Women’s Rights and Personhood: Reframing the Abortion Debate

Social justice issues often suffer from a crisis of framing.  Whether it’s “welfare queens” versus “working poor,” “lazy Injuns” versus “colonialism,” or “special rights” versus “marriage equality,” how an issue is presented has massive effects on the perception of what’s at stake, and what the people on each side are actually trying to achieve.  Perhaps nowhere is this more visible than in the battle over abortion rights.  While advocates for marriage equality have largely succeeded in making sure the public understands that the fight is for marriage equality, and that what’s at stake is increasingly out-of-touch religious groups’ influence on American politics and people’s right to visit their loved ones in hospitals, too many people have seriously borked ideas of what the abortion debate is about.

A lot of people think it’s about babies.
A lot of people think it’s about sex.
A lot of people think it’s about birth control.
A lot of people think it’s about religious freedom.

And it’s about all those things…just not in the way that most of those people think it is.

What it absolutely, utterly, unequivocally, ineffably, undeniably, explicitly, and totally is NOT about is “life.”

But the people who call themselves “pro-life” have convinced a lot of people that it is, and that effort of theirs has paid dividends, with a majority of Americans calling themselves “pro-life” and at over one-fifth thinking abortion should be illegal under all circumstances or even treated as murder, and abortion being de facto or de jure illegal in much of the world.

But if it were about life, Savita Halappanavar would still be alive.  So would George Tiller.  Every time someone dies from something that an abortion would have prevented, the name “pro-life” is shown to be a lie—mere propaganda.  The realities of the “pro-life” position show an extremely narrow view of life that includes zygotes and fetuses but excludes…pretty much everything after that.  It’s why I call them “forced-birthers” instead.

No, what’s really at stake here is something much more fundamental than any of that.


Full, realized, undisputed persons.  Cis womenTrans menPeople, and the right of people to decide what happens inside their own bodies.

The common conversations about “fetal personhood” is a distraction from the basic fact of the matter.  The abortion debate is about whether people have the right to decide what happens inside their own bodies.

Forced-birthers, in particular those from Catholic backgrounds, like to talk about a “doctrine of double effect” and hold the notion that the right approach to any conflict between the (actual) rights of a pregnant person and the (supposed, illusory) rights of a fetus must be handled in a way that gives equal standing to both entities.

Listen to that: equal standing to both entities.

It’s easy to see why this idea has so much popular approval.  It sounds so prima facie reasonable, weighing the interests of two affected parties against each other and treating them both “fairly.”

It’s also, not to put too fine a point on it, a crock of shit.

What this thought process and its assorted variants deliberately ignore is that a fetus and the person hosting it are not separate ethical agents.  One of them is, yes.  The other one is not even close to being an autonomous, separate being, thanks to its being physiologically entangled in and dependent on the other and subjecting them to all manner of serious risks and consequences as a result.  What we actually have is one being siphoning off the other’s resources at substantial risk to them, without their permission.  If that entity is a person, we call that assault, and permit them the right of self-defense.  If that entity is not a person, we call that parasitism, and permit them the right of medical treatment.  Curiously, forced-birthers never seem to answer the question of “Which is it?”

What we actually have is a situation where it is flat-out IMPOSSIBLE to treat a fetus and the person hosting it as individual, equivalent, autonomous ethical agents.  Any attempt to treat a fetus as such, and preserve it against its host’s wishes, immediately, necessarily, and inescapably takes that same autonomy and agency away from the person.  The “pro-life,” forced-birth position is that justice is served when cis women and trans men are forced, by law, to surrender the use of their bodies to another entity against their will, and to suffer any of various health consequences up to and including death in the service of that entity.

This is a model where, as soon as someone becomes pregnant, any and all rights they might previously have had are immediately transferred to their fetus.  As forced-birthers tell it, once a person becomes pregnant, their body is no longer their own, and now belongs to the incipient baby they are hosting.  Far from “equal standing for both entities,” this is a doctrine that differs from slavery for pregnant people only in semantics.

And they have WOMEN supporting them.  SO MANY WOMEN.  Because they’ve managed to convince people that it’s not about misogyny, not about sexism, not about keeping women barefoot and pregnant, not about making sure that cis women’s lot in our society is bound up in their biology in a way that simply isn’t true for men…but about babies.

Sweet, adorable babies that they’re condemning to lives of poverty, privation, and horrible pain with their politics.

