Thursday, March 6, 2014

Did Matt Walsh "demolish" the bodily autonomy argument? Not even close.

So "Young Conservatives" blog is trumpeting that Matt Walsh just "demolished" the bodily autonomy pro-choice argument. A big claim. And one that falls laughably short of the reality.

First, background. "Rachel" (not me; some other Rachel) sent a letter to Walsh outlining a bodily autonomy scenario where a person wakes up in a hospital next to a famous singer, and discovers that he's being compelled, for the next nine months, to remain as a virtual life support system to that person. Walsh responds with ten points, which I will address one at a time.

1. Your analogy is flawed because it presupposes that the relationship between mother and child is no more significant, and carries with it no more responsibility, than the relationship between a person and some random stranger in a hospital bed.
Interestingly, Walsh sees that this scenario is akin to forcing someone to be "a slave, a prostitute, and a forced organ donor". He does not see that is similar to forcing a woman to gestate a fetus, however. "The relationship matters. Your hypothetical fails because it pretends that relationships are irrelevant," he argues. Matt's own presuppositions are flawed, however. He seems to think a fertilized egg should and does carry some weight to a woman, but this is not always the case -- and certainly not in the direction that he imagines it would. The potential offspring resulting from rape or fathered by an abusive partner, for instance, can potentially carry a very negative significance (rather than the idyllic one he ascribes).

Furthermore, while some women might and do feel strong attachment to their fetuses, this is certainly not always the case (and it is hard to argue that it can be the case in the earliest stages of pregnancy, when a woman doesn't even realize that she is carrying a zygote or embryo). It's not always the case after birth. But feeling about a relationship isn't really relevant. What it comes down to is this: does a woman owe a fertilized egg something? Matt merely takes for granted that she does. He does not illustrate this, but simply presupposes it. News flash, Matt. Not everyone accepts your fetus-centric worldview, and you're using it to tell women what we can and can't do. Therefore it falls on you to justify that worldview.

Here's the thing. When you're deciding what to do with your own body, you can make any presuppositions you want. You can fantasize about anthropomorphic sperm; you can set limits on what you're allowed to do in relation to those sperm; you can name 'em for all I care. But when you think your views extend to what other people can do with their bodies, however, the burden of proof falls to you to illustrate why your ideas should be taken seriously. And you fail to do this.

2. Your analogy is flawed because it leaves out an important detail: how did the singer become ill in the first place?
This is the classic punishment line. "Aside from cases of rape, a child is only conceived because two people intentionally committed a particular act which has, literally billions of times, resulted in the conception of a human life." Unless you were raped, you had sex, therefore you deserve to be pregnant, whether you want to be or not.

It's interesting to note that Matt ignores rape hereafter for this point. Something bad “happened to” the singer (the original writer didn't actually indicate that the singer had no hand in his sickness; the scenario might have just as easily included an event where the singer chose to do something knowing he ran a tiny risk of contracting an the singer could be as much to “blame” for his illness a pregnant woman for pregnancy). Whereas the woman, unless she was raped, brought it on herself. So what about the woman who didn't? What about the 30+ to 50 thousand women a year whose pregnancies are the results of rape?

You hear that? That's the sound of Walsh ignoring the point. If the consensual nature of the intercourse was a genuine objection, it still leaves a significant body of women to whom the argument applies. Walsh simply ignores them.
Also, not to quibble, but...intercourse is not the only method of conception.

Furthermore, sex and pregnancy are not a one-to-one. If they were, Walsh might have a point on this one; but they're not, and they're not even close. Sex can and does happen when reproduction is not possible, and it is not guaranteed to lead to reproduction even when it is possible. An undesired development does not mean that you're stuck following through, letting nature take its course. If I get behind the wheel on an icy day and my car starts sliding for the ditch, I'm not honor bound to crash if I can prevent it; consenting to drive doesn't mean that I'm consenting to crash. If I go skiing and break my leg, I'm not duty bound to let it heal however it's inclined to heal, if at all; consenting to skiing doesn't mean consenting to broken bones. Why does it follow that conception through consensual intercourse necessitates gestation and motherhood? It doesn't. Consenting to sex is not consenting to pregnancy. Again, Matt is simply supposing something (something very significant – that a woman is bound to use her body to develop a zygote, embryo or fetus into a child [and then be responsible for it thereafter] if she has consensual sex that results in a fertilized egg) and offering no justification for his supposition.

