unwarranted search and seizure. The main difference is that this right is subject to the consideration of the consequences to others. It is not nearly as absolute as this newly-created right to bodily integrity claims to be. Suspending it can be warranted.

You cannot intrude unreasonably into someone else's life unless you have a good reason -- like solving a crime or preventing an invasion. It is debatable whether that includes keeping a potential child alive, but the courts (in a kind of weasely compromise) have decided it does not, at least not until a given level of 'potential-ness' is passed.

Roe vs Wade ignores the fact that this is about the woman's body, since that is not a specific right, and frames it as being about controlling her actions -- forced service is a form of 'seizure'. They have decided that by American standards, it is unreasonable to find out something about someone and then to force them to handle the important related events in their lives in a given way, unless you can be quite certain you are saving a life.

It is not clear that a child is highly likely to actually result from a given pregnancy. This especially not clear during the first 12 weeks, when the decision forbids interference. It is pretty clear that no one can force you into their service to prevent a 70% chance that a life will be lost, and that is about the odds a pregnancy at that point will run to completion. Our liberty is more complete than that.

At much higher odds, intervening in someone else's life to protect a third party becomes a reasonable choice for the state, and abortion after the point you get to higher odds of completed pregnancy is left to local jurisdiction. After the odds have reached something like 1 in 200, a doctor needs a compelling reason to perform an abortion everywhere in the US.

We cannot make up new rights and decide they apply to only one sex.


The first issue that is often missed is that pro-choice people agree that abortions should be legal, not that they are necessarily moral. In that sense, it's like free speech. We don't say that a person is inconsistent for wanting all speech to be legal, but thinking Nazis should just shut up. It's reasonable to believe that abortions should be safe, legal, and rare. If we should have a law that forbids abortions, we need to have a good justification for it.

There are cases in which one person relies on some sort of donation from a specific person in order to live. For example, my brother might need a bone marrow transplant, and I may be the only person available with a sufficiently good match. No law is going to force me to donate. If I offer to donate, and the doctors kill my brother's marrow in preparation, I can still legally change my mind.

By this principle, a woman should not have to supply the vital needs of a fetus for nine months. She should have the fetus inside her only by her consent and that consent should be able to be withdrawn legally at any time. If we legally ban abortion, we state that someone can be forced to host a potentially dangerous intruder in a long and (near the end) arduous process that can change their body permanently, and which has medical risks. It is inconsistent to legally require a woman to do that and not legally require me to donate marrow in the situation I mentioned.

That is how that argument works. It doesn't depend on the fetus being part of the woman's body, but the reverse. (If the fetus were part of the woman's body, it would be silly to have a law forbidding removal of a particular body part.)

  • How can abortions be safe? Jan 17, 2019 at 23:30
  • @elliotsvensson An abortion is safe if the pregnant woman isn't going to be harmed. It's obviously not safe for the fetus, but that's not what we're talking about. You may believe that a fetus has rights that need to be considered, but not everyone does, and people who think they have human rights tend to wind up being inconsistent. Jan 18, 2019 at 21:23
  • Would you say that people who don't believe that are more consistent? Jan 18, 2019 at 23:02

It is odd to specify "Pro-life people say that all human beings have a right to life." Yet, I must agree that some Pro-choice people apparently do not hold that view. According to the Declaration of Independence and established U.S. Law, all human beings do indeed have a right to life (ignoring capital punishment for now). The debate ought to determine one simple principle--since science avoids the issue--i.e. When does a fetus become a human being? It could be one minute after birth, one minute before, or, one day before, one week before, one month, before birth. But it apparently does happen. Any and all participants in the debate--and "science"--ought to admit that an abortion either terminates a human life or it doesn't. Talking circles around that answer doesn't help the debate.

