What’s that whining Fifties jukebox favorite that goes, “It’s my party, and I’ll cry if I want to”? That one invariably springs to mind when I hear the tired refrain, “It’s my body, and I’ll do with it what I want to.” Many mutations of this peevish, childish taunt were run up the masthead during Ireland’s repeal of her Eighth Amendment last month—a plebiscite which effectively legalized abortion under most conditions. Yet how true is that claim about one’s body, and in what sense might it ever be true?
You cannot legally amputate a limb just because you take a disliking to it in most civilized nations. This dark urge is rightly considered to characterize a mental disorder, and those who suffer from it are viewed as incompetent to make such decisions. So… no, in that case you cannot do whatever you wish with your body.
The counter-argument might be made that the fetus is an invading, parasitic life form, so that the “amputation” analogy is inaccurate. The modicum of truth in this protest, however, seems to me to undermine the broader claim irreparably. Because the fetus is indeed another life and not just one of your appendages, you no longer have any right whatsoever to terminate its existence.
But (says the whining party-girl) you ignored the “invading” part, the “parasite” part! I don’t want this parasite growing in me! This is an entirely different line of argument that has completely abandoned the “it’s my body” umbrella. Assessing its validity would require a close review of just what’s meant by invasion and parasitism. A three-year-old child might well be deemed a parasite: we would certainly be contemplating a life form that cannot survive on its own. Would the parent, then, be morally justified in murdering the child on the ground that the toddler had become an insufferable parasite?
But to return to the “it’s my body” contention… how does the “yourness” of this body reconcile with its having been successfully invaded by a parasite against your will? You submitted your body to a course of behavior which rendered the parasite’s implantation highly probable. Unless you are an utter idiot incapable of guiding her own Sharpie along her own demo-placard, you must know that pregnancy is a possible-to-likely consequence of sexual activity. You made the choice to engage in that activity through your body. If you own a car and you race it along a muddy, stony course for thrills, then your insurance provider is not responsible for returning the vehicle to its previous condition. You chose to employ it in a risky, irresponsible activity: the consequences of that choice must be addressed with your own resources. Why does society have an obligation to patch up the “damage” when your body was the vehicle of your joy ride? Because, you know, you’re demanding that society’s resources remedy your inconvenient predicament. Most abortions are not self-administered, just as most people can’t repair their own car.
Two further points arise here. One is that you don’t really have a right to treat any item of personal property however you damn well like. You can’t set fire to your car or your house because you enjoy the sight of smoke and flames. The flames may spread to other people’s possessions; and, in any case, wantonness is considered morally reprehensible even in situations where it is legally permitted. You could pay ten thousand bucks for an oil painting and then shred it without fear of facing charges… but your community would regard you with horror and disgust, as it should. Even inanimate objects should not be destroyed for idle amusement.
Secondly, the public actually does have a stake in whether or not you give birth to the children you have conceived. Societies that do not produce another generation do not survive: Western Europe is slowly (too slowly) awakening to this grim fact as I write, and even China will soon run into it around a surprising near-future turn of events after having promoted abortion for two generations. Those who extol the demographically salutary effects of abortion in an overpopulated world, such as certain eugenicist members of my own family, may be right at some level; but notice that, once again, their position doesn’t support the “it’s my body” premise. On the contrary, they maintain that society has an exigent interest in keeping your progeny off the face of the earth. (I might add that their attitude often infects its elitist proponents more quickly than the seething masses: childlessness has all but exterminated my side of the family tree.)
Finally, I’d venture to point out that anyone who lives for more than half a century must begin to question just what kind of possession he or she enjoys over the body. As you age, your body becomes a traitor. If it were truly yours, it would behave better… but it doesn’t sleep as it should, it rebels against certain foods, it must relieve itself with irritating frequency, it torments you with mysterious pains never before known—it’s increasingly a ramshackle house that you are forced to rent. You begin to understand that it doesn’t really belong to you and never really belonged to you: that it was always a rental property, and that the terms of the lease require you to endure a degree of inconvenience. You’d rather have been a little taller; that won’t happen. You’d like to have blond hair. Well, that can be arranged temporarily… but probably at the cost of long-term damage to your mop. You’re too fat. That’s a condition similar to being pregnant, in that it follows upon certain choices you have made in pursuit of pleasure. If you want to be thinner, eat less and eat better. If you want to be un-pregnant, abstain from sex, or at least circle three days in the middle of your month to be reserved for fasting and meditation.
If you can’t read a calendar or count to thirty, find a friend who can. Why is it that the most educated people appear to advocate most vocally for these positions that should never have relevance to the conduct of any but the very dullest?
But I forget: the most educated are busily changing the biological sex of their bodies even at this instant. It seems that their body really wasn’t theirs, after all, having been switched at birth with someone else’s. Is that perhaps what abortion ultimately represents in their minds—is it a kind of transferred suicide, a revenge directed at life for ever having interrupted their peaceful oblivion?