Our species has no problem correcting non-optimal outcomes when possible. We set broken legs. We perform surgeries. We treat cancers and diseases. We terminate unwanted pregnancies. It doesn't matter if they're “self-inflicted.” We don't just give up in defeatist fashion. “Well, you chose to have sex. Now that egg is fertilized. Which means you're going to have a baby. And then that baby is going to grow old and die, maybe terribly. Congratulations, you murdering whore: you've condemned someone to old age and death, all because you had to have sex.”

3. Your analogy is flawed because, when framed properly, it doesn’t strengthen your moral position — it defeats it. 
Walsh returns again to the argument that pregnancy is no more than you deserve, harlot, for having had sex: “your own child becomes very sick because of something you did.” He then delves into even more dishonest territory by likening nine months of pregnancy, labor, and forced parenthood thereafter with – are you ready for it? – a blood transfusion. “He needs a blood transfusion and you are the only match. Would you refuse to give him your blood because it infringes on your bodily autonomy? Could this be morally justified? You put your kid in the hospital and now you will choose to watch him die because he ‘doesn’t have a right to your blood.’”

We've already covered the fact that having consensual sex does not mean (and often cannot mean) consenting to parenthood. Now let's look at the patent dishonesty of his comparison. The original scenario in the letter clearly laid out that this was a nine month long ordeal that the hypothetical protagonist had to endure. Matt pretends to show the inhumanity of refusing that offer, while reducing it to a piddly shadow of its former self: a blood transfusion. If Matt's you-deserve-it argument carried the weight he pretends it does, he wouldn't have to utterly misrepresent the scenario as he does. If Matt was honest in how he laid out his scenario, it would look something like this:

Your child is in the hospital, as an unintended consequence of some action of yours. For that child to live, you will have to remain hooked up, for nine months, to him. He will need use of your organs and your blood, or he will die. You will be tied to him, and if you unplug yourself he dies.

Even this scenario is flawed, of course, because it relies on Walsh's first (fallacious) point: it conflates a living, breathing child with a fertilized egg. It's at least more honest than his representation, however. And in this scenario, most people would do it without a second thought (because a child and a fertilized egg are not interchangeable); but who would compel a parent to do it? A parent isn't even compelled in death to give up his organs for a child who needs them. In other words, a dead body has more rights than women in Matt Walsh's world view: its wishes about who uses it and when are respected, but not the pregnant woman's.

4. But, no matter how you frame the hypothetical, it is still flawed because it ignores one crucial thing: natural order.
This is a type of naturalistic fallacy. It's what nature “ordains”, therefore it's optimal and right. This fails for all the reasons this fallacy generally fails. “An unborn child is exactly where he is supposed to be.” Walsh is supposing that the bodily autonomy argument is wrong, not proving it to be wrong; again, this is on him to prove: that a woman should remain pregnant just because she is. “Natural” doesn't cut it (anymore than telling a cancer patient to enjoy their slow demise, because that's “natural” cuts it). He continues, “He [the fetus] couldn’t possibly be anywhere else. This is the fundamental difference between two people hooked up to machines on a hospital bed, and a ‘fetus’ connected to his mother insider her womb. The former represents unnatural and extraordinary measures, while the latter represents something natural and ordinary. The unborn child is where Nature (or God, as I call Him) intends it to be.”
Matt just shifted the goal posts on us a bit, toward a deliberate, guided process. If this is just nature that we're talking about, well, we change that all the time. We treat heart patients. We help people who naturally couldn't conceive. We cure cancer. “Naturalness” is not an argument for not changing something that it behooves us to change. But interfering with naturalness is not thwarting the will of a supreme being. If we're going to get into the god realm, well, you've got a heck of a lot more proving to do, Matt. This is something you're not very good at, but you've moved from ordinary (though absurd) claims to extraordinary ones...and you know what they say about those...

