Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Is a Fetus Part of a Woman's Body?

Yesterday's Best of the Web Today expressed puzzlement about the difference between a "baby" and a "fetus." Andrew Coulson of The Ganteloupe wrote in to offer an answer:

When you write about abortion, it isn't clear whether you really fail to understand the abortion rights position, or you are simply feigning ignorance as a rhetorical device. If it's the former, I'd like to answer your question on the difference between a fetus and an infant.

Many supporters of abortion rights consider self-ownership to be the most elementary and inviolable right of all: We are all the owners of our own bodies. The difference between a fetus and an infant is that a fetus is a part of a pregnant woman's body whereas an infant is not. Libertarians do not want the very visible hand of government rooting around in women's uteruses, telling them what they can or can't do with any fetuses that happen to reside there. Any rights of a fetus are secondary because its existence is secondary to (and until late in the pregnancy, entirely dependent on) the woman in whose womb it is located.

The fact that abortion is a sad business is moot.

James Taranto responds, by arguing that "self-ownership" is an archaic concept, that human as property has been long discredited, and that no mothers speak of carrying a "fetus."

Here are four other arguments. Perhaps there are more--feel free to suggest some in the comments section below.

1. If a "fetus" is a "part" of a pregnant woman's body, then they would have a common genetic code, since a "part" of a body is defined by its having the same genetic code as other "parts" in the body. (For example, the lungs and legs and livers of Person X all have the same genetic code.) An unborn baby is a genetically distinct being; therefore it is not a part of its mother's body.

2. If a "fetus" is a "part" of a pregnant woman's body, then if the woman died, the part would die as well. (For example, lungs and legs and livers don't live on when a woman dies). But an unborn baby can survive the death of a mother--see Bobbi Jo Stinnett--therefore is it not a part of its mother's body.

3. If a "fetus" is a "part" of a preganant woman's body, then the woman would have four eyes, two hearts, four lungs, etc. And yes, if the "fetus" is a boy, then the mother would also have male sexual organs.

4. Why does Caulson think that a "fetus" is "part" of a pregnant woman's body? There's only two possible reasons I can think of: (a) because the "fetus" is inside the woman; (b) because the "fetus" is dependent on the woman for survival. But both are absurd criteria: (a') being in the hospital doesn't make me part of the hospital (in that sense that I'm am no longer an individual, distinct entity); and (b') being dependant upon a life-support machine does not make me a part of the life-support machine.


Update: On his blog Mr. Coulson writes: "I actually received an e-mail from a gentleman [I assume this is me--though I'm not sure--since I cc'd him on my note to James Taranto] asserting the latter point [that fetuses are not part of a woman's body]. Personally, I don't buy it. I don't imagine many pregnant women would either, whatever their views on abortion."

An interesting response. The fact that he personally doesn't buy it, of course, is no argument, just a restatement of his view. Perhaps more will be forthcoming. And the idea that many pregnant women, even prolife women, would say that fetuses are parts of their body just seems strange to me. I don't know of any prolife woman who would say that.

Anyway, I look forward to continued discussion on this issue.

For further thoughts on the differences--or lack thereof--betwen a "fetus" and an "infant," see my article on abortion published in World Magazine last year.