How Do Human Rights Figure Into the Abortion Debate?

Melinda Gwin
February 07, 2020

How do Human Rights Figure into the Abortion Debate?

In January of 1973, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that any interference with a woman’s attempt to have an abortion within the first three months of pregnancy was a violation of her constitutional right to privacy. The ruling allowed for restrictions on abortion in the second and third trimesters, but a woman’s right to choose abortion in the first trimester was enshrined that day. The response of the public was immediate; instantly, the anti-abortion movement shifted from being a local issue present in several jurisdictions into a national phenomenon bent on protecting the rights of the unborn.* Thanks to Roe v Wade, a national discussion about human rights—and whose rights most need protecting—began in earnest.

The Case for the Right to Life

Shortly after Roe v. Wade was decided, right-to-life campaigners decided to change their name to pro-life. The fact that Roe was decided on the basis of women’s right to privacy in sexual health matters encouraged the anti-abortion coalition to clarify the fact that they weren’t arguing against a woman’s right to sexual healthcare or their right to privacy. The new name emphasized that they were about saving lives, specifically the lives of the unborn. For pro-lifers, the crux of the moral issue was always the assertion that life began when all the DNA necessary to create a human being was combined, an event called conception. At any point after conception, they argued, an abortion was destroying human life. Those against abortion put the matter very simply: “Abortion is murder.”

Their point of view might be more sympathetic to abortion rights activists if they consider society’s opinions about life and death in other arenas. Our reaction to miscarriage is particularly telling. Because of the loss of human life, these spontaneous abortions are inevitably considered tragic. In the face of our empathy, pro-lifers establish the intellectually honest position that a fetus is a human life even when the mother does not want to be pregnant, and they declare every abortion a tragedy, whether it’s spontaneous or chosen by the mother. After all, both forms of abortion result in the extraction of a fetus from a womb, and the death of that fetus. What can be more tragic than that, for the child and mother alike?

A similar note that demonstrates our true opinion about the value of human life is our choice to preserve the lives of criminals. In an increasing number of states, the right to life is protected and the tragedy of early death is acknowledged for all but the unborn. Murderers are granted the right to complete their natural lifecycle in prison. Rapists, thieves, and thugs are protected by law from being assaulted or killed while confined in jail and as when they’re released to wander the streets. But in spite of this deep-seated respect for human life and wellness, organizations as influential as the UN’s Human Rights Committee declare abortion a “fundamental human right.”To pro-lifers, that translates to humans having a fundamental right to murder innocent children who haven’t yet seen the world, despite us leaving murderers and rapists alive to continue their evils.

The Case for the Right to Privacy and Bodily Autonomy

Pro-choice advocates have no problem with the Human Rights Committee’s determination. Like them, they generally acknowledge that human life, and thus human rights, begin at birth. The attention we pay to birthdays supports this decision. We don’t count a person’s age from when they were conceived. We wait until they shed the nebulous, fragile ecosystem of the womb and join the realm of beings who breathe for themselves. In addition to breathing themselves, pro-choice activists believe in people’s ability, especially women’s ability, to make decisions for themselves. While pro-life activists put legal hurdles in the way of obtaining the abortion pill and surgical abortions, pro-choice advocates work specifically to make that choice available. Many pro-choice activists hate abortion but acknowledge it as inevitable and necessary. In the face of that inevitability, ensuring abortion remains legal and available lets women make those hard choices for themselves.

Often, supporters of legal abortion emphasize the necessity of abortion in the case of incest and rape at the bare minimum. Imagine being raped by a man, then finding out that the rape resulted in pregnancy. Women in this position often want to abort the child. Going through a pregnancy caused by rape can remind the victim of her rape for as long as she is pregnant. In many ways, pregnancy distorts her body, causes immense discomfort, and risks her life and livelihood as direct results of sexual assault. People who support abortion rights want women and children enduring such tragedies to be able to escape that fate. Instead of forcing rape and incest victims to look into the eyes of their rapist on their child’s face, they encourage an escape route that helps victims overcome trauma and live a normal, happy life more easily.

Just as abortion advocates say rape victims should have a right to choose whether their body will be changed by pregnancy, pro-choice activists believe that everyone has a right to bodily autonomy. The popular phrase, “My body, my choice,” echoes the sentiment that women shouldn’t be forced to carry another being, risk their health, and permanently distort their bodies for an accidentally conceived fetus. If women are forced to carry every viable pregnancy to term, they will be expected to use their bodies to support the mere possibility of human life without their full consent. Meanwhile, consent to give up an organ or blood must be given freely. We aren’t even allowed to harvest the organs of the dead without explicit consent. Forcing women to endure pregnancy and childbirth would make their right to bodily integrity less important than a corpse’s right to the same.

If the pro-life coalition triumphs, pregnancy is the only circumstance in which anyone would be forcing human beings to use their bodies to support another. As alluded to earlier, blood drives and plasma donations are entirely voluntary. Volunteers are even rejected if donating might harm their health in any way. Meanwhile, women are expected to endure nausea, gestational high blood pressure or even diabetes for the sake of a developing fetus. These conditions can become chronic, and force women to risk dying or being permanently injured as a result of childbirth—all because their bodily integrity does not matter to the pro-life crowd. Simply put, pro-choice advocates believe that women have the right to decide what happens to their bodies, in life and death alike. They believe women can decide which risks to take or avoid, and that different people’s choices should be respected.

Legally, a different right led to the establishment of abortion rights in America. That’s the right to privacy, a right that was inferred from the constitution’s discussion of several specific aspects of privacy (not having to house soldiers, incriminate oneself, or change personal beliefs, for example) that were mentioned in the constitution. The right to keep personal information private is the gist of the right to privacy, and medical information, especially when it comes to sexual health, is definitely classified as personal. This right to privacy in medical matters would be confirmed in 1996 when HIPPA privacy protections were signed into law by President Bill Clinton. These laws and rulings ensuring the right to privacy mean that a woman’s health decisions are between her and her doctor, not her and her government. And because abortion is a medical procedure, that is also protected and private.

The Pro-Life vs Pro-Choice Debate

Social conservatives claim that everyone has a right to life, from the point of conception until their natural or unnatural death. Social liberals claim that women have the right to determine what happens within their own bodies and that the right to privacy ensures that they, not their government, can and should make their own health decisions. These rights are at odds. One party believes that life is more important than privacy or bodily integrity. The other party emphatically defends women’s right to keep their information private and their bodies under their own control. Both sides are defending rights that fundamentally ring true, and both sides have laws and social conventions that support their positions as morally righteous and legally correct. But what do you believe, and why do you believe it? Which rights are more important to protect, and which can be temporarily discarded? Let us know in the comments!



*Collins, Gail; When Everything Changed; New York, NY; Hachette Book Group; October 2009; page 233

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