Bodily autonomy: my body, my choice?

Saturday 22 October, 16.00 - 17.15 , Pit Theatre Moral Dilemmas
Watch the video of this session at the bottom of this page.

Polls indicate that the British public is broadly as supportive of the right to die as it is of the right to abortion. Although the ethics of abortion are widely debated, there is little serious discussion about whether it should be allowed at all; it is currently legal if agreed to be necessary by two doctors, and only 11 per cent of poll respondents oppose abortion on all grounds. But the debate over the right to die continues even after the overwhelming defeat in the House of Commons last year of the Marris Bill to legalise assisted dying.

How similar are the two issues? Should a position on one of these issues determine that on the other? Those who are consistently ‘pro-life’ claim they oppose abortion on the same grounds as they oppose assisted suicide – respect for human life at the beginning and at the end of life. Most of those in favour of legalising assisted suicide or euthanasia claim they do so for the same reasons they support abortion rights – freedom of choice and an end to ‘backstreet’ abortions or suicides. Is there room for a third position – that abortion is morally permissible and should be legal but that assisted suicide and euthanasia are not and should not? (Or indeed, vice versa?)

Some of the facets of this debate centre on issues of medical intervention and autonomy. In most cases of abortion, active medical intervention is still necessary. A woman cannot safely end her pregnancy without professional help, so if she is to enjoy bodily autonomy, legal abortion must be available. In cases of suicide - if we consider assisted dying suicide - no conscious persons require assistance to die so long as the right to refuse treatment remains sacrosanct. Moreover, any assistance does not need to be medical. So would legalising and medicalising assisted dying imply an endorsement of the individual’s decision in a way that legal abortion does not? Many campaigners for the rights of disabled people fear it would send a message that some lives are objectively not worth living.

Can we draw a line in a way that respects the autonomy of both women with unwanted pregnancies and those who wish to end their own lives, without going further and casting judgement on their decisions? Or should individuals have the right to whatever medical intervention they deem necessary? Is individual autonomy the key issue, or are wider considerations about the morality of both abortion and assisted dying inevitable?