  • First, we are looking for questions and especially answers based on philosophical writings, not discussions of philosophical subject matter. Second, the main question is about whether abortion should be allowed - and if so up to which point and under which circumstances. This is a normative question science cannot answer, because it is, methodologically, not able to. All other things are but arguments brought forward for either side. That's why I also think that "when is it human" is not a scientific question as stated.
    – Philip Klöcking
    May 24, 2017 at 15:17
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    Biological Science can, does, and should seek summary explanations for any and all aspects of living organisms, especially the definition and beginning of life. To avoid such aspects because of politics and public controversy is like The Church telling Newton, Copernicus, and Galileo to shut up. A normative (non-scientific) question can become positive, with a willingness to discover the answer. Regardless, Philosophy ought not to fear or avoid the question of when life begins. Civil and Criminal Law must answer. So should Science.
    – G-write
    May 25, 2017 at 18:55
  • Science does not "avoid the issue". Science can give specific answers to well-defined questions. "Becoming a human being" is, alas, poorly defined. Pro-choice people generally assume that while a fetus has no chance to be conscious, it can't yet be said to become a human being. Science can confirm that while the fetus doesn't have enough brain cells, it's no more conscious than a mouse. However, this won't convince pro-life people who just choose some other criteria, like heartbeat or the potential to become human if everything goes right.
    – IMil
    Jan 15, 2019 at 0:46
  • But the rights to life and liberty conflict. Are you obligated to feed a homeless man who takes up residence in your attic without your permission? OK, so say he is too ill to go elsewhere and he would clearly starve to death otherwise. Does the fact he is in your home, and you are the only person who could intervene and save him obligate you to take care of him for 9 months, until he is better? You can assume the fetus is a human being, and still find the mother has a choice as to whether to take care of it. The question is where life and liberty balance out.
    – user9166
    Jan 15, 2019 at 14:15

Liberalism (and much later human rights) is indeed foundational for many western democracies (american & french constitutions, bill of rights). And liberalism stipulates the person is the owner of his body. So as long as the foetus is considered as simply part of the body it belongs to the woman.

However, liberalism has its weird limits, for exemple, children, although not technically part of the parents body, do not enjoy full ownership of their body either. And foetuses (foetii?) usually acquire the right to survive after 4 months or so.

There is a gradual transfer of ownership from the parents to the individual over time. And in some countries the ownership is never total (euthanasia may be forbidden). The last exception is likely due to christian inheritance rather than liberalism

  • How is the right of a foetus to survive protected in places where abortion is legal? Jan 21, 2019 at 16:31
  • @elliotsvensson in some(many?) places abortion is only legal before the 3 or 4th month of pregnancy. And that can be checked with ultrasounds Jan 21, 2019 at 16:33
  • Why, unlike all other humans, is the right of the young unborn to survive proscribed? Jan 21, 2019 at 16:43
  • because it's not considered as a fully fledged human and more as a body part, see above. Liberalism requires maturity and sanity from its citizens Jan 22, 2019 at 0:35
  • Well, people don't even have an ability to use much stuff that will affect at most only their bodies. And that's called liberalism.
    – rus9384
    Jan 29, 2019 at 11:44

Yes, the argument that "a woman has the right to control her body" (and thus should be allowed to decide to or not abort), is invalid. It is invalid because a fetus is not part of her body (even though it is being nurtured by her body), and thus, can not be under her control.

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    The final statement doesn't follow; at least without additional premises. Person is shot, bullet lodges in their body, in most ethical theories, they have the right to prevent doctors from extracting that bullet (assume it would be potentially life threatening to do so) even if it is important evidence in solving the crime. Thus it is not universally the case that everything that is not part of a person's body can not be under that person's control.
    – Dave
    May 30, 2017 at 2:39
  • the argument that the foetus is part of the body is perfectly valid and makes sense. Would you say that sperm and eggs dont make part of the body ? If you have a proper definition of what doesnt make part of the body, you must state it to advance the debate. Jan 22, 2019 at 1:00
  • @Dave I have stated in my answer why it makes part of the body Jan 22, 2019 at 1:01
  • At first, the argument is valid: 1. The fetus is the part of the woman's body. 2. A woman has full ability to decide what to do with her body parts. 3. Therefore, abortion is legal. What you might argue for is that this argument is unsound, because you do not accept the first premise. And yet, even then you would need to expand: what are the criteria do decide if something is a body part of someone?
    – rus9384
    Jan 29, 2019 at 11:41

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