“The Autonomy of Women”

Archpriest Lawrence Farley | 10 February 2022

At the recent March for Life in Washington, D.C. one person gave a speech.  In it he said, “We affirm the gift and sanctity of life—all life, born and unborn.  As Christians we confess that every human being is made in the image and likeness of God.  Every life is worthy of our prayer and our protection, whether in the womb or in the world…At the same time, we also affirm our respect for the autonomy of women.  It is they who bring forth life into the world.”

I read that last bit over and over again:  “At the same time, we also affirm our respect for the autonomy of women”.  I kept hoping that eventually some meaning might miraculously emerge after much repetition, but it never did.  It was not that the sentence was wrong; it never arose to the dignity of error.  Instead, it contained no meaning whatsoever in that context.  Nor, I suspect, was it intended be contain actual meaning.  The words were offered rather as a pinch of incense on the altar of modern feminism, a sop to those for whom abortion has attained the status of a sacred right.

The word “autonomy” of course means “being a law (Greek nomos) to oneself” in some way, being self-governed.  A country is autonomous if it is ruled by its own people and not by a foreign power.  A person is autonomous if they are free and not enslaved.  A person is morally autonomous if free to make their own moral decisions without being coerced by another.  In the context of the abortion debate and the March for Life “the autonomy of women” has always meant the view that women must be free to have or to abort the child within them.  The phrase “the autonomy of women” is code for “the right to abort”.  Everyone who has not just awoken like the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus knows this—especially those speaking at the March for Life.

The pro-choice sloganeering has been going on for some time now.  We have heard such slogans as, “My body, my choice”, “Don’t force your abortion views on my body”, and “No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her body”.  Common to all the sloganeering is the conviction that the child within the expectant mother is a part of her body, and that no one therefore has the right to say that she cannot kill the child since, as a part of her body, it belongs to her and to no one else, and she can do with it whatever she likes.

Of course we respect the autonomy of women if by that is meant that women should have the right to decide what happens to their own bodies and be free of medical coercion.  If memory serves, it was decided as part of the Nuremberg Code that no one should be forced to undergo a medical procedure on their body apart from their freely-given consent—whether the procedure be medical experimentation or sterilization (or, if I may say by way of footnote, vaccination).

The sole issue here is whether the child within the mother is merely another part of her body, like her appendix, her lung, or her uterus.  These things belong solely to her, and cannot be touched apart from her free consent.  But the baby, though temporarily taking up space within her, is not a part of her body as are the other body parts.  It has separate DNA, and so is not her body, but someone else’s body.  This point is sometimes made by asking (from a suitably safe distance) how many heads a pregnant woman has.  The answer:  one head, not two—the little head inside her is not her second head, but belongs to someone else.  The women’s autonomy and rights over her body end precisely where someone else’s body begins.

In this whole debate all must freely acknowledge that many women who undergo abortions feel that they have no choice, and feel trapped by circumstances.  Their pregnancy was unplanned, unwanted, and often the result of sex with someone who vanished upon discovering the pregnancy.  Thus such bumper stickers as the one which reads, “Against abortion? Have a vasectomy”.   (I note in passing that abortion is a gift to such irresponsible men.)

It is true that such distressing circumstances may serve to ameliorate the guilt of the one seeking the abortion, in the same way as someone killing and robbing another to feed their family involves less moral guilt than the one who kills and robs for sadistic pleasure.  But the act itself of killing and robbing remains morally unchanged by the circumstances, and no one would suggest that such circumstances justify the crime.  In the same way, a mother having her child killed because she feels trapped has less guilt than a mother having her child killed to save money on childrearing.  But the act of killing the child remains murderous and morally wrong nonetheless.  The amount of guilt involved is for God alone to decide.  The criminality of the act lies squarely on the shoulders of society, whether crime is murder and robbery, or abortion, for in both cases an innocent life was taken.  In such cases the autonomy of women, their authority over their own bodies, counts for precisely nothing.

Why then are such things said at an anti-abortion rally of all places?  Politicians of course do such things all the time when they are running for office.  The phenomenon is usually called, “talking out of both sides of your mouth”, and the aim is garner votes from as many people as possible.  But bishops are not running for office and cannot be discharged through lack of votes, appealing as the prospect may sometimes appear.

The answer, I suggest, is found in the American churches’ desire to swell their tiny numbers by finding a place under the secular sun.  It is hard to be so colossally ignored by so many people, and to make nary of demographic dent.  There are so many Evangelicals, so many Catholics.  Why do we not get invited to the Presidential Prayer Breakfasts like they do?  In our insecurity we are desperate not to appear fundamentalist, out of step, narrow, or—horrors!—“on the wrong side of history”.  As in ancient Roman days, all our problems might be over if we would but burn just a little pinch of incense on their altars.  Then they would say nice things about us and invite us, then they would applaud our inclusiveness and our broad-mindedness, even as they now applaud our beautiful Liturgies and our beautiful icons.  And for just a little incense, just a few words!  “At the same time, we also affirm our respect for the autonomy of women”.

The human heart is deep and complex in its many-sided motivations.  When the world comes calling and the sloganeering gears up, we then need to remember some ancient Greek advice:  γνῶθι σεαυτόν—“Know thyself”.  We must resist the temptation to court popularity by buying into or mimicking the world’s slogans; we must cling to the truth.  After all, that was what the March for Life was all about.

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