5. Beyond all of these points, the analogy is flawed because abortion is not the same as ‘unplugging’ a person from medical equipment.
Walsh argues that in an abortion the “baby is actively killed. It is crushed, dismembered, poisoned, or torn apart. It is killed. It is actively, actually, purposefully, intentionally killed.” An abortion's goal is to terminate a pregnancy. Walsh sees this as a “baby” being killed, but the goal isn't fetus-killing – in the same way that pulling that needle out of your arm, in the scenario, wouldn't be done with the goal of killing the dependent person. And, it's worth reiterating, a sack of partially formed human tissue is not really comparable to an actual, formed human being. Walsh assumes that a fetus is a “baby” and should be regarded as having the same worth as a person, but does not illustrate that.

6. But the bodily autonomy argument is flawed in ways that go beyond that utterly fallacious and misleading hypothetical. It’s flawed because nobody is crazy enough to consistently apply it to pregnant women.
Walsh says “according to bodily autonomy, a mother could not be judged harshly for smoking, drinking, doing coke, and going skydiving (hopefully not all in the same day) while 6 months pregnant.” There is a fundamental difference between something being frowned upon and illegal. So-called “fetal protection” laws are widely criticized in pro-choice circles because of the (unintentional?) effects they have on pregnant women. Like any right, the right to bodily autonomy can be used wisely or unwisely. It remains a right, however.

7. The bodily autonomy argument is flawed because it requires you to support abortion at every stage of development.
This simply isn't true. If a woman carries a fetus to a viable stage and then decides that she no longer wishes to remain pregnant (a truly odd hypothetical, seeing as how waiting until this later stage will only make any termination more painful and difficult), the fetus can be delivered. The woman is no longer pregnant, and the fetus is not dead. Again, this is a bizarre hypothetical, and one that would lead to problems for the prematurely birthed fetus – and the mother, who would have a host of medical bills and prematurity-related issues to deal with. It defies logic that someone would ever do something like this.

8. The bodily autonomy argument is flawed because you can’t limit it to pregnant women.
“Children, at any age, create profound demands on their parents’ bodies.” Walsh lists out parenting duties (feeding, clothing, transportation, etc.), concluding “An argument for absolute bodily autonomy means that it can’t be illegal, or considered immoral, for a parent to decline to do any of these things, so long as their decision was made in the name of bodily autonomy.” This is a painfully bad argument (don't worry: a worse one's coming up...), but I did promise to address them all...even the really stupid ones.

We have to come back to consent. If someone willingly continues a pregnancy and births a child; if someone retains parental custody; they consent to becoming a parent. There are duties contingent on that, and they include feeding your child. So, no, Matt, if you choose to become a parent, you can't starve your child to death in the name of bodily autonomy. You can surrender that child to social services; you can give that child up for adoption; you can take advantage of your state's safe-haven laws. But you can't withhold food or clothing, because you demonstrably consented to parenting by becoming a parent. This is, demonstrably, a person with legal rights (the same cannot be said for fertilized eggs...), and as a deliberate guardian of one such, you have a responsibility under the law.

9. The bodily autonomy argument is flawed because it necessarily justifies things like public masturbation.
Remember what I said about stupid arguments?

You ever hear the phrase “my right to swing my fist ends where the other fellow's nose begins,” Matt? You might want to look it up. Your hypothetical masturbating man can masturbate all day long in his own home. And he can scream “fire!” all day long as he does it (or sans masturbating; either works). But you know what he can't do? He can't scream “fire!” in a crowded theater. And he can't exploit his bodily autonomy in public, at least not in the fashion you suggest. (And I'm not really sure this is an issue of bodily autonomy as much as freedom of expression, but...)

Out of curiosity, Matt, you mention in your next point that you're “often accused of oversimplifying” think it could be because you willfully misrepresent complex issues with ample gray area as either-or, stark black and white points? Like what you did in this point?

10. Finally, the bodily autonomy argument is flawed because our bodies are not autonomous.

And speaking of oversimplifying...Matt says, “If my body is autonomous, my person must be autonomous, and if my person is autonomous, then my very existence is autonomous, and if my very existence is autonomous, then it is simply unacceptable and (by your logic) immoral for anyone to expect me to do anything for anyone at any point for any reason.” He's not asserting that that is the case, but rather “If you are admitting that limits can be placed on our bodily autonomy, then you must consider whether abortion falls within or outside of those limits. And here’s the rub: if you contend that abortion falls within the limits on bodily autonomy, you must justify that belief beyond simply reasserting our right to bodily autonomy.”

