The humbug of “reproductive rights”…


This is an entry in the Pro-Abortion series.


(image from wrongcards)

It is a specifically pro-choice position to argue for “reproductive rights.” In fact, it seems to be the main argument for the pro-choice side, that is, specifically arguing the pro-choice position: most of their other arguments address the anti-abortion side (which does not address the pro-abortion side, and therefore does not prove pro-choice rhetoric true at all).

But what are these reproductive rights? According to the World Health Organization:

Reproductive rights rest on the recognition of the basic right of all couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing and timing of their children and to have the information and means to do so, and the right to attain the highest standard of sexual and reproductive health. They also include the right of all to make decisions concerning reproduction free of discrimination, coercion and violence.

I find the wording very interesting, because it strongly implies that men have a “basic right” to decide. Yet our systems based on “reproductive rights” do not recognize the men’s right to decide about procreation, but at the same time they recognize the men’s responsibility in procreation, which is a profound contradiction (your position on paternal irresponsibility has no relevance: I am not arguing about whether both should be recognized or not recognized). So “reproductive rights,” as they exist today, are illogical.

But the problem with men is nothing compared to the problem with the completely ignored corner of this triangular relation, the child. This is where “reproductive rights” are not only shown to be illogical, but to be entirely fictional. Any child which results from the application of “reproductive rights” will come to harm. Any “right” which, when consistently applied, attacks other people’s rights is not a right at all. It is a social fiction.

Even if you are not an antinatalist, you probably recognize that a pregnant woman should not snort cocaine or drink alcohol, and that if she knows that she has greatly compromised the future person with these actions, she should not start its life. It is clearly not the case that a woman has the right to willfully start a life that she compromised, because that would mean that she has the right to bring harm to another person, which is a contradiction.

If we accept this, though, why would we draw the line here? There is always a risk of certain genetic defects, right away or down the line. What about children who are born with Down’s Syndrome or congenital heart defects, for instance? You can argue that the woman had no intent of having a child compromised in these ways, but it’s undeniable that the woman had the intent of having a child with these risks clearly known. If we have no right to start a compromised life, then logically we also have no right to put people under the risk of starting their lives compromised; this is merely an extension of the general principle that if any act is wrong, then willfully putting someone at risk of being acted upon in that way must also be wrong.

Finally, of course, we can extend the argument further into antinatalist territory and point out that starting a human life means to put it under a near-infinite number of risks of harm that go far beyond genetic defects, and we do so willfully. But we don’t really need to get to that point to realize that “reproductive rights” are a fiction. We are talking about human beings having the “right” to choose to start new human lives that carry the ever-present risk of being compromised, or even the “right” to give birth to compromised children when abortion was available. This is extreme cruelty to children made the norm, not a “right.”

In order to properly put this in a context of rights, we need to stop giving credit to the red herring of “choice.” Life is an imposition, not a choice.

I no longer identify as pro-choice. How can I, when Sarah Palin congratulates herself for the “choice” to carry her Down’s Syndrome child to term?… All four of them appeared on a celebrity tabloid in the early days of 2010, declaring “we’re so glad we chose life!” That’s that sneaky, slippery power of language again!

We need to pull away the focus from the perpetrators and their choices (coitus, pregnancy) and put it where it belongs, on the victim (the future person, and when born, the child). We need to reframe it in terms of the right to health, more specifically, the right to “the highest attainable standard of [physical and mental] health.” Without a right to health, all other rights are meaningless, because surely a person cannot use eir rights if ey is incapacitated by some disease or condition.

But a child that comes into this world compromised cannot, most of the time, reach “the highest attainable standard of health.” Ey will always be compromised. Children will also grow up into adults whose health may become compromised, often partially for genetic reasons. They may also be deprived of “the highest attainable standard” for the rest of their lives. So much for human rights.

