Reproduction and ethics

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L083-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 16, 2021, from

3. The right over one’s own body

The prevailing emphasis on the status of the foetus has an odd effect; one could, if ignorant of the facts of human reproduction, read hundreds of articles written on abortion and be left wondering what they were. Those who maintain that, at least in the early stages, the foetus is just a growth in the woman’s body, fail to mention the fact that it is a growth like no other, namely a growth that, uniquely, results from the cells of two human beings, and is a growth that will usually become a baby, someone’s child, if allowed to develop. Those who hold the ‘conservative’ or ‘potential’ view emphasize the fact that a fertilized ovum naturally develops into a baby; some mention the fact that an ovum is fertilized by a male cell and that this usually happens as a result of sexual intercourse, but remarkably few mention the fact that the nine-month development into a baby standardly – and arduously – takes place in a woman’s body. If one did not know better, one might reasonably infer that parthenogenesis was common and that many of the results of sexual intercourse were raised in incubators as in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

Conservatives about not only the status of the foetus, but also abortion do not deny that we all have some sort of right over our own bodies; they merely claim that it is restricted, or outweighed, by the foetus’ right to life. This initially plausible move has been challenged, however, in a deservedly famous article by Judith Jarvis Thomson(1971), which, despite its age, still stands almost alone in its attempt to take account of what is special about abortion, namely that it is the termination of a (human) pregnancy. A human pregnancy, regardless of one’s views about the status of the foetus, is a condition of a human body, and usually results from sexual intercourse, voluntary or involuntary, in the hope, or not, of conceiving. Thomson daringly allows the conservatives their premise about the moral status of the foetus and argues that, even if this is granted, the impermissibility of abortion does not follow in many cases. Her argument depends on the claim that the right to life does not, as such, include the right to the use of another person’s body to survive. If you can survive only by being connected to my circulatory system for nine months, then my right to decide what happens to my body allows me not only to refuse and let you die, but, moreover, to disconnect us and thereby kill you if I have not granted you the right to use my body but have been kidnapped and connected up to you while unconscious.

The wild unlikelihood of the latter scenario reflects Thomson’s heroic attempt to describe something that is not a pregnancy but is like at least unintended pregnancies in the (assumed) relevant respects, namely that one person (the foetus, granting the conservative view) needs the use of another person’s body to survive, while the second person has not done anything that can be construed as giving them the right to use it. The strained nature of Thomson’s analogies has attracted much criticism, but few of her critics have paused to reflect that any analogies to pregnancy are bound to be strained because there simply is not any other condition of the human body remotely like it.

Her article manages to take cognizance of remarkably many of the unique features of pregnancy but still leaves several out. When we turn from the issue of abortion to those of surrogacy, artificial insemination by donor (AID) and in vitro fertilization (IVF), the fact that a fertilized ovum has resulted from the cells of two human beings, a man and a woman, and the fact that it would become a baby, someone’s child, if enabled and allowed to develop in utero, assume unavoidable prominence. Moreover, questions about what is involved in ‘the right to decide what happens to my body’ and, more generally, what counts as ‘mine’, become increasingly problematic.

Citing this article:
Hursthouse, Rosalind. The right over one’s own body. Reproduction and ethics, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L083-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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