A lot of people think discussions about abortion and reproductive rights hinge on whether or not the coupling of a sperm and an egg constitutes personhood. If it does, then (as one side of the argument asserts) that “person” should receive the same rights granted to all people under the protection of the law. If it does not, then there would be no reason to grant personal rights and liberties to something that is not a person. This discussion can be modified to reflect different stages of fetal development, with the underlying notion that there exists some point at which a fetus is a person and so should be granted personal rights under the law.
Of course, the discussion of personhood and life are only part of this complex and intricate discussion. Another part concerns the rights of pregnant women. And so, even if we establish that there is a point during pregnancy in which a fetus attains personhood, does it follow that the rights of a fetus outweigh the rights of a woman to decide what she wants to do with her body?
Several arguments hold that one’s right to life does not and should not outweigh another’s right for personal autonomy. This argument is most famously defended in philosopher Judith Jarvis Thompson’s 1971 paper A Defense of Abortion1. In this publication Thompson offers the analogy of a violinist who has a rare kidney ailment and needs to link up to someone with a matching kidney in order to survive. You (a perfect match) are kidnapped and forced to stay attached to the violinist until the ailment is cured through the use of your healthy matching kidneys. The question then posed is whether you have the right to choose who or what can use your body for their survival. I think a similar analogy can be raised within the climbing world.
The Renegade Climber2
Suppose you are standing fully geared up near a wall when someone comes up to you and attaches a belay device and rope to your harness. From there, this renegade climber assumes you’ll belay them, and they begin to climb. Their life is now in your hands, but should you be obligated to belay them? What if they decide to hangdog for hours, limiting your ability to do other things that you would otherwise have the freedom to do. What if they decided to just hang there for the entire night, essentially holding you hostage? What if this lasted for 9 days? 9 weeks, 9 months, or even 9 years?
Is there any point in which it would be acceptable for the belayer to consider the following: “I didn’t sign up for this, I didn’t want this, and I never granted permission for this to happen”? From that consideration it would seem like the belayer has the right to walk away, even if it would cause harm to the renegade climber. One has no objective moral duty to protect the lives of others if it means sacrificing their own bodily autonomy and well-being.
Now, let’s take this further and suppose that a gym owner doesn’t want anyone to get dropped or even lowered in their gym without permission. So, they add a provision to the waiver that states, “Belayers are prohibited from lowering any climber without permission, this provision shall include instances of renegade climbers”. At this point the belayers freedom of choice and bodily autonomy is appropriated to someone else, namely the climber and gym owner. If you go one step further and codify this into law, then it certainly seems to be an infringement on what some have called self-evident truths and unalienable rights. Rights that include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Thereupon, we might raise the question of what to do when the right to life collides with the right to liberty?
Imagine now, that there is a gym in the United States of America called Freedom Gym. At Freedom Gym, members are granted the right to climb as many routes as they want for as long as they want provided that other members are not waiting in line to climb the same route. In the case of a line, members are limited to only one hour of continuous climbing. Non-members are permitted to climb at Freedom Gym; however, they are not granted the exclusive privileges offered to the members of the gym. Due to the limited space, and quality of routes, becoming a member at Freedom Gym is a long and arduous undertaking. In some cases it can take years to become a member. In most cases, it takes about nine months.
One day, a longtime member named Thomas was planning to work on a single route continuously for two straight hours. Betsy, a strong climber who has applied for membership and is awaiting approval shows up to climb the same route. It’s about an hour into Thomas’ workout. Thomas continues to climb despite the fact that he’s been climbing for an hour, and now someone is waiting in line. Betsy, trying to avoid a confrontation with Thomas explains the situation to Harry the manager. Although Harry the manager listens to and empathizes with Betsy’s grievances, Harry is forced to side with Thomas. Afterall, the members at Freedom Gym are granted the right to climb as many routes as they want for as long as they want provided that other members are not waiting in line to climb the same route. Betsy may well be on her way to becoming a member at Freedom Gym, but at present she is not a member and so does not enjoy the same rights as Thomas and the other members of the gym.
The 14th Amendment states: All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
According to the USCIS You are a U.S. citizen if you have a:
- Birth certificate showing birth in the United States;
- Form N-550, Certificate of Naturalization;
- Form N-560, Certificate of Citizenship;
- Form FS-240, Report of Birth Abroad of United States Citizen; or
- Valid unexpired U.S. passport.
For those who may argue that cases of abortion put the right to life up against the right to liberty, it’s important to understand that these rights apply directly to the citizens of the US, just as climbing privileges apply only to members of Freedom Gym. And while a fetus may be on its way to becoming a “member”, the necessity of birth and more explicitly the necessity of a birth certificate put the status of fetal/embryonic citizenship into question.
A fetus is not a citizen, it’s debatable that a fetus is at any point a person. Some confidently say yes, and others confidently say no. But what is ostensibly true is that women are people, women are citizens. So, when it comes to competing rights why bend in favor of the vague and undetermined?
Rights ought to apply to every person/citizen without question, without fail, and without interference. To limit the rights of citizens, to eliminate the right for a person to choose what they may or may not do with their own body is boorish and anti-democratic. Liberty and Justice for all is an ideal that we should strive for. We should constantly be questioning the meaning and interpretation of both liberty and justice, but somehow in 2022 we still can’t quite comprehend what is meant by “for all”.
- “Judith Jarvis Thomson (1971), ‘A Defense of Abortion’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1, Pp. 47-66.”
- The examples presented in this paper are inspired by Thompson’s original examples. If abortion rights are something you are interested on more philosophical level, then whether you are in favor or against abortion I would recommend reading Thompson’s original article published in 1971 (linked above).