Where does the right of self-ownership come from? Is the pro-abortion argument that a woman can do whatever she wishes with her body actually grounded in any theological or philosophical ideas? How does argument relate to the supposed right to abortion in the United States?
Last July I boarded a bus and drove down to Austin for a pro-life rally on the steps of the Texas State Capitol. We arrived more than an hour before the scheduled start time of the rally, so I had the opportunity to take in my surroundings and observe the arguments being made by the abortion-rights protestors. In what was often crass language, the abortion-rights argument being made at the Capitol that day essentially boiled down to one point—a woman has the right to do what she wants with her own body. This can be described as a right to privacy based upon self-ownership.
Since this right is not explicitly spelled out in the Constitution, where does it find its origin? In contemporary jurisprudence, the right to do what you want with your own body (i.e., the right to privacy) is drawn from the “penumbras” and “emanations” of the Bill of Rights according to Griswold v. Connecticut and out of the 14th Amendment’s restriction on the state from depriving “any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Applied to the abortion issue, these ideas regarding the right to privacy form the foundation of the Roe v. Wade decision that opened the door for abortion on demand. However, the supposed “right to privacy” found in the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment still does not make self-ownership clear.
Even though most abortion-rights proponents do not make the explicit connection, the right of self-ownership is typically attributed to the work of John Locke in The Second Treatise of Government. Locke writes, “Though the earth and all inferior creatures be common to all men, yet every man has property in his own person. This nobody has any right to but himself” (V.27). There is no doubt that John Locke’s work was very influential upon the Founders of the United States, and language from the Second Treatise appears directly in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. However, are we correct in inferring a right to self-ownership of our bodies from Locke?
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*You may notice that this article is a little more academic than what I usually post on my website, but that is the purpose of Canon & Culture. Their purpose is “to help build and strengthen the church’s social, ethical, and moral witness by providing thoughtful content from leading thinkers that inspires a rising generation of evangelicals to think Christianly about the public square and the common good.”