A Brave Humanist Voice Goes Silent

Dr. Henry Morgentaler has died. He was a tireless crusader for reproduction rights of women and a brave one at that, willing to face criminal charges as part of part of his strategy to see Canada’s draconian abortion laws struck down. He succeeded in 1988, when the Supreme Court of Canada said in its ruling

“The right to liberty… guarantees a degree of personal autonomy over important decisions intimately affecting his or her private life. … The decision whether or not to terminate a pregnancy is essentially a moral decision and in a free and democratic society, the conscience of the individual must be paramount to that of the state.”

The SCoC got this exactly right, and is the basis for bodily autonomy rights. In what to me amounts to an apology for its treatment of him and a realization that he had a profound effect on the rights of women in Canada, Henry Morgentaler was awarded the Order of Canada in 2008.

In the comments of various news items covering Morgentaler’s death, the anti-choice forced-birthers have come out of their holes to bleat like sheep. Invariably, all arguments for taking choice away from women fall into only a few categories:

  1. “Morgentaler killed innocent children/babies!” False equivalence. Fetuses are not children, they are not babies. Mapping what makes up a person onto a blastocyst is simply ridiculous.
  2. “Science proves that life begins at conception!” No, it does not. Life is an unbroken chain leading back 3.5 billion years. No one is arguing that a blastocyst is not alive. It’s just that it’s not at all relevant. Science most definitely cannot determine something as subjective as the beginning of personhood. But, again, it doesn’t matter as this is also irrelevant, for reasons I will discuss below.
  3. “There’s always adoption!” Oy. Forced birthing. Anyone putting this forward is simply a terrible person. Some people choose this option. But the key word is choose.
  4. “If you don’t want to get pregnant, don’t have sex!” There’s so much wrong with this one. First, it’s a form of the naturalistic fallacy (that which is natural is good). Foxglove is natural, but your heart may stop if you eat one (it’s a source of the cardiac drug digitalis). Second, engaging in sex is not (repeat NOT) consenting to pregnancy any more than driving a car is consenting to be involved in a motor vehicle accident. Third, it’s just glib, patronizing moralization.

But even if I gave credence to any of the above emotional arguments it doesn’t matter. Heck, even if I allowed that a blastocyst is fully a person it doesn’t matter.

Look at it this way. Let’s say I was having multiple organ failure and that the only chance of survival is to parasitically use someone else’s body to take over those functions no longer available in my own. For some reason yours is the only suitable candidate. Do I have the right to forcibly make use of your body? Obviously, the answer is “no”. I would clearly be violating your rights.

“Well”, you might say, “That’s different! You would actively engaged in forcibly using my body. A fetus isn’t given the choice.” As true as it is irrelevant. The question of malicious intent is moot. Either way your rights are violated, and that is the only consideration.

If society decides that abortion violates a fetus’ right to life, it is not possible that taking away a woman’s choice when choice is available is not a violation of her rights. In my example, it would be a granting me the right to violate your rights. And that’s a problem, since if no reasonable person would grant me the right to commandeer your body to keep me alive, taking away a woman’s right to reproductive choice is giving rights to a demographic which no other group has or can have. It makes no sense except on an emotional, and therefor irrelevant, level.

And that’s the lasting legacy of Henry Morgentaler. What he did was get society to understand that reproductive choice is a human right. He was very much a pioneer in this country.