We have to remind them what’s at stake.

We have to remind them that this is about the most basic freedom of all, the freedom that underlies all others and without which the word “freedom” is just so many bald eagle decals on a fascist jackboot.

We have to remind them that this is about whether we are prepared to accept people with uteruses as full and equal participants in our society.

We have to remind them that this is not about whether fetuses are people.

It’s about whether women are people, and about how one day, we won’t have to convince people of that any more.
Women’s Rights and Personhood: Reframing the Abortion Debate

6 thoughts on “Women’s Rights and Personhood: Reframing the Abortion Debate

  1. 1

    Although I am troubled by any law that forces someone to give birth, I don't think it's a black and white issue. Is easy access to abortion the only way?

    -Consider sex-selected abortions in countries that favor sons, leading to what experts call a Gendercide (http://www.economist.com/node/15606229) in India and China.

    -Prenatal genetic testing and successive abortions are buying into a consumer perspective on our children (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/13/weekinreview/13harm.html?_r=0).

  2. 2

    Sex-selective abortions are a sexism problem, not a bodily autonomy problem. Defeat the sexist structures in the cultures where sex-selective abortion occurs, and sex-selective abortion will follow. Sex-selective abortion is a symptom, not a disease.

    If genetic testing and people terminating fetuses with genetic abnormalities leads to fewer people suffering through the nightmares of Tay-Sachs, Treacher-Collins, and other horrible genetic diseases, via people making sure that the zygotes they bring to term are not so afflicted, then I don't see a downside.

    Both of these ideas are related to the notion of fetal personhood, which assumes that a fetus has value other than what its host assigns to it. Where this piece showed that this idea is of zero relevance to whether or not abortion should be accessible to all, my next post will show that fetal personhood, in addition to being irrelevant, is scientifically nonsensical.

  3. 3

    “Defeat the sexist structures in the cultures where sex-selective abortion occurs, and sex-selective abortion will follow. Sex-selective abortion is a symptom, not a disease.”

    The Gendercide is already happening in China and India. The men/woman proportion is 100/80 there, this means less political power for women. Defeating sexism is along term process. Let's be practical, what do we do in the meantime. Maybe abortion should be considered a last resort.

    As for your second point, genetic abnormalities are different things to different people. Some people think that being short is abnormal. Easy access to genetic testing and abortion is a shilling reminder of what happened in Germany under the Nazis.

  4. 4

    Yes, it's already happening. And it's happening because those cultures devalue women, not because those cultures permit safe and legal abortion. Before they permitted safe and legal abortion, people took out their devaluation of women by drowning babies. Are you prepared to argue that that's better?

    The point of this piece is that access to abortion is about AUTONOMY. That means that the reason WHY someone seeks to terminate their pregnancy is UTTERLY IMMATERIAL to the question of whether she should be allowed to do so safely.

    Yes. Some people have shitty reasons. In China and India, a LOT of people have shitty reasons. That means we work on getting rid of those shitty reasons. Because that gender imbalance was already there before abortion became safe and legal, and it'll keep being there long after slavery for the pregnant is codified into Chinese and Indian law.

    Because the “gendercide” is NOT ABOUT ABORTION. It's about MISOGYNY.

    When you understand that, you'll understand why opposing abortion access based on WHY someone might want an abortion is no better than opposing it on any other grounds.

    As you'll see in the next installment, the same logic applies to the question of eugenics. Abortion access is a RIGHT. What people do with that right is THEIRS. The rest is signal noise. You can try to convince people to not want to exercise that right under X, Y, and Z circumstances, but the MOMENT you try to STOP them from doing so, you're out of line.

    It's not a coincidence that, among the various backdoor ways that people are using to try to criminalize abortion, is to try to criminalize abortion under X, Y, and Z circumstances, and pile those circumstances up. It's because people don't get the message of this piece–that WHY someone would want to exercise their rights matters NOT EVEN A LITTLE BIT to whether they should get to.

  5. 5

    You're actually right! I was kind of being a dick and a troll, trying to play the Devil's Advocate with you. I kind of like reading what you say so I apologize.

  6. 6

    No need to be so hard on yourself. Devil's advocate is a perfectly acceptable motivation, and you kept this interesting. I'll be using the fruit of this conversation as part of that next post. The “gendercide” isn't an angle I would otherwise have thought to include. So thanks for that 🙂

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