“Abortion, Human Rights, Bodily Autonomy, and Rights of Women to Abortion (Part I)”
In this post, I would like to consider four issues in relation: abortion, human rights, bodily autonomy, and the rights of women to abortion. Toward this goal, I will make connection with three traditions: religion, the legal system, and secular humanism. I must say that women are bearers of life in this world. If women have the right to give life, do they have the same right not to give life (or to take life)?
Evidently, I am a man and came from a woman, my mother, and do not claim to represent the ideas of women on this issue; yet I am a husband to my spouse, a woman; a brother to three sisters; a father of two little girls; and a friend to many women. This conversation below is my first reflection (Part I) on the issue; it is my first draft on the sensitive topic of abortion. I would welcome your suggestions, comments, and your ideas on how to engage in meaningful conversations on the four issues addressed in this post.
- Bodily Autonomy: Bodily autonomy is not just a right reserved for a woman who is carrying a child. Bodily autonomy is a universal human right since it upholds the sacredness of the human body regardless of sex and gender, pregnant or not pregnant, being able to conceive or not being able to conceive. Bodily autonomy is connected to the right, choice, and the freedom an individual has or must have over his or her own body. Bodily autonomy is also associated with human subjectivity and agency. What makes the human body sacred is not linked to laws or the ability of a woman to bear a child. Bodily autonomy is intimately linked to what it means to be human, and this shared humanity affirms that every person is a person, and every human has dignity.
For example, a young girl has bodily autonomy, and a little boy must have bodily autonomy. A non-pregnant woman has bodily autonomy just like a woman who is unable to conceive must have bodily autonomy. A person who is physically disable, both boys and girls, men and women, and pregnant and not pregnant, has bodily autonomy.
Finally, bodily autonomy does not mean or should not mean that a person can just make “autonomous” decisions without thinking about the potential effect the individual choice will have on the life of the community to which that individual belongs or a member. The choice of a person may appear individualistic, but in essence, it is not since all of us live in community and act, in most of the times, according to the philosophy, convictions, and ideals that bind the community together.
- Human Rights: There are many rights that are connected to our shared humanity and the concept of personhood. Such rights might be deemed essential or fundamental to our common humanity, regardless of our sex and gender, or ability and disability in life. In other words, because human rights are essential to our shared humanity, they are not dependent upon our status—economic, political, religious, ethnicity, etc.—in life, or society.
Rights are both individual and collective. For example, since John is a human being, John must have rights that affirm and maintain his humanity. John and Samantha share a common humanity as both male and female; therefore, they have collective human rights. Let’s think together about the following questions:
a) What makes a right a human right?
b) What are the human rights?
c) Who is a human?
d) What is a human?
All human rights are products of an agreement (a consensus) between individuals, authorities, institutions, representative groups, or a body of laws that are constructed within a system (i.e., economic, political, religious) and from the perspective of a philosophy of life and philosophy of the person and individuals. For example, from a religious perspective, almost all religious traditions affirm that the human life is sacred and therefore, prohibit the killing or murder of innocent people. From this angle, life is a human right, and the life of an individual is a human right. Hence, killing an innocent person is a violation of human right, and that murder is an act of dehumanization. Also, the religious belief that bans the killing of an innocent person defines human life as a right within this religious tradition; this same religious conviction makes human life sacred as a (convictional) right.
Human rights are also products of political consensuses and legislations. A human right becomes “legal” by a process of legislation. Human rights are legislated and legislative through a political consensus. If the law forbids the killing or murder of a person, —that is, the taking away the right to life of a human being or an individual—killing of an innocent individual will become an unlawful act. Accordingly, to murder an innocent person is not only an illegal gesture; it is an action against the law that makes illegal or unlawful the practice of (unjust) murder. In fact, the law makes murder the violation of a person’s right to life. In other words, the law not only sanctifies the life of a human; correspondingly, but it also upholds the sacredness of the life of an individual. From this perspective, human life as a right is defined as a legal conviction; to put it another way, the law (against murder) is what makes “rightful” life or what gives “human life” a legal standing.
So far, I have demonstrated how human rights are the result of various traditions, such as religion and legislation. Nonetheless, some people would argue which one of the entities (religion or the legislative branch) has primacy in defining human rights. This is perhaps one of the major issues surrounding the debate on abortion and the idea of women’s rights to abortion in the American society. For some religious people, all human rights are sacred and derivative of divine revelation. The life of an individual is a religious one because “God says so” in the Bible or “Allah affirms it” in the Qur’an. Certain religious people from various traditions—such as Muslims, Jews, Christians, Vodouizan, or Hinduists—would also affirm that the human life is a gift from God. Thus, no one has the right to take away the life of another person (i.e., an innocent individual) since the act of murder is an act against God or contrary to the divine order “Thou shall not murder.” (As a side note, I must say that non-theistic humanists or atheists have no obligations to abide to religious convictions or beliefs that make human life a right. They could find other ways or alternative to articulate their principles regarding the subject matter from a non-humanistic tradition. Yet the American society and Western societies, for example, are enmeshed in a religious framework that undergirds Western worldviews, including human convictions, beliefs, and actions—in the realm of the political, the religious, the ethical, the philosophical, what have you?)
