Don’t we have to respect the woman’s rights?

A pregnant woman comes to the entrance of an abortion clinic. She is there to end the life of her preborn child but she is unable to enter the building because there are people sitting in front of the door. Are the people who are attempting to prevent her from having the abortion guilty of breaching her “rights”?

“Freedom of choice” and “the right to choose” are two slogans that are commonly proclaimed by those who advocate that there should be easy access to abortion. And our society, regardless of whether abortion has been formally legalised in a particular State or not, has effectively decided that women should be readily allowed to have abortions if they so choose.

Pro-lifers hold the conviction that abortion is the taking of the life of an innocent fellow human being. And some pro-lifers believe that if this is true then it is not sufficient only to try and dissuade people from having abortions: if innocent human lives are at stake, they argue, then it is appropriate, even necessary, that deliberate efforts are made to try and directly prevent the killing from taking place.

Of course, to do so means that a strong conflict will inevitably occur between those who believe they have a right to have an abortion (and who may have the law on their side) and those who believe that abortion is a terrible wrong and therefore should be directly prevented from taking place.

The question then is, do those who oppose abortion really have the right to intervene to try and stop women who want to have abortions from exercising what these women perceive to be their right to so do? In other words, even though we may disagree with someone’s behaviour don’t we have to respect their right to do wrong if that is their decision?

Well, no.

At least not all the time. The reality is that anyone can claim a “right” regarding anything, but simply making the claim does not necessarily make it so. A thief may make the claim that they have a right to other people’s property but such a claim is virtually universally rejected. Another person may claim that they have the right to excessive consumption even to the detriment of their own health, and, while this may be frowned upon by others, it is still largely accepted as being a legitimate right.

The generally accepted rule of thumb in our society is that the individual has a right to engage in any behaviour, be it positive or negative, which only affects that individual. That can seem to be a relatively straightforward rule, but in reality it is not always easy to determine when and to what degree a particular behaviour crosses the line and starts to have a negative affect on others as well.

And that of course is the heart of the issue when it comes to abortion. Advocates for easy access to abortion often declare that the pregnant woman alone has the right to decide about abortion because it has to do with just her body and therefore is no one else’s business.

Such a view simply denies that what is growing and developing within the pregnant woman’s womb is another human being. Despite what our eyes tell us through the wonders of ultrasound; despite the scientific knowledge that the entity growing in the womb has a different genetic code to the woman; despite the fact that half the time the entity is of the opposite sex, these all count for nothing. Up until birth takes place, be it premature or full-term, there is in their view only one body. To allow otherwise would be to concede that there is a second person’s interests to take into account and this they do not want to permit.

But not everyone is willing to ignore the obvious. Many who hold a soundly thought-through conviction that every abortion involves the killing of one or more fellow human beings conclude that the mother does not have the right to end the child’s life at her choosing.

Even if it should be the case that some mothers sincerely believe that their preborn children are simply part of their own bodies and have no absolute intrinsic value, such sincerity cannot be the deciding factor. Some thieves may sincerely believe they have the right to others’ property but that alone does not settle the matter. No, in all situations where innocent lives are about to be destroyed, efforts to directly save those threatened lives should be made, even if that intervention leads to a clash over perceived rights.

It can be no small thing to override another’s professed rights. With the issue of abortion this is particularly acute and cannot be undertaken lightly. However the price that will be paid by the preborn children is too high to allow appeals to other rights to trump the preborn child’s right to live. Yes, we must do what we can to respect women who want to have abortions but that does not extend to allowing them to go ahead to end their child’s life. Direct intervention may be difficult and messy, but for the sake of the child it is appropriate and necessary.