If we look at mental health, we also have to look at the effects of the future parenting on the children. People who are not ready to fulfill all the needs of a new human life have no “right” to start that human life. As Daniel Mackler rightly states:

The basic human right is the right of the child to be born to parents who will love him fully, attend to all his needs, and not torture him with the neglect that is our modern world’s standard—and the standard of our modern world to deny. Stopping people from torturing their future offspring trumps the inappropriate parental desire—that is, “right”—to procreate.

(emphasis mine)

Note the phrasing here: not “a human right,” not “a basic human right,” but “THE basic human right.” It is the only basic, fundamental human right, because it is from childhood that the person develops eir capacities, including the capacities relevant to eir rights (including physical and mental health, the means to live, free expression, justice, and ultimately the pursuit of happiness). The expression of all other human rights, without exception, depends upon the right of the child to have eir needs fulfilled. A child who is not given “the highest attainable standard” of support and development starts off handicapped, physically, mentally or emotionally, and no amount of institutional support received as an adult can nullify that fact.

Now, by combining the rights of the child to have eir needs fulfilled with the right to health, we have a far more relevant and valid rights framework than the “reproductive rights.”

If we go beyond the woman-man-child triangle and look at society as a whole, the situation does not improve for “reproductive rights.” For one, it entails that we have a right to impose a burden on society’s production without any sort of accountability to society. We need to devote part of our production to the implements and needs of child-raising, instead of producing more food, shelter and health care. This interferes with the provision of those rights to actual human beings.

Not only that, but the burden is put upon the rest of society without our consent. I have no choice on whether I should subsidize the welfare and education of new human lives. In fact, I am supposed to accept the existence of these new human lives as a given. Now I am not saying here that we should not subsidize the welfare and education of new human lives; obviously it is right for us to do so, but the amount of new human lives should be under discussion, and in some way the product of consent within the society that has to provide for them.

Not only that, but if we look at the environmental impact, having a child not only nullifies any personal initiative to reduce one’s impact on the environment, but is by far a net negative for the environment. The benefits of recycling, driving less or buying a car that consumes less fuel, lowering power consumption, composting, growing one’s own food, or anything else that aims to improve our environmental impact, are utterly wiped out twenty times over or more by having a child.

Having a child also accelerates the unfettered consumption of the planet’s resources, which will eventually run out and create harm on a massive global scale. If that’s not a consequence that goes against fundamental human rights, then I don’t know what is.

There is one support of “reproductive rights” which I must address because it comes from a fellow pro-abortion advocate, philosopher David Benatar, author of the seminal book on antinatalism Better Never to Have Been. In chapter 4, he argues that even though having children is wrong, we should still grant “reproductive rights” because of the consequences:

[T]he argument in defence of a legal right to reproductive freedom might go, procreative prohibition simply would not work. People would find ways of breaking the law. To enforce the law, even partially and unevenly, the [S]tate would have to engage in highly intrusive policing and the invasions of privacy that that would entail… The threat of [unwanted abortions] would very likely drive pregnancy underground, with women gestating and giving birth on the quiet. This, in turn, would very likely increase pregnancy- and parturition-related morbidity and mortality. These sorts of moral costs are immense…

It’s hard not to see the analogy Benatar is making between back-alley abortions resulting from an anti-abortion policy and back-alley pregnancies resulting from a pro-abortion policy. The obvious answer is that such a dynamic is true of any crime. Making anything illegal will push it underground, with the associated evils. We do not consider this a problem unless we already disagree with calling the specific action a crime. Unless evidence is provided as to why we should apply this standard only to abortions and not to murder, theft, rape, stalking, prostitution or drugs, that seems like a Special Pleading fallacy.

Would the State have to engage in “highly intrusive policing” in order to enforce pro-abortion policies? But the State already enforces anti-abortion policies on late abortions, and no one argues that this is “highly intrusive policing.”

As an Anarchist, I don’t believe that the State should be in charge of policing society for its own ends. But I’d rather the State actually enforce some justice than have it not enforce any justice at all, although it seems utterly incapable of doing so. The issue of whether the State should enforce pro-abortion policies is moot anyway, since no State will ever do such a thing (I don’t call the policies in China pro-abortion, but rather pro-choice with pro-abortion leanings, mainly because it only applies to approximately one-third of Chinese families).

