No One May Choose

We should really ask what it is that says “no one may choose” in the face of the fact that the body that houses the child is the mother’s body. It may be simply a failure to appreciate this fact. But it may be something more inter- esting, namely the sense that one has a right to refuse to lay hands on peo- ple, even where it would be just and fair to do so, even where justice seems to require that somebody do so. Thus justice might call for somebody to get Smith’s coat back from Jones, and yet you have a right to refuse to be the one to lay hands on Jones, a right to refuse to do physical violence to him. This, I think, must be granted. But then what should be said is not “no one may choose,” but only “I cannot choose,” and indeed not even this, but “I will not act,” leaving it open that somebody else can or should, and in particular that anyone in a position of authority, with the job of securing people’s rights, both can and should. So this is no difficulty. I have not been arguing that any given third party must accede to the mother’s request that he per- form an abortion to save her life, but only that he may.

I suppose that in some views of human life the mother’s body is only on loan to her, the loan not being one which gives her any prior claim to it. One who held this view might well think it impartiality to say “I cannot choose.” But I shall simply ignore this possibility. My own view is that if a human be- ing has any just, prior claim to anything at all, he has a just, prior claim to his own body. And perhaps this needn’t be argued for here anyway, since, as I mentioned, the arguments against abortion we are looking at do grant that the woman has a right to decide what happens in and to her body.

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But although they do grant it, I have tried to show that they do not take seriously what is done in granting it. I suggest the same thing will reappear even more clearly when we turn away from cases in which the mother’s life is at stake, and attend, as I propose we now do, to the vastly more common cases in which a woman wants an abortion for some less weighty reason than preserving her own life.


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