Posted by: bridget | 2 October 2007

Debunking the Pro-Choice Argument, Part IX

A common pro-choice argument (or a partial pro-choice argument) is that, before the fetus is viable, a woman may abort at will.  Once the fetus is viable, it can survive on its own; as such, it has the right to life at that point.  Prior to that point, it is existing off the woman’s body as of necessity and has no right to such. 

Pre-viability fetuses impose themselves upon an unwilling woman to survive.  After viability, however, a fetus is a person capable of an independent existence.  Until then, it’s fair game.

If someone would like to elaborate on the moral justifications for viability, please drop a note in the comments section. 

The largest problem with this reasoning is that viability, which is the trigger for personhood, changes depending on location, health of the mother, rate of development, and other factors that are entirely unrelated to human worth.  A child who is born in Brigham & Women’s Hospital at 24 weeks will be viable; therefore, a woman who is drinking a cup of coffee across the street from B&W, 24 weeks pregnant, has no right to an abortion under this scheme. 

This same woman travels to sub-Saharan Africa.  If she were to deliver, the baby would surely die within a day.  Ergo, it is not viable and she has a right to abort that she did not have two days earlier in Boston; sometime over the Atlantic Ocean, her fetus ceased to be a person.   

This continues after delivery.  Hypothesise a pregnant woman, trapped in her house, in the middle of a blizzard.  Her 24-week-old fetus is not viable, as it is not capable of independent existence.  Is she then allowed an abortion that is morally denied to every ohter American woman?  Does her fetus cease to be a person once the blizzard sets in, and regain its personhood once the roads are cleared? 

Now presume that she is far enough along in her pregnancy so as to deliver a baby that does not need medical intervention to survive. Our pregnant woman is still trapped in a Fargo blizzard; she does not have infant formula available.  Should she deliver, her child will not be viable in the sense advanced by pro-choicers: it cannot live independently of her body.  Without breast milk, it will starve to death.  Is she morally justified in leaving the child to starve – after all, it lacks a right to use her body for its survival without her consent.  Even though other persons are physically capable of caring for the child, they are not able to access the child at the moment.  We require of her to use her body to sustain her child’s life until she can find another person able to do so; this is no different from a woman who must maintain a pregnancy until she can find someone else to care for her child.  The fact that such a person is not available to her, upon her demand, does not negate this duty, nor negate the right of the fetus to its life. 

Viability changes not just with location, but with technological development.  Fetuses which were not viable back in 1980 are viable now; ergo, they are persons now but similarly-situated fetuses were not persons in 1980.  Hypothetically, personhood could attach at conception in a half-century. 

Personhood, with the attendant right to life, should not depend on anything so arbitrary as the location of the mother.  Taking this to its logical conclusion, a newborn baby is not always viable (unless there is formula or a wet nurse around, its needs its mother’s body for survival) and, therefore, has no right to life; however, a 24-week old fetus whose mother lives a block away from a NICU is viable and, therefore, worthy of life.

Pro-choicers usually respond to the Africa issue by saying that it is not the United States.  Addressing this issue, because it has come up more than once:

Personhood is not a concept that ends at our borders; it is one of natural law and is inherent to all human societies.  There is something perverse in stating that an infant in a war zone in an African hut is not worthy of life, because its chances of survival are minimal, while stating that an American baby, even in the womb, is worthy of life by virtue of its access to technology.  While the word “person” does trigger Constitutional rights, those are not the rights discussed in a philosophical justification of abortion.  Such justifications – or lack thereof – must survive locative and temporal changes. 

The argument of viability does nothing but set up a system whereby those infants or fetuses with access to food and neonatal care are persons, while those without such access are not.  It is utterly perverse to suggest that one’s fundamental human rights rest upon such an irregular standard. 

Related posts:

  1. Part I: If you can’t trust me with a choice, how can you trust me with a child? And, It’s wrong to bring unwanted children into the world.
  2. Part II: Why should a blob of tissue have more rights than a woman?
  3. Part III: If you don’t support abortion, you don’t support women.
  4. Part IV: Pro-lifers want to legislate morality; you can’t be pro-life and libertarian.
  5. Part V: Since so many babies die of spontaneous abortion, how can you be pro-life unless you want to save them first?
  6. Part VI: What about this violinist? If we don’t force people to donate organs, why do you want to force people to remain pregnant?
  7. Part VII: If abortion is murder, pro-lifers should want to imprison women
  8. Part VIII: Sherry Colb on abortion


  1. No comment, you anticipated all that I had as I was reading.

    Great post, great argument. If I had more money and was likely to get in legal trouble, I would put you on retainer.

    Well, maybe one comment. If I get really sick and am confined to bed for an extended time and my wife has to care for me, am I not dependent on her body. Not in the same way as the baby, but still if she did not feed me I would starve. She has to use her body to prepare food, bring it to me, and feed me. So I suppose if I get a bad enough case of the flu she could kill me.

  2. SST – for some reason, there is an assumption that work done via one’s body is different from a direct use of a body, presumably because the latter is fungible. However, if you can’t find anyone to take care of you, your wife can’t let you die. Furthermore, we aren’t talking some weird medical technology here (i.e. an obligation created by society), but biology. It is as absurd to think of a pregnant woman aborting in the name of bodily integrity as it is for one Siamese twin to behead the other in the same vein.

    I hope your wife would not kill you if you got the flu… or do you just get that cranky when ill? ;)

  3. I am a pretty demanding patient, but who would take care of my wife when she is sick. So she puts up with me.

  4. Good to hear it. :)

  5. Excellent post as usual Bridget.

  6. Thank you. :)

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