I was recently nominated to have my organs harvested by force in order to save the lives of other people. I was chosen along with an impressive list of conservative politicians (which is odd in and of itself, since I’m quite lefty in most of my ideologies) including Sarah Palin, George W. Bush, Michele Bachmann, Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter, and Rick Santorum, as well as a number of prominent pro-life leaders (and more strangely, Richard Dawkins, though I’m still baffled that he made the list!)
Why will I be strapped down while my organs are removed against my will? Perry Street Palace, a blog produced by writer Iris Vander Pluym explains:
All involuntary donors must meet one very specific criteria: they would eagerly and happily force other people to donate lifesaving organs without their consent. Since they feel so very strongly about this particular principle, it is only right and fair that they live by it!
In other words, if you’re pro-life, your belief that a woman “should continue a pregnancy against her will” is no different than forcing someone to donate a kidney against their will. After all, the Abattoir entry emphasizes, “we’re saving lives!”
The argument isn’t new, of course, but built off of the Famous Violinist bodily autonomy argument crafted by Judith Jarvis Thompson over 40 years ago. Thompson argued that even if the fetus were a human being with the right to life, no one has the right to use someone else’s body against their will, not even if their life is in danger. Pluym extends the analogy by arguing that those who advocate “forced childbirth” should experience the equivalent via forced harvesting of their own organs. Yet while her tongue-in-cheek series of mixed metaphors is creative and somewhat entertaining, it still fails to take into account some of the crucial differences between pregnancy and forced organ harvesting.
For one thing, a stranger has no moral obligation toward another stranger. In fact, that’s one of the many reasons why Thompson’s violinist is not the strongest version of the bodily autonomy argument, and therefore neither is Pluym’s Abattoir. It certainly is tragic that thousands of people die annually from organ failure, while so many others take their healthy organs to the grave or crematorium because they’re not registered organ donors* (even if they think they are). But if I am not morally obligated to feed the homeless man in the park, even though it’s a nice thing to do, I am certainly not morally obligated to provide him my kidney.
I prefer to respond to the stronger version of the bodily autonomy/organ donation argument that is more analogous to pregnancy in that it involves a parent and child. A parent does have an obligation to provide basic care for their children (food, shelter, protection from harm) and doing so is more than just a nice optional thing to do. On the other hand, trips to Disney world, private helicopter rides, and yes: organ donations do not fall under basic care and baseline obligations. So if a parent is under no obligation to donate any part of their body to a born child – not even an organ that is needed to save their child’s life, then isn’t the abortion advocate justified in arguing that even if a fetus had equal rights as a member of our species s/he still would have no more right to his/her mother’s uterus than the born child has to his/her mother’s kidney?
Unfortunately for the abortion advocate, that’s as far in that direction as this comparison will take us. While it is arguably true that a parent is under no obligation to donate a kidney to save their dying born child, neither may a parent directly end that child’s life. They furthermore may not abandon their dependent born child without transferring the care of that dependent onto another caretaker, in the event they find themselves unable or unwilling to continue care. So if we’re arguing for equal treatment of born and pre-born offspring when it comes to access to organs, then a parent of a pre-born dependent would have a similar obligation to continue the care and feeding of that offspring, and to at very least not actively end their life via abortion.
Which analogy is more fitting to pregnancy? Is pregnancy comparable to extreme care like organ donation, or is it more comparable to the basic care of feeding, sheltering and maintaining the overall well-being of one’s offspring? In fact, a child dying of kidney failure may die because her parents were passive and did not donate their kidney, but as with Thompson’s violinist, it is ultimately the illness that will cause the death. On the other hand, in an abortion a child dies not because she is sick and her parent didn’t act to save her life, but rather because her parent actively ended her life. The first child is denied someone else’s organ, which exists in someone else’s body for the functions of their own body, while the second child is denied basic ongoing care and food – which all humans have a right to. That different body parts are involved in feeding a born child than in feeding a pre-born child doesn’t change a parent’s inherent obligation to their offspring.
Sometimes parents need to use their bodies to care for their dependents. Imagine leaving an infant to starve on the floor because he has no right to your arms. Younger human beings require more bodily resources earlier in life than later, because that’s how human beings develop. Human bodies start out small, fragile, and needy; with time they mature and become bigger, stronger and more independent. Just as a parent must wheel or carry an infant everywhere they go, because the infant’s level of development doesn’t allow them to walk independently, so too a fetus will place more demands on his/her parent because of his/her age and developmental stage. It so happens that pregnancy is the only way to feed, shelter, and protect developing members of our species when they are at their very youngest and weakest.
What obligates a parent to the basic care of their own offspring is not that they had sex (the writer of The Abattoir seem confused about that – “Had sex? Organ donor!“). It just so happens that humans are creatures that reproduce sexually. Our offspring don’t force themselves into our uteri and demand to be fed, but rather come into dependence upon their parents by their parents’ actions. Still, what obligates a parent to their offspring is that they have created and brought into existence a dependent and wholly vulnerable member of our species. And while we may quibble about the duties parents have toward their offspring and whether or not a parent should ever be obligated to donate their kidney (perhaps if they’d been the one who’d damaged or sold their child’s kidney in the first place?) one thing is certain: no parent has the right to dismember or poison to death their dependent child just to maintain their own independence.
Therefore I’m sorry Ms Pluym, but I won’t be joining your forced organ harvesting program since your analogy falls apart and bears no true resemblance to pregnancy and the dependent relationship between parent and child. Continuing a pregnancy is not about “saving a life”. Rather it’s about not ending a life that barring illness or violence will continue to grow and develop toward human adult maturity the way we all do. The dying can be saved, but the living should be allowed to keep living. So strap me down and cut me up if you must, I maintain that parents should be “forced” to not intentionally kill their dependents.
* Please do ensure that you are registered in your state or province as an organ donor upon your death – Pluym raises a good point there. In many provinces/states one must do more than sign a donor card, so please look into the rules for your local area. And even though talking about your inevitable death may be unpleasant, make sure your family/next of kin know your wishes (you won’t be around after you die to ask them to please not cremate everything and to go ahead and help someone else live with the organs you no longer need.)