It is always good to sharpen one’s dialectical foil every now and then. One pro-abortion argument you may come across in the abortion debate is this: “Just as you wouldn’t force someone to donate a kidney or part of a liver, so you should not force a woman to ‘donate’ the use of her body to a fetus.” I.e., if you’re not in favor of forced organ donation, nor should you be in favor of forced pregnancy, which is to say the criminalization of abortion.
There are serious flaws to this argument. The first is this: pregnancy is not, properly construed, analogous to donating an organ: it is getting pregnant that is the analogy. Put another way: most people agree that nobody should be forced into either pregnancy or organ donation. The pertinent question thus becomes: once someone has voluntarily become pregnant or donated an organ, do they have the right to materially reverse their decision? Most people would agree that, once you have donated an organ, you do not have the right to ask for it back—your rights to your organ only extended insofar as you did not grant them to someone else. The same is true of pregnancy: one cannot morally “take back” the act of getting pregnant, any more than one could “take back” a length of large intestine one gave to a donee, without violating another’s rights—and in the case of abortion, killing someone.
(The common rejoinder for those who support abortion runs along these lines: “Just because you consent to sex doesn’t mean you consent to pregnancy.” But this too is flawed, for reasons we’ll address, though indirectly, next.)
Though many people may concede that one doesn’t have the right to kill an unborn human if one voluntarily got pregnant, there are still many people, more than a few of them who self-identify as “pro-life,” who draw the line at rape: “I don’t believe abortion should be legal,” they say, “except in cases where the woman was raped, and therefore did not voluntarily consent to pregnancy.”
But let us go back to the organ donation argument: suppose a woman woke up in a bathtub full of ice and discovered that one of her kidneys had been harvested and sold to an unwitting hospital, who subsequently placed her kidney in the body of a very sick child, saving his life. Neither the child nor the doctors nor the utterly incompetent medical board of the hospital were aware of the kidney’s illicit status. Would the woman be morally justified in ripping the child’s abdomen open and taking her kidney back?
Most people would very likely say no—that the child’s own lack of complicity in the organ harvesting scheme would render a reclamation of the organ immoral, particularly insofar as the child’s own bodily autonomy would have to be seriously violated in order to reclaim it. There are, surely, more than a few people who would argue that, yes, the woman has the right to take her kidney back from the child. Yet even if that were the case, would not all of society properly regard her as a cold, unfeeling lowlife at best, and a moral monster at worst? But we do not think the same way about abortion; indeed in many cases we celebrate it and encourage it.
The same principle holds true for women who engaging in consensual, yet contraceptive, sexual intercourse—indeed, the principle holds even more true, given that the risk of conception is almost-universally known and understood. The bottom line is this: one cannot use organ donation as a similitude for abortion unless one is prepared to endorse a barbaric and brutal set of moral values about both organ donation and abortion. Just as importantly, one must be prepared to call such values barbaric and brutal, and not pretend as if they are righteous and ethical.