Doctor Science Knows

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Fetal rights, category errors, and the Invisible Woman

At Crooked Timber, John Holbo linked to a post about category errors and whether fetuses are human. In the ensuing discussion, I wrote:

But I think the arguments raised in this post all apply perfectly well to the purely personal, moral question, “should I abort this pregnancy?”

It is my impression that of the participants in this (local) discussion only Katherine, aimai, and I could ever theoretically ask this question.

What the rest of you (presumed) guys are asking is, “should I permit this woman to abort this pregnancy?” By making the question, “when is the fetus a human person?” you-all are gliding over the true issue, which is: “when is the woman a person?”

Don’t tell me “of course the woman is a person!” There is no “of course” about it—we women have not (historically, traditionally, conservatively) had the full rights of “real”, male human persons. We might not have the right to own property, drive a car, initiate a divorce, vote, run for office, be a doctor, have legal custody of our own children … it has depended on circumstance. A cynical woman would not assume, a realistic woman should not assume, that she has will automatically be granted all the rights a man may assume.

In particular, I don’t think any of you male-type persons here have been told that your body does not belong to you. If your sibling needed a bone marrow donation to treat their cancer, for instance, you would not be legally obliged to give it. You would not expect to be shackled to a bed for weeks or months if necessary, to keep someone else alive—even someone you should love (whether you do or not). You would certainly not expect total strangers to come up to you and give their opinions about whether you are drinking too much coffee, or smoking, or to stroke parts of your body and discuss your medical condition, lifestyle choices, etc.

It’s possible I’m the only one in this discussion here who’s actually *been* in that position, who’s borne children and who knows what it’s like to have my body be considered public property, to a certain degree. Fortunately for your male-type people, the worst offenders (by far) are women of the grandmotherly demographic, and I can kind of understand where they’re coming from—though it is certainly not a place know to most philosophers, so I suggest you back off. Unless you can talk about things like “episiotomies” without turning a hair.

A zygote will.

No, Julian, a zygote *might*, but it usually doesn’t. To get a human being requires both a considerable amount of luck *and* months of cooperation from a woman. You don’t get to decide that the zygote—not coincidentally, the only part of the process requiring a male—is the important bit, and then force the woman’s far more substantial contribution whether she likes it or not. Not to mention blaming her for all the factors known as “luck”, which in the normal course of events doom more than half of all zygotes anyway.


I was going for an overcurrent of anger, actually. I’m not angry because you can’t bear children, I’m angry because, once again, a bunch of men are sitting around talking about what women should do with our bodies and our lives. As echidne of the snakes said after the final Presidential debate:

It is always extremely distasteful to watch two men discuss what should be done about abortion. Always, never mind what they say.

*Always*, dudes.

Do really believe this is a legitimate analogy? I mean I am pro-choice, so you do not need to convince me, but do you really think the two situations are comparable?

Organ donation and pregnancy? Yes.

In both cases, I’m giving up use of part of my body for the benefit of another person. In both cases, the consequences for me are at minimun painful, may include permanent changes to my body, and may be life-threatening.

Differences include that organ donation doesn’t generally take 9 months of increasing physical risk and constraint, doesn’t normally involve a 20-year commitment thereafter, and is hardly ever done more than once in a donor’s life.

In what way do you see them as *not* comparable situations?

Should I understand your position to be that no man has any business ever discussing the notions of personhood and rights as those terms may pertain to a fetus?

He has no business discussing them without even noticing the woman. He has no business talking about fetal rights without mentioning that what makes fetal rights different is that they are literally embedded in another person’s rights. To discuss fetal rights without talking about women is to make women invisible, to erase us as persons, to make us The Women Men Don’t See.

I’m not so much angry at you personally, jcs, as at the way John H. could start this discussion and you-all could take it down to comment #14 before Katherine (surprise, surprise—NOT) mentions that there is a woman in the issue. At least you, jcs, seem aware that perhaps you *should* notice the woman, instead of some of the other commenters who just glide right over her, nothing to see here, move along.

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