By contrast, for others, human rights as a concept are not only rooted in political imaginations and legislative actions, but human rights should also not be viewed solely as a religious phenomenon. Since politics is integral to human existence and all areas of life, the concept of human life as a right is not only political; it is also legal. Interestingly, human life as right has become both religious and legal and is so regarded a religious practicality and a legal reality. Generally, within the sphere of the law, what it means to be human is linked to how the law defines it, and sometimes, this conviction is directly stated within certain body of laws; other times, it is implied in the legal code.
Correspondingly, being human might be regarded as a specific conception grounded on religious identity. For example, Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe that it is God/Yahweh/Allah who defines the essence of humanity and imputes dignity upon individuals and persons. Since their respective religious text declares affirmatively that “human beings are created in the image of God,” therefore, it is our shared link with the Creator-God that makes our life special, sacred, and rightful. In other words, the dignity of an individual is correlated with the dignity of God himself.
- The Rights of Women to Abortion: all women and girls belong to the category identified above as “humanity.” All women and girls share a common humanity with all men and all boys. All women and girls have dignity, their life is sacred, and they are members of various human communities in society. All women and girls have human rights, and such rights are also constructed, from various traditions discussed in the previous analysis, and such rights are essential and fundamental to the concept of manhood and girlhood. Finally, such rights must be protected, defended, and maintained at all times—by the law and other human convictions (religious, moral, ethical, cultural, philosophical).
As already mentioned, the idea of bodily autonomy that is often argued in the defense of a woman’s right to have an abortion does not consider the idea of personhood universally applied to every human person regardless of his or her gender or sex, or status in life. Bodily autonomy is not sole property of women and girls; rather, bodily autonomy is a common characteristic shared by all people, both men and women, both boys and girls, and it is a type of freedom and human right that certifies our human dignity.
Certain advocates of women’s rights to abortion promote this slogan “Our bodies, our choice, our right.” They define the latter as a convictional belief and correlate the saying to the idea of (women’s) bodily autonomy. The question we should now ask in our conversation, as it pertains to the perspective on bodily autonomy, is this one: does a woman have a right and a choice to have an abortion? Let us look at different options:
A) From the perspective of bodily autonomy, women like men, do have a choice and right over their body, even to have an abortion. The demand here is for the law of the law to recognize, affirm, and maintain that choice and that right, respectively. Questions relating to religious, ethical, moral, and philosophical arguments against bodily autonomy and against a woman’s choice to have an abortion should be revisited. The underlying issue here is the legal protection of the right and the choice of women to abortion.
B) From a legal perspective (the Federal Government lawfully regards abortion as a choice and right for women) that warrants the right to abortion, women who commit the act of abortion are protected by the law; in other words, abortion is lawful or permissible by the law. Hence, if and when a woman commits an abortion, she is not in violation of any law.
C) From the perspective of those who believe that an abortion is the murder of an innocent unborn child, abortion is an act of violation of human right to life, that is, the life and right of the unborn child to live and exist. This position is framed within the belief that the unborn child is a person, and he or she is also a human being. This particular standing also lies in the convictional belief that the unborn child has human dignity and the choice (willing or unwilling) to abort the unborn child is an act of dehumanization and de-personification.
All the three options above (A, B, C) are premised upon our distinctive worldviews and convictional beliefs. Such convictions are also influenced by our religious beliefs, political ideologies and ideals, cultural traditions and practices, ethical and moral frameworks, and our idea what it means to be human in the world (our common humanity), to live in relation to one another (mutual reciprocity and accountability), and how-to live-in community (a form of social contract) with other individuals in society. In general, human beings are moral, ethical, cultural, and political entities, and as volitional agents, we act always according to such ways of life. Nonetheless, if an act is religious, it does not necessarily mean it is moral or ethical; in the same line of thought, if an act is legal or lawful, it does not necessarily convey it is also moral or ethical.
I am thinking from this point of view because morality has to do with right and wrong choices we make in life, and many people in our culture construe the act of aborting an unborn child or the act of not aborting an unborn child as a moral/immoral choice. What is interesting is the fact that many individuals establish an intimate rapport between morality and religion and believe that religion categorically informs our moral choices and ethical behaviors—both individual and collective. Another question we must also consider in this conversation is this: what about the individuals, such as non-theistic humanists and atheists, who divorce morality from religion, and find alternative ways and promising humanitarian principles to live a moral and ethical life—apart from religious morality? What do we do with those individuals? Some of those individuals are women who want to have a choice to have an abortion. They do not want that right to be taken away from them and from other women.