Life, death, and hypotheticals

Let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s say you have a spouse. Let’s say your spouse gets into a terrible, terrible car accident that causes severe brain damage. Your spouse is in a coma. Machines breathe and eat for them. All the best modern medical technology indicates that the only activity in your spouse’s brain is reflexive and not a sign of any ability to think or feel.

So now you have a heart-rendingly difficult decision to make, right? Do you leave them on life support or not? You may feel strongly that one of these answers is right and the other is wrong, but you accept my premise that you are the one with a decision to make. Of course you do. When a person is unable make his or her own medical decisions, the authority to do so devolves to their next-of-kin. The medical proxy is even allowed, in certain situations, to make decisions that can only lead to the patient’s death. Although the question which is the correct choice to make is up for debate, the fact that someone other than the patient must make it is uncontroversial.

Now another experiment. You have terminal leukemia and need a bone marrow transplant soon to save your life. Unfortunately for you, all the potential matches the doctors have found refuse to donate to you for whatever reason. You may disagree, loudly and vehemently, with their decision, but do you have the right to strap them to a table and take their bone marrow? No, of course not.

So we’ve established that those who cannot make their own medical decisions must have someone else make them, that the person who makes those decisions may in some circumstances knowingly cause the patient’s death, and that no one has the right to force someone else to give of their body to contribute to their own health, even if it’s a matter of life and death. In other words, though our Constitution grants us all a right to life, there are acknowledged limits on that right, just as there are acknowledged limits on our right to free speech.

Then I ask you: What difference does it make when a fetus acquires human rights? If it has none until birth, abortion does not violate human rights because there are none to be violated. If it has them at the moment of conception, or at 6 months’ gestation, or when lung development suggests viability, or at any other point in utero, its mother is still its medical proxy and its rights do not extend to forcing her to use her body to maintain its life, so she may decide to abort without violating those rights. In fact, the only potential violation of human rights is to force the pregnant woman to carry the fetus to term. She is the life-support system; she is the potential bone-marrow donor. Not even actual, born people have unconditional rights to these things. Why would a fetus?

23 Responses

  1. Thank you — this is one of the clearest, sharpest, most unambiguous treatments of the subject I’ve read.

    (Now how do we get you into a policymaking position?)

  2. Ha! Being a loudmouthed, atheist, feminist bitch makes it hard enough to get a regular job, never mind one in politics. But I do appreciate the flattery. If you’re trying to court my good opinion, you’re doing brilliantly.

  3. I should remember to make sure I’m actually logged into wordpress in the browser I’m commenting from. Whoops!

  4. [...] Lieu of Content Go read what Boston Brahmina said.  And if anyone tries to argue with you about abortion rights, make them go read it too.  She has [...]

  5. Thanks for the well thought post! Hopefully you can swing some people over to our side! :)

  6. Great argument! I plan to forward it to some pro-lifers

  7. I submitted this to Stumble. So wonderful!

  8. Thanks, everybody!

  9. [...] the whole post.  It’s quite simple, to the point and I couldn’t put it any better than her. [...]

  10. I gave up on a back and forth with a pro-lifer who insists that if a woman doesn’t want to get pregnant, she just should have vaginal sex because there are other varieties of sex that won’t get you pregnant. She wants to dictate the bedroom activities of millions of women because abortion is avoiding the consequences (and a woman’s responsibilities) as a result of that action.

    I hope she sees your column.

  11. Great post, but like most well thought out posts it preaches to the choir.

    The people who agree with this position are most likely the only ones reading it, and those who might stumble upon it from the other side of the fence will not even stop to consider the logic of your arguments.

  12. Honji, do you then think that all discussion of issues is pointless? That people are on your side or not, period? Is no one undecided in your world? Does no one change their minds?

    Those who agree with me who read this have a new argument to try on those who disagree, and a few of those who disagree may find it compelling. Even if this post changes nothing, anywhere, ever, it’s better to try than to sit idly by and watch the religious right chip away at my right to sovereignty over my own body. This is what I can do, and I’m doing it.

  13. Coleen, please don.t misunderstand, I don’t think all discussions of issues are pointless. I “preach to the choir” on my blog all the time.

    I guess I’m just getting a bit disheartened. I listen to and read discussions and based on the comments they elicit it seems as if no one on the religious right is capable of budging an inch no matter how information is presented.

    It seems as though stupidity is on the rise and my lack of patience for it is on the rise as well.

  14. [...] Tired of listening to the pro-lifers yammer. . . let them chew on this one. [...]

  15. honjii, the religious right feel the same way about you.

  16. Colleen, thank you for saying so clearly the reasoning I have frequently tried to convey to my less-enlightened friends. I consider a fetus to be something between a tumor and a parasite, in terms of having rights (though I acknowledge that many people who want to have children view their babies-to-be differently) but I have long insisted that even if it was a human being, nobody’s right to my body trumped my own right to my body.

    A friend of mine likes the hypothetical, “what if your friend’s kidney stopped working and you hooked him up to your kidney and disconnecting him would mean killing him” (it’s always a him, for some reason.) I’d say, even if I initially agreed to the arrangement, it would be my prerogative to terminate it at any time, for any reason. (This is where my acquantances goggle at me, thinking “murderer!”) A human can choose to lend his or her body to another human in need, but a human in need can never requisition another human’s body, and the first fact does not lessen the second. Even/ especially when the “human in need” is a fetus.

  17. Brilliant.

    I think the abortion issue is just a means to keep people oppressed. Think about it. Out of one side of the mouth comes the sanctity of human life and we want all people to have a chance to succeed. Out of the other comes no child left behind (um..right) and forcing woman (let’s face it, only those who ain’t got money and can’t fly somewhere where it’s legal and or find a doctor to do the procedure where they may be) to carry and care for more and more children at the detriment of her own ability to succeed in other arenas and her own life. And what of the quality of life for those children?

    aaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhh. I could keep going for days, probably, but then I’d just be up in arms and the whole thing would probably stop making sense.

  18. [...] An interesting post about abortion that I meant to link: Colleen, “Life, Death, and Hypotheticals.” [...]

  19. One of my relatives needs a kidney right now. When all the forced-pregnancy people are on the transplant live-donor list, they will have moral standing to lecture me about choice.

    • I’m really sorry to hear that, Quercki.

      Of course, even if they were all on the donor list, they’d be there voluntarily, so they still wouldn’t really get it.

  20. You’re right!

    Anyway, GREAT article!

  21. [...] Life, death, and hypotheticals. [...]

  22. Thanks for this post. This is the argument I always try to make. Usually the anti-choicers just ignore it, though.

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