Friday, April 4, 2008
Reproductive Rights Are Human Rights
My friend The Political Cat posted his thoughts yesterday on why the right to contraception ought to be regarded as a human right. His argument emphasizes the ways widespread use of contraception serves a common good. Some of these are global: overpopulation, declining resources, pollution, global warming, and the violence that each of these can provoke. TPC also strongly advocates reducing child abuse and neglect by preventing unwanted births in the first place. When I commented that "This post cries out for the bookend to it - the individual-rights argument," TPC tossed the job back to me. :-) So here goes.
I generally prefer the term reproductive rights because it's broader than just legal, affordable access to both contraception and abortion. It also encompasses freedom from coerced sterilization or abortion as well as support for needy pregnant women and new mothers. Here, to stay roughly parallel to TPC's post, I'll focus mostly on freedom from unwanted pregnancy.
Reproductive rights are a fundamental human right. Without the ability to decide freely whether one wants to share one's body with another and nurture and sustain it at considerable cost to oneself, a woman is not a free human being. She's a slave. And we outlawed slavery 150 years ago.
Unplanned, unwanted pregnancy doesn't just reduce women's freedom to do the fun things in life, as anti-feminists often argue. Its penalties are not trivial and frivolous. It interrupts and often ends educations, makes it impossible to perform certain types of paid work, and puts both mother and child at long-term risk for poverty.
American society guarantees bodily autonomy and integrity more solidly and consistently for men than for women. There's no broad consensus on women's reproductive rights, as evidenced by the deep cleavages on abortion, escalating controversy over the right to buy birth control pills (!) at any pharmacy, and nonsensical legal restrictions on both abortion and Plan B (the morning-after pill). By contrast, while plenty of wingnuts deride condoms as useless, no one is trying to pressure pharmacies and other stores to stop selling them.
This double standard was dissected over a generation ago by the philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson, whose 1971 essay "A Defense of Abortion" famously proposed a thought experiment in which a virtuoso violinist with kidney failure was hooked up to another person's kidneys for nine months against that person's will. Without using the other person as a human dialysis machine, the violinist would die. Of course no one would insist that the second person had an obligation to permit this. No one, Thomson argued, has the right to another's body. While her analogy is obviously imperfect, the disanalogies are not strong enough to invalidate her argument. (See Wikipedia for a nice summary of objections to Thomson and the rebuttals to them. Note also that her argument generously posits that the fetus is a full social and legal person; if you don't grant that premise, then there's no reason to restrict abortion on ethical grounds and her whole argument becomes unnecessary.)
I'd like to extend Thomson's reasoning with a more explicit analysis of how gender plays into this. (I'm basing my thoughts partly on arguments that Susan Bordo makes much more eloquently in her essay "Are Mothers Persons? Reproductive Rights and the Politics of Subject-ivity," in Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body.) Here's a particularly crass example. Abortion opponents often argue that women need to bear the consequences of choosing to have sex. As soon as fertilization has occurred, they grant the fetus an absolute right to life, which logically entails significant bodily sacrifices from the woman. Yet they never argue that fathers have a legal obligation to make sacrifices for their born children that would impinge on their own bodily autonomy and integrity.
If, say, a child needs an kidney donated or even simply a life-saving blood transfusion, most people would agree that a parent who's a match has a special obligation to donate the needed body parts or fluids. Most parents would do so - without hesitation. But no law compels any parent to donate any part of his or her body. And why not, if the foes of legal abortion believe that a mother has such an obligation to sustain her fetus that she must allow it the use of her entire body for nine months, running non-trivial physical risks in the process? Why would they legally require mothers to make sacrifices far greater than mere blood donation, yet fathers are let off the hook entirely? This inconsistency, Bordo suggests, stems from a belief that mothers are not full persons, either socially or legally.
These are not just abstract philosophical questions. Without reproductive rights, women's health suffers grave harm. Worldwide, millions of women have died of botched and self-induced abortions where the procedure is illegal. When Roe v. Wade made abortion legal throughout the United States in 1973, the number of live births remained steady while maternal mortality plummeted. This indicates that legalization didn't actually increase the number of abortions, at least initially, but it did save thousands of women's lives each year. In those countries where it remains illegal, abortion often accounts for the lion's share of maternal mortality.
Without reproductive rights, children's lives suffer, too, and not just from the abuse and neglect that TPC deplores. As I've argued elsewhere, children in developing countries fall deeper into poverty and face higher risks of being orphaned where their mothers have poor access to contraception and abortion.
So the stakes are high. This is why Human Rights Watch has defined reproductive rights as human rights. Yet, seeing how some of their putative defenders have weenied out in recent years, you might conclude that reproductive rights are a fringe issue here in the U.S. One of the highest ranking Democrats, Senate Majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada), opposes abortion rights - no big shock, given that he's a Mormon. More surprisingly, much of the Democratic leadership seems to think his position is just hunky-dory.
Reproductive rights are not a fringe issue. They affect the 51% of the population that has the present, past, or future capacity to become pregnant. Unless you're pretty sure a woman sheds her personhood as soon as she becomes a potential mother, why wouldn't she deserve the same legal right to bodily autonomy and integrity as any man?
Image by Flickr user stormbear, used under a Creative Commons license.