Roe v. Wade (On Belay)

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?

Freedom Gym

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”. 


  1. “Judith Jarvis Thomson (1971), ‘A Defense of Abortion’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1, Pp. 47-66.” 
  2. 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).

38 Replies to “Roe v. Wade (On Belay)”

  1. A small observation…. “… 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?” I think as a culture we’re in love with “potential.”

    Interesting. Personally, I think the question about whether a fetus is a person is a sideshow.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I agree fully. I think the Supreme Court has become a sideshow too. Every decision in the last few weeks feels like a thorn beneath my fingernail!

      Liked by 3 people

      1. it’s all “Let’s not look at the Jan 6 committee hearings” and “Trump is still our president.” I hate them. It’s hard to call what they’re doing “decisions.” Grrrrr…

        Liked by 3 people

    2. It’s a very dangerous sideshow, however, considering the bizarre thought processes of the SC majority and the determination of a small segment of this country to force us to live under their theocratic views.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. There is/has been a reason why we should separate state and church. Now we have a judges who rule by belief. It’s a shame and nothing about this supreme court is supreme.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. We have just finished that debate in Ireland after many years of debate and agonizing on both sides. In the run up the last referendum there were graphic images of fetuses’ on telephone poles across the country. It was emotive, distressing for children and raised a lot of questions. I cannot remember the name of the group but it was unheard of prior to the Referendum. Later it would be revealed that the funding for these posters came from the US. It feels like the US is in for another abortion drama, calling on its citizens to make black or white decisions on what is a grey area. I wish you well.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Thanks for the heads up Kitty, can’t say I’m looking forward to it, but it looks like it’s going to be a long drawn out process!

      All the best!


  4. Remember though, this “renegade climber” was initially and most often invited to the party, we just didn’t expect it to take us seriously or stay so long. The fact that it clipped on was a misunderstanding. Ooops! Bad enough it clips on for 9 months, but then what about the 18 years that follow? Why not give the belayer the continued right to fatally unclip that renegade at any time afterwards? After all, it will get heavier and heavier as time goes on? Just sayin’.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Interesting perspective. Actually I think the moral issue of when a fetus becomes a “person” with rights that outweigh those of the mother IS the key issue. Very interesting to compare it to belaying. Thanks!

    Liked by 4 people

      1. I still think about this perspective and wanted to ask permission to share this work. I publish a substack newsletter and plan to do a few pieces around the anniversary of losing Roe. I would like to share this piece but I know a lot of my readers won’t have a WordPress account so linking may not be an option. Can I cut and paste and then share a link in the event that should want to sign up for WordPress? This is my Substack, Thanks in advanced.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. To be clear, I think abortion should be legal. The problem with the renegade climber analogy is that the belayer is presumed an innocent bystander. A pregnant woman who was raped is as well. Others are willing participants.

    As a biologist, I find it interesting that humans seems to consider themselves outside of nature and its norms. The rest of the animal kingdom values a productive adult over helpless offspring. And most of those offspring do not survive to adulthood. Valuing a fetus over the woman carrying it is sick.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. We, as liberal-democracy societies, cannot prevent anyone from bearing children, including those who insist upon procreating regardless of their inability to raise children in a psychologically functional/healthy manner. We can, however, educate all young people for the most important job ever, even those high-schoolers who plan to remain childless. If nothing else, such curriculum could offer students an idea/clue as to whether they’re emotionally suited for the immense responsibility and strains of parenthood.

      Yet, owing to the Only If It’s In My Own Back Yard mindset, the prevailing collective attitude (implicit or subconscious) basically follows: ‘Why should I care — my kids are alright?’ or ‘What is in it for me, the taxpayer, if I support programs for other people’s troubled families?’ While some people will justify it as a normal thus moral human evolutionary function, the self-serving OIIIMOBY can debilitate social progress, even when social progress is most needed.

      The health of ALL children needs to be of real importance to us ALL — and not just concern over what other parents’ children might or will cost us as future criminals or costly cases of government care, etcetera — regardless of how well our own developing children are doing. A physically and mentally sound future should be every child’s fundamental right — along with air, water, food and shelter — especially considering the very troubled world into which they never asked to enter.

      As for abortion services, I strongly feel that they, along with critical health services and long-term-care residences, should never be a for-profit medical procedure. … Now, if only as much concern was given to the already born and breathing as is given the unborn, some real progress could be made.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Trump never should have elected those conservatives for the Supreme Court, the balance is lost and now the American people have to pay with archaic laws shoved down their throat.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. I find your way of looking at the situation intriguing… but the manner of considering the ‘fetus’ as a renegade climber is I posit problematic… as this presupposes that the fetus had/has any input in determining any role in the arduous decision-making of the climb…

    Those who arbitrarily come upon the climber… infringe themselves upon what the climber is carrying… for a ‘minute portion’ of a nine month climb, and then abandon the object of their desire for the next 18 years are in truth the real renegade climbers…

    Their willingness to hopscotch from one climber to another, leaving a possible chaos in their wake, is unconscionable… I believe this can only be offset, if they are willing to tie themselves contractually to the fetus for nineteen years… unless it is only the fetus they believe deserves ‘life’ and not the baby… the toddler… the infant… the adolescent…

    Or is it out of sight… out of mind…?

    The climber who is faced with a dilemma on the edge of a cliff needs compassion, and help… not condemnation… and told:

    ‘You brought the load… now Carry It…!!!

    Sometimes… the only way to continue, and survive the climb is to lovingly, consciously make a decision… and move on… and leave the outcome in the hand of the Unknown…!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for this thoughtful reply! You are right about the metaphors not being exact. Abortion is a pretty unique situation so coming up with the perfect analogy is a real challenge. Conversations like this hold value, which is why I tried to come up with something on the conversation side. Thank you for adding to the conversation!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I understand the challenge you faced in writing your piece, and keeping it not only clean, but outside the stagnant trench that many wish to fight, instead of converse… and it is this that first grabbed me, and held my interest to the end… for one can drown in Roe v. Wade overload…

        I have found that Roe v. Wade over time, as become less about the fetus, or even the celebrated word ‘life’ itself… and more, and more about the sound of the voice, and the multitudinous echoes it can generate…!

        Liked by 1 person

  9. You forgot to mention that you actually brought the renegade climber to the gym. Remember? Last night you went out drinking, you got a little tipsy, and you started telling everybody about this great gym. So today, when the renegade climber shows up, remember it was you who told him to come after that round of tequilas.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Renegade Climber isn’t a perfect metaphor by any means, but the renegade climber represents a fetus, not the means by which the fetus was produced, and so the question supposed to be raised is to what extent do we owe ourselves to the safety of the renegade climber. Thank you for the question, it will help me clear up the point for sure.


    1. Haha, Linda please go on!!! Just kidding, but that was really a great message to read, thank you for making my night!


  10. We recycle to keep landfills down. But we are still a throwaway society. I often wonder where those thousands of throwaway foetuses go. If it’s a woman’s right to decide what she wants to do with her body, it’s equally her responsibility not to be careless. When it comes to contraception, there’s a lot available, including the morning after pill. But when abortion was legal, there was no reason to bother being careful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the comment Mary. Like you, I also wonder if those who spent years working to overturn Roe v. Wade will turn their sights toward other issues that affect the future of young ones. Recycling and climate change would be such a great place to start, good point!


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