I’m still not sure why Anglican Priest Tish Harrison Warren was hired to write a weekly column on religion for the New York Times. Not only does she push mythology on the paper’s educated readers (I think of it as an “astrology for the elite” column), but her sentiments are nearly always trite and anodyne.
From her previous columns, though, we know she believes in much of the Christian mythology, including the existence and divinity of Jesus, and of the salvific properties of his Resurrection. I’ve also seen hints that she thinks abortion is immoral.
This week she defends that last position, though manages, as she so often does, to say that without telling us explicitly that that’s her view. Instead, she dances around the topic, giving three arguments for why the “bodily autonomy” argument of pro-choice people is wrong. But in the process she also buys into another myth: that humans are qualitatively different from other animals, for we are made in the image of God. (She says nothing about a “soul,” but there must be some distinguishing feature that makes it immoral for humans but not other animals to undergo abortion.)
I’ve never known anybody to switch sides in the “pro choice” vs. “anti choice” debate, though there are some, like Christopher Hitchens, who personally aren’t comfortable with abortion but wouldn’t ban it. I’ve also known women who wouldn’t have an abortion, and yet still are pro-choice for everyone else. That’s fine with me: whatever they believe personally, they just can’t force it down the rest of our throats.
Warren would indeed sign onto that force-feeding just mandated by the Supreme Court, but she’s very cagey about it. I’ll briefly present—and criticize her three arguments for why the claim that “women have bodily autonomy” is not a good argument for the right to abortion. But in the end they all hinge on one assumption: a fetus has the same rights as a human who’s been born, adult or child, and that’s because of God.
Click on the screenshot to read:
Warren’s quotes are indented.
Here are three ways that I find abortion rights arguments that appeal to bodily autonomy unpersuasive and ultimately harmful to our understanding of freedom and what it means to be human:
1. Bodily autonomy is limited by our obligation to not harm others. We already recognize in law that there are limits to physical autonomy. One can’t walk down the street naked, even if one really wants to, or go 75 miles an hour in a school zone, even if slowing down poses a burden on the driver.
These limits came up in the Dobbs oral arguments. Twice, Justice Clarence Thomas brought up a case where a woman was convicted of child neglect for ingesting harmful illegal drugs while pregnant. The Supreme Court’s majority opinion in Dobbs addresses this as well, saying that an appeal to autonomy, “at a high level of generality, could license fundamental rights to illicit drug use, prostitution, and the like.” Our desires to do as we wish with our bodies must be respected but they also must be limited by the needs and rights of others, including those who live inside our own bodies.
First, I don’t agree with laws banning women from taking legal drugs while they are pregnant, even if they could damage the fetus. Imagine the courts making it illegal for women to smoke or drink or even take illicit drugs on the grounds that this is child neglect. (If you take illicit drugs, pregnant or not, you can be prosecuted for that alone.) This already presumes what you want to prove: that the fetus has the same rights as an already-born child.
And to say that bodily autonomy does not permit you to go naked (that depends on the country!) or speed in a car, is not the same as the bodily autonomy of deciding whether you have a child or not. The “naked” stuff is presumably to enforce public order, though I don’t care about that (naked people walk around Berkeley without arrest; who cares?), while bans on speeding protects other adult humans from being hurt by your negligence. The argument about abortion hinges on whether you consider a fetus, particularly one in the first trimesters of pregnancy, to have the same “rights” as an adult on the road need your car. If you say “no,” as I do, because you see fetuses as non-sentient embryos (actually, balls of cells early in pregnancy), and which are, in effect, parasitic on the mother, then the arguments from drug-taking, speeding, and nudity disappear. Remember, you are 14 times more likely to die from pregnancy than from abortion. To me, that by itself suggests that the default option is choice.
I’m sure readers will have other things to say about this “argument.” On to argument #2:
2. The term “autonomy” denies the deep interdependence and limitations of every human body. One definition of autonomy is “independence.” But no human has complete bodily autonomy from birth to death. The natural state of human beings is to be deeply and irrevocably interdependent on one another. The only reason any of us is alive today is that someone cared for us as children in the womb and then as infants and toddlers. Almost all of us, through age or disability or both, will eventually depend on other human beings — other human bodies — to bathe, dress, feed and otherwise care for us.
A child in the womb is dependent on a mother for life in a way that does place a unique burden on a mother. But this burden does not end at birth. Parenthood — at any stage — is an arduous good. A 1-year-old baby is dependent on adults for nourishment, protection and care in ways that can be profoundly burdensome, yet we cannot claim “bodily autonomy” as a reason to neglect the needs of a 1-year-old. Abortion seems to punish a fetus for its lack of bodily autonomy and deny the profound reliance that all of us who have bodies hold.