I don’t think pro-abortion policies would be any more intrusive than already-existing policies such as the policies designed to protect children, policies of surveillance in public places, policies allowing criminal background checks and drug testing for employment, American policies of X-raying and sexually assaulting people at airports, and many others. Why should we apply the standard only to pro-abortion policies and not all these other policies? Again, there is a Special Pleading issue here.

In short, I think Benatar’s argument fails because it tries to justify “reproductive rights” in a vacuum, without considering the social context. If consistently applied, his argument leads to complete anomie, which is an impossibility. People always find ways of breaking any law. All laws involve intrusions in people’s privacy and negative practical repercussions. All laws involve moral costs. We accept these costs (or in the case of Anarchists, we accept the costs of enforcing these rules on an egalitarian basis) because even the staunchest utilitarian instinctively understands that some rules are good in themselves.

13 thoughts on “The humbug of “reproductive rights”…

  1. Francois Tremblay February 8, 2012 at 02:09

    Again, I remind everyone to follow the commenting rule, and to read the entry. I will not accept commentaries which can basically be expressed as “no, we do have reproductive rights!” At least TRY to address the points I raised.

  2. David Gendron February 8, 2012 at 11:12

    Pro-abortion

    “As an Anarchist, I don’t believe that the State should be in charge of policing society for its own ends. But I’d rather the State actually enforce some justice than have it not enforce any justice at all, although it seems utterly incapable of doing so. The issue of whether the State should enforce pro-abortion policies is moot anyway, since no State will ever do such a thing (I don’t call the policies in China pro-abortion, but rather pro-choice with pro-abortion leanings, mainly because it only applies to approximately one-third of Chinese families).

    I don’t think pro-abortion policies would be any more intrusive than already-existing policies such as the policies designed to protect children, policies of surveillance in public places, policies allowing criminal background checks and drug testing for employment, American policies of X-raying and sexually assaulting people at airports, and many others. Why should we apply the standard only to pro-abortion policies and not all these other policies? Again, there is a Special Pleading issue here. ”

    Love it!

  3. rae February 10, 2012 at 16:25

    as a person with profound genetic defects i feel that i lost my rights at birth. the basic needs of an individual…without the basic needs being met, life is brutal. all day, every day, laying on the couch, wondering why i have to pay for my parents choice to have me (and society’s choice for encouraging everybody to have kids), wishing it would just end, year after year after year. when my time comes to die, i am ready and i am so excited, for my first chance at freedom (see thats my advantage over healthy people, i am not scared of dying). i dont have any descendants (not possible anyway with my disease) so i know that no one in the future will suffer because of me.

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  11. Heretic November 5, 2014 at 15:15

    What especially stuck out for me here is that the anti-abortionists make an exception for fetal abnormalities but remember, they ALSO make an exception for pregnancies resulting from rape (when they aren’t arguing “legitimate rape,” that is). It seems no matter the side, though, women have to constantly apologize and argue a reason for having abortion that many other people can agree with in order to avoid being called selfish or a bigot. I’m referring to this quote you included, which is meant to appeal to parents of disabled children:

    “I no longer identify as pro-choice. How can I, when Sarah Palin congratulates herself for the “choice” to carry her Down’s Syndrome child to term?… All four of them appeared on a celebrity tabloid in the early days of 2010, declaring “we’re so glad we chose life!” That’s that sneaky, slippery power of language again!”

    I definitely think so-called “pro-life” people do not care about the child after it’s born, though they’ll do all they can to make sure it lives. Fetuses are not viable outside the womb before 22 weeks, and even at 22 weeks it’s very iffy; the most premature birth ever was 20 weeks. If it were up to me, couples would get evaluated as potential parents just as adoptive parents do in order to have children.

    • Heretic November 5, 2014 at 15:17

      Dammit, wrong entry.

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