And again, Matt's got his burden of proof all wrong. It's not up to pro-choicers to prove that a woman should be able to decide when and if she will be pregnant. It's up to pro-lifers to prove that she shouldn't – because that's their position. When people say that a person's right to free speech should be curbed in relation to inciting mass panics, we can (and have) present(ed) good reasons as to why this is the case. When we say that a person's right to bear arms can be curbed if that person is a violent felon, good reasons have been provided. When we tell Matt's masturbating man to stay away from playgrounds, we have good reasons for limiting that use of bodily autonomy or expression. But Matt is alleging that a woman's right to bodily autonomy should be limited inside of pregnancy; and every bit of evidence he provided for that is nonsense that crumbles under the slightest honest scrutiny.

I don't have to prove that it's wrong to limit my free speech; the person trying to do the limiting has to prove why it's right. I don't have to prove that it's wrong to take away my ability to make my own medical decisions; the person trying to take that power from me has to prove that it's right. I don't have to prove that it's wrong to incarcerate me; the person attempting to do so has to prove that it's the right choice. And I don't have to prove that it's wrong to limit my choice to be pregnant or not; that falls to the person trying to do the limiting.

Though the burden of proof is on him, Matt didn't prove his case. He didn't even come close. His best attempts at poking holes in the bodily autonomy argument were tired, disingenuous and shoddy. The choir seems pleased, judging by how loudly they're singing his praises, but the irrational bent of his arguments is hardly compelling to a rational mind. As far as a “dismantling” goes, this was a downright disappointing read.


  1. Rachel would you rather to be a woman... or a man?

  2. I'm late to the party but I wanted to actually thank you both for the spirited back and forth. Having read through all the replies, I think it can all be boiled down to a single element (at least the thrust of this thread can). That being, "consent".

    There seems to be a fundamental disagreement here. One side argues that consent to the pregnancy has been given by the consent to the sex act and the other argues it has not and that the sex act consent is distinct.

    The inability to agree on this simple fact seems to be the major hangup, although there are many side arguments on both sides. I can see the argument from both sides and I'm honestly still unsure where I stand on the subject of consent.

    I'm honestly trying to work it out, which is how I found this blog. Thank you.

    The only analogy (and I'm sure it's a bad one) that comes to mind (mostly because of the words "risk of pregnancy") would be that of a gambler. I think a gambler gambles for many reasons, in the same way that people have sex for many reasons, gambling is thrilling, it's entertaining, etc. But also, in gambling there is an inherent risk of monetary loss (I say inherent because that risk of loss, like the risk of pregnancy, can only be mitigated, but never fully eliminated).

    I think the gambler, by consenting to gamble is also consenting to the risks commonly attributed to gambling (loss of $). Perhaps he has a system. Perhaps he is very skillful and rarely loses. But the risk is there and I have a hard time thinking he'd get far with the authorities making the argument that he consented to gamble but did not consent to losing his money while doing so.

    1. I don't think the risks are comparable between losing and getting pregnant, nor are the situations really comparable (the possibility to win in the face of the likelihood of losing is literally what gambling is all about; the thrill of sex, though, has nothing to do with beating the pregnancy odds. You gamble to try to beat the risks, that's what it's all about; sex is more like driving a car, where unwanted results can occur, but they are certainly not the goal, and if we can take action to change them, we do. Whether that is pulling out of a spin or having an abortion.)
      Even in the case of a gambler, though, he can leave the table. He's not compelled to spend his next nine months' wages there, because he's already lost a few bucks. Like a woman who has to deal with an unexpected abortion, he can cut his losses and walk away with as little damage as possible.

    2. Perhaps a better analogy than gambling would be surgery. If I get spinal surgery on my neck and paralysis is one of my risks, then by law, the doctor is required to inform me of that risk, and consent to treatment requires that I agree that I might have to live paralyzed (which is perhaps the most literal case there is of lost bodily autonomy, since autonomy means self rule and paralysis is inability to control the body).

  3. Don't agree with everything Matt said, but I think there are some serious problems with this article and arguments, especially the claim that the fetus isn't a human person. I will be writing a blog response to this article and put forward my own refutation of the Bodily Rights argument, if that is fine with you.