If you’re involved in the secular community, you may have noticed recently that some people have said/done some things regarding the debate over abortion rights that some of us uterus-bearers think the secular community could do without. I’m on Greta’s side in this one: fuck that shit. Go look at #UpForDebate to see how we feel about calmly and rationally debating our rights in keeping a handle on our lives. (Note: if that hashtag discussion seems grotesque and barbaric, that’s the point. That’s how it looks to us secular uterus-having feminists when we’re asked to debate abortion rights like we don’t have a knife held to our throat.) Anyway, I just want to examine the “secular pro-life” argument which PZ held up for our vegetable-throwing, as amplified without criticism by Hemant Mehta. This is what Ms. Kruszelnicki, the Pro-Life Humanist (*ahem* womb-controller who doesn’t believe in God**), says to defend her position:
If the fetus is not a human being with his/her own bodily rights, it’s true that infringing on a woman’s body by placing restrictions on her medical options is always a gross injustice and a violation. On the other hand, if we are talking about two human beings who should each be entitled to their own bodily rights, in the unique situation that is pregnancy, we aren’t justified in following the route of might-makes-right simply because we can.
What happens when both a woman and her developing fetus are regarded as human beings entitled to personhood and bodily rights? Any way you cut it, their rights are always going to conflict (at least until womb transfers become a reality). So what’s the reasonable response? It could start by treating both parties at conflict as if they were equal human beings.
The nature of pregnancy means that there can be no equal rights between gestational parent* and fetus. Everything the pregnant person eats, drinks or breathes goes to the fetus, and there’s nothing the fetus can do about that. If the pregnant person doesn’t get enough sleep, or exercises the wrong way, it can put the fetus at risk. If the pregnant person does drugs, especially the totally legal alcohol, that can permanently and adversely affect the fetus’s well-being. The fetus is completely helpless and dependent on its gestational parent. Basically, the fetus has no way to assert its bodily rights. The fetus doesn’t make decisions. It consumes, grows, develops, eliminates, and after a certain point it also moves around. But it doesn’t get a choice in what it consumes, and it doesn’t have the neural equipment to communicate its preferences even if it had any.
I am even so bold as to say that the concept of “bodily rights” is meaningless when we’re talking about a fetus. The fetus’s rights can only be decided externally, and they can only be enforced by a third party having control over a pregnant person’s life for the duration of the pregnancy. Unless the gestational parent is under lock and key, the fetus is at the mercy of their whims.
Which means that if the gestational parent doesn’t want to be pregnant, upholding equal rights between parent and fetus is a very sticky situation, at best. Which is why we get these cases of pregnancy losses*** being handled as criminal cases.
If there’s a conflict between the bodily rights of the pregnant person and the rights of the fetus, then one side must be held as superior over the other. If the pregnant person is barred from having a safe abortion, then the fetus clearly has more rights. If the pregnant person must fit some narrowly defined criteria before they can access abortion care (as Ms. Kruszelnicki would have it) then the fetus’s rights are undeniably held as superior.
The “pro-life” position is really that the fetus gets all the protections and the pregnant person bears all the restrictions and responsibilities. This isn’t a state of equality. The fetus is in a position of desperate dependency on the ability and willingness of its gestational parent to take care of demself*. They’d be a lot more honest if they dropped the pretense of equality and simply admitted straight out that they want us uterus-bearers to bend our lives around our pregnancy outcomes because babies deserve that level of dedication. Really, that’s what they’re talking about. They want us to sacrifice our bodily autonomy in the interests of making more babies. A situation of “equal rights” never seems to conclude on the side of the person who’s pregnant and doesn’t want to be.
*Not all uterus-bearers have female gender identities. Trans men and non-binary assigned-female-at-birth people can also make babies. This is why I use terms like uterus-bearer, gestational parent and pregnant person rather than pregnant woman. Let’s not deny the existence of non-cisgender people who might give birth.
**I do not accept the term “pro-life” to describe the anti-abortion position, and this will not change in the foreseeable future. I’d rather work with a pro-choice person of faith than an atheist who thinks I can be compelled to give birth.
***Seriously, look at this shit. Look at where the concern for “fetal rights” leads in the lives of vulnerable and troubled people.