Anti-abortion arguments are increasingly secular, but remain unconvincing and misogynistic

While abortion laws in New Zealand are likely to be liberalised, in the US abortion rights are being rolled back. This article from Feminist Current looks at the way the anti abortion movement is reframing its arguments.

by Karen Jolly

Any ideology that grants embryonic or fetal “right to life” is dangerous for women and girls.

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Secular anti-abortion banner in Washington march for life

Recently, Georgia passed one of the most restrictive abortion laws in American history. The bill, HB 481 (the Living Infants Fairness and Equality Act), which will take effect in 2020, completely bans abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected, with small exceptions for rape, incest, or medical emergency. For most pregnancies, fetal heartbeat occurs at approximately six weeks — before many women even know they are pregnant. Mississippi and Kentucky passed similar heartbeat bills in April, and the legislatures of several other states — including Florida, Louisiana, Ohio, and Texas — have debated or passed similar legislation in recent weeks. If instituted, these laws will have devastating effects on the lives of women and girls across the United States.

Attempts to restrict women’s reproductive rights are not new. What is new, however, is a seemingly secular pro-life argument that focuses on the concept of “personhood rights” for the embryo or fetus. In the past, pro-life arguments relied heavily on a woman’s biblical duty to bear children or the presence of a soul in the fetus. But as Americans have become increasingly secular, the pro-life movement has begun to abandon arguments that specifically reference Christianity or traditional sexual mores. Georgia’s new legislation, for instance, makes no direct religious references at all. The new focus is instead on universal human rights, particularly the “right to life.”

These personhood arguments claim that a zygote, embryo, or fetus is equal in value to any other human organism and therefore deserves an equal “right to life.” Pro-life proponents point to different biological factors to justify this supposed right: the Georgia bill relies on fetal heartbeat as a means to demonstrate personhood, while other, more extreme versions rely on the unique human DNA formed during conception as the fundamental criterion. Regardless, these arguments always rely on a strictly biological benchmark for determining personhood and, importantly, make no reference to subjective states such as awareness, experience, or capability for relationships.

These arguments provide a unique challenge for feminists, who have often justified the right to abortion by referencing the “bodily sovereignty argument,”first popularized by Judith Jarvis Thomson. Her landmark paper, A Defense of Abortion, argued that a woman’s right to control her body overrides any fetus’s right to life, making abortion morally permissible even if the fetus is a person. This response, while philosophically sound, concedes the validity of fetal personhood. This makes it easy to characterize pro-choice women as callous and irresponsible, willing to snuff out a valuable life on a whim. While this portrayal is unfair and offensive, it undeniably fuels negative opinions toward abortion, even when legal. Feminists can no longer just argue that ending a pregnancy is permissible. We need to show that it is moral — that there is no good reason to discourage abortion.

In reality, the personhood argument itself is untenable. Read the rest of the article here