Charles Rulon: Anti-abortion laws stomp on women’s right to personal body integrity and liberty

By | February 15, 2011

Personal body integrity

In Anglo-American law there is no routine legal duty for an innocent bystander to rescue another, not even a relative. So, although it might be virtuous for me to wade into a river to save a drowning child, I’m not legally forced to do so (unless it comes with my occupation, of course). I also have the right to protect myself from being kidnapped or from being physically harmed against my will, even with deadly force if necessary. And despite the pain and suffering of those in dire need of a kidney or bone marrow transplant, or even a blood trans­fusion, I am legally protected from being forced to donate — from having my body invaded against my will, even if it means someone else will die. And, of course, if an embryo were to be implanted in a woman’s uterus without her consent, the law would come to her defense, the embryo would be removed and those responsible arrested…. unless, of course, the embryo came about because she had sex.

The major exception to our right to personal body integrity

Before Roe v. Wade (1973) there was one major exception where a major biological invasion with potentially dangerous conse­quences was being legally required of an American citizen without her consent.[1] These were the millions of women with unwanted pregnancies who were being forced to carry to term—to have their bodies used against their will to keep embryos and fetuses alive.[2] In 1973 Roe v. Wade changed all that. One half of our entire population now became legally and safely protected from being forced to be unwilling embryo incubators. Yet for decades major conservative religious and political forces have been attempting to deny women with unwanted pregnancies their right to personal body integrity and freedom. Today, women’s bodies are in real danger of being involuntarily conscripted by the state to preserve the life of tiny mindless senseless embryos and fetuses.

Active killing vs. passive killing

Anti-choice activists reject this body integrity argument by claiming that there is a fundamental difference between the pregnant woman actively having her fetus killed and a citizen passively doing nothing by not donating blood. But the woman is not actively trying to kill her fetus; she is actively trying to not have her body used against her will as an embryo incubator, just as I might actively resist having my body used against my will as a kidney or blood bank.

Consent to have sex is NOT consent to become pregnant[3]

Abortion opponents also reject the body integrity argument by claiming that women with unwanted pregnancies are NOT innocent bystanders. They claim that by choosing to have sex, knowing that pregnancy is possible, women have already implic­it­ly con­sented to be pregnant, so the “hands off my body” arguments and laws no longer apply. This “consent to have sex = implicit consent to be pregnant” argument is the major reason why most anti-choice supporters make an exception for rape and incest victims, even though the result is still the death of “innocent” embryos and fetuses. (For the extremely powerful Roman Catholic Church—the primary driving force behind the anti-choice movement—the “con­sent to have sex” argument is irrelevant anyway, since the Church opposes all artificial contraceptives, emergency contraception, and abortions, even for rape.)

Of course, being raped obviously isn’t the only way women can have unwanted pregnancies. Contra­cep­tives can fail. Ignorance, poverty, guilt, coercion, alcohol, drugs, and aggressive macho males all play their part. Humans evolved to be extremely sexual primates, but they are also quite fallible and often make mistakes. Now stir in all the major religious, patriarchal, financial, educational and social obstacles to birth control and what do we get? A planet literally swamped with over 80 million unplanned pregnancies a year.

Since Roe v. Wade, over 50 million Americans have elected to abort. Yet for most anti-choice supporters, only rape and incest (and life-threatening situations) justify the right for a woman to abort.[4] I see this “consent to sex = implicit consent to be pregnant” argument as mean-spirited and irrational. It is as destructive to female equality as claiming that those women who wear “suggestive” clothes have implicitly consented to be raped and thus have no recourse.[5]

Body integrity vs. embryo rights

If embryos are ever legally granted the right to life, will abortions legally then be murder? Quite possibly YES, since the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade did not rely on the personal body integrity argument. Had they done so, then it should make no dif­ference if the embryo is legally defined as a person. Why? Because it doesn’t change the fact that an un­wanted and potentially very harmful invasion of a woman’s body has taken place. After all, the guy who needs the kidney transplant or blood transfusion is obviously a person. Trying to “glamorize” and “personalize” embryos—to grant them the right to life—has distracted us for decades from what should have been the real question: Do we really want to live in a country that protects the right to personal body integrity of all American citizens, except pregnant women—a country where it’s legal to try to force women to use their bodies against their will to incubate unwanted embryos—to outlaw a woman’s basic right to have herself freed from this potentially dangerous and unwanted bodily invasion?

Closing thoughts

Measures that force women to stay pregnant against their will demean, endanger, and essentially enslave women. Every year on our planet some 20 million women are desperate enough to seek out danger­ous illegal abortions. Millions end up in hospitals hemorrhaging and badly in­fected. Tens of thousands die. The seriously injured and dead often leave behind young, unattended children whose chances for survival are bleak. For anti-choice supporters to demand that tiny human embryos all have some kind of inalienable right to life that must be protected with strongly enforced laws is, for me personally, so patently absurd and dangerous as to defy any cogent response.[6]

Charles L. Rulon
Emeritus, Life & Health Sciences; Long Beach City College
([email protected])

[1]One out of four pregnant women needs serious medical atten­tion. Pregnant women exper­ience 7-9 months of sym­p­toms of varying sev­erity, often includ­ing nausea, vomiting, bloating, insom­nia, varicose veins, hemorr­hoids, back pain and indigestion. Their uteruses increase to over 500 times regular size. Finally, their preg­nan­cies cul­mi­nate in physiologi­cal crises that are al­most always excru­ci­atingly pain­ful and occasionally fatal.

[2] J. Mohr, Abortion in America (1978). Our earliest laws (1800s) that outlawed abortion did so, not because embryos were seen as persons with a right to life, but because abortions were extremely dangerous and deadly. Also, Protestant clergy were motivated more by the declining birthrates of adherents than by any concern for the embryo. The clergy were also opposed to abortions because women were seeking out abortions to try to escape the shame and punishment for the sexual sins of extramarital sex and non-procreative sex.

[3] The Supreme Court in its earlier decisions regarding the legalization of contra­ceptives (Griswold v. Connecticut – 1965, 1972) has already protect­ed the right to have sex without having a child. Also, in an earlier decision (Skinner v. Oklahoma -1942) the Court recognized the gross disempowerment that would occur if the choice of whether to have a child were transferred from the individual to the state.

[4]About 90% of women in the U.S. seeking an abortion say they were using contraception at the time. Yet, current contraceptive methods have up to a 30% failure rate. Also, the abortion rate among women living below the poverty line in the U.S. is almost four times higher than among more affluent women. For Hispanic women it’s three times higher than for white women. For black women, it’s five times higher.

[5] By the same logic, smokers have implic­it­ly con­sent­­ed to possible lung cancer and so should be denied publicly funded medical care if a tumor appears; tourists going to developing countries have implicitly consented to being infected with a tropical disease and so should be denied publicly funded treatment; people in automobiles have implicitly consented to an accident, so …well you get the idea.

[6] There is absolutely no scientific evidence for (and much evidence against) the religious beliefs that human embryos have immortal souls and/or were planned ahead of time by some god, and/or have a sacred right to life. In addition, after decades of debates and arguments, there is still little agree­ment among medi­cal, reli­gious, political and theological experts as to when personhood appears (if at all) dur­ing fetal development. To claim that the right-to-life appears at conception is a narrow religious position, certainly not a scientific one.

One thought on “Charles Rulon: Anti-abortion laws stomp on women’s right to personal body integrity and liberty

  1. Firooz

    Ammen! One caveat, he mistakes dogma and fanaticism with ture religion. May someone introduce him to Baha'i Faith please!


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