To me this argument has little force because a fetus is not identical to a child or another adult in the ways described above. A child without parental care, or who is abused, suffers in ways that an aborted non-sentient fetus doesn’t, and society also suffers in in different ways. (I don’t see society suffering at all if a woman has an abortion.)
And being “dependent” on others (why not just add farmers and truckers?) when you’re an adult, young or, old isn’t the same as forcing people to take care of you, because there are no laws that mandate such care. There is no law that your relatives must empty your bedpan, but Warren wants a law that will force a women to go through nine months of sometimes-dicey pregnancy because the fetus is dependent on the mother for nourishment and development. Warren has made no convincing argument that “interdependence” leads directly to banning abortion. Like the other reasons, this is a post facto argument she’s concocted to defend her position, which I believe comes from her religion.
This is the wonkiest of the arguments:
3. The pressing issue when it comes to abortion is whether championing “bodily autonomy” requires us to override or undo biological realities. In the Dobbs oral arguments, Julie Rikelman described what women experience if they lack access to abortion: “Allowing a state to take control of a woman’s body and force her to undergo the physical demands, risks and life-altering consequences of pregnancy is a fundamental deprivation of her liberty.”
But is restricting abortion the same thing as forced gestation? Is it correct to compare abortion restrictions to a state “taking control” of a woman’s body and a deprivation of liberty?
To me, yes, the comparison is valid. But what are the “biological realities” that are undone when a woman has an abortion? Simply that sex, even with birth control, sometimes lead to pregnancy. In other words, when you have sex, you have to pay the price if you get pregnant, even if you don’t want the child:
Whatever one thinks sex is and what it is for — whether a sacred act or a mere recreational pleasure — all of us can agree that sex is the only human activity that has the power to create life and that every potentially procreative sexual act therefore carries some level of risk that pregnancy could occur. (Birth control significantly lessens this risk but does not entirely take it away since birth control methods can fail.) Yet, the state does not impose this risk of producing human life; biology does. Except in the horrible circumstances of rape or incest, which account for 1 percent of abortions, women and men both have bodily agency and choices about whether they will have sex and therefore if they are willing to accept the risk of new life inherent in it.
. . . . A sperm and an egg unite to grow into a human inside the body of a woman. The state doesn’t force this to happen any more than it forces aging or forces weight loss from exercise or forces lungs to take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide.
To use language of forced gestation or of a state “controlling” women’s bodies is to portray biology itself as oppressive and halting the natural course of the body as the liberative role of the state.
This is what she’s really saying:
“Sex can lead to pregnancy. If you don’t want a child, don’t have sex.”
Whence the “requirement” that we cannot undo the reality that when you have sex, an egg could be fertilized? It is simply Warren’s view that a fertilized egg is somehow very special—more special than the fertilized eggs of other animals. And when that sperm penetrates the egg, biology says that we have to let development continue.
But this is again a post facto way for Warren to justify her religious view that humans are special (see below) because we’re made in the image of God. To answer her, I can just say “what is the biological imperative that requires allowing a fertilized egg, produced by failed contraception, to continue development?” This comes perilously close to turning an “is” into an “ought”. But the real reason she comes up with this hokey imperative is her religion. That becomes clear in this sentence (my emphasis):
Speaking as a woman, with a woman’s body, I want safety and freedom for all women. I want women to be full participants and empowered leaders in public life. I believe we, as human beings and image bearers of God, have a right to bodily integrity, protection and liberty.
Except when it comes to abortion. . . .
That’s the real reason behind all this: embryos are sacred and cannot be destroyed because God made them in his own image. The rest is commentary and justification. Those two sentences are the only place where Warren even comes close to telling us that abortion should be illegal (except for rape and incest), and why. Yes, she throws in all the liberal ways you can live with prohibited abortion: more child-support laws, free health care, and “affordable child care.” Tell that to a woman who has no resources to bring up an unwanted child, or is in a situation where pregnancy can ruin her life!
In the end, Warren’s arguments are the same as those of Catholics: fetuses are sacred because they are made in the image of God (presumably having a soul) and it is murder (or, as Harrison euphemistically says, “undoing biological reality”) to abort them. She began with that belief and then confects three arguments why abortion doesn’t abrogate women’s “bodily autonomy”. She is a Catholic in an Anglican dog collar.
My advice to Pastor Warren: “It’s fine if you try to persuade people to oppose abortion, but don’t go forcing people to adhere to your religiously-based views.” What’s moral in your Anglican religion doesn’t have to be the law of the land.