As the Supreme Court considers the Mississippi abortion case, pro-choice advocates would do well to expose the fundamental dishonesty in the “pro-life” movement that it is about saving innocent life.

Set aside for a moment all the questions about personhood and the fact that many religious traditions do not recognize personhood at conception. (The arrogance associated with the view that “everyone” agrees when life begins is indicative of a movement that insists that our laws follow one particular religious tradition.)

Instead, focus on the contention from antiabortion activists that a woman’s right to bodily integrity must be sacrificed for the sake of another. This is a rule that is applicable in no other situation.

In what other context is someone’s body, health and daily life commandeered to save another? No one would countenance a law that said a person who is a bone marrow or organ match is legally obligated to donate to another. There may be a moral imperative (if the person’s life and health would not be impacted), but we do not override an individual’s bodily integrity against his or her will even for noble purposes. We generally do not punish bystanders who refuse to come to the rescue of others in distress, especially when there is any risk to themselves.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor questioned the Mississippi solicitor general during oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization on Dec. 1. (The Washington Post)
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The motives behind the antiabortion movement become clear when one recognizes that even though abortion is legal, the incidence of abortion has dropped dramatically. Hence, permissive laws do not mean the procedure happens more often. If we want to reduce abortions, we arguably should be doing precisely what we have been doing over the past few decades.

Moreover, these same voices roundly reject the obligation of self-sacrifice for others’ health when the inconvenience is far more trivial than the emotional, physical and financial burden of a nine-month pregnancy. The “my body, my choice” slogan from anti-mask and anti-vaccine advocates is the most stunning example of their refusal to compel even minor inconveniences to save innocent life. They refuse to apply that same demand for bodily autonomy in the abortion context.

Likewise, the same right-wing advocates for criminalizing abortion reject any slight inconvenience for gun buyers, such as background checks, even if it might save hundreds, if not thousands, of lives. Their Second Amendment rights trump everyone else’s safety. The only ones denied the right of self-determination are pregnant women.

Indeed, in no other context does “innocent life” eviscerate all other liberties and interests. They demand we keep stores open to sustain the economy, even if doing so imperils others. They blithely vote to chop Medicaid funding in the name of fiscal sobriety (even though they are happy to support tax cuts for the wealthy), making lifesaving addiction treatment more difficult to access. And they routinely oppose environmental regulations — economic freedom! — to restrict pollutants that threaten the health and lives of others.

A free society must allow a realm of personal freedom and a sphere of personal autonomy. We recognize the unacceptable price of overriding that zone of personal integrity in certain intimate matters. We dare not give government the right to override bodily integrity even for very good reasons.

The Supreme Court may well uproot decades of precedent on abortion rights. State legislatures may follow with abortion bans. But let us not pretend this is about the noble principle of “saving innocent life.” This is about denying women in particular the power to decide whether to undergo a substantial physical, hormonal, emotional and financial obligation for nine months. Until we are ready to demand commensurate obligations for all Americans in a host of other contexts and severely limit their personal autonomy (at great personal inconvenience and cost), we should be honest enough to recognize this is about controlling women, not about innocent life.