Abortion and Self-Ownership

by
April 16, 2014

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?

Locke’s premise of self-ownership is based on the idea that an individual in the state of nature has liberty to do what he wishes with his own property and possessions without depending upon the will of another man. It is in the state of nature that we find inherent rights to life, liberty, and property. It is at the intersection of the rights of liberty and property that we find those who make the claim for absolute liberty in self-ownership.

How does this apply to the abortion debate? Abortion proponents generally adopt an understanding of absolute liberty in self-ownership that would allow them to do anything they want with their own bodies. Therefore, the choice to end a pregnancy on the basis of self-ownership is the natural consequence of this absolute liberty. No person or governing authority has the right to limit this freedom. As a result, the woman can choose to have an abortion without consulting the father, the government, or the unborn child.

With Locke’s words that “everyone has property in his own person” ringing in the background, abortion-rights advocates declare that neither the government nor the citizenry can tell any woman what she can or cannot do with her body. They call for absolute liberty regarding the body based on self-ownership.

Considering Locke’s influence on our most important founding documents, it may seem that there is a solid case to be made that the Founders implied self-ownership in the language of the Constitution. However, there is a glaring problem regarding its application to abortion—Locke himself did not view self-ownership as an absolute right. Locke explains in the Second Treatise:

But though this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of licence, though man in that state have an uncontrollable liberty to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession, but where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for it. The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges everyone. And reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it that, being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions. (II.6)

According to Locke, then, self-ownership is a limited right. One cannot destroy himself or another creature in his possession without a nobler use than mere preservation. Aborting the life of an unborn child for the sake of convenience or because the child is unwanted does not meet Locke’s test of a nobler cause.

Locke further clarifies, “For men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise maker, all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order and about his business, they are his property whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another’s pleasure” (II.6). Right here Locke denies absolute self-ownership and actually places the true right of ownership in the hands of God. It is the Creator who has absolute control over the body, and we are stewards of our own bodies.

If the limitation of self-ownership by Locke were not enough, he makes another argument that would deny an absolute right of self-ownership as justification for abortion. Later in the Second Treatise, Locke addresses the question of parental authority and the duty that parents owe to their own children. He writes, “The power, then, that parents have over their children arises from that duty which is incumbent on them to take care of their offspring during the imperfect state of childhood” (VI.58).

Notice that while parents have authority and power over their children, it arises from the duty and obligation they have for their children’s care. This arises during what he calls the “imperfect state of childhood.” As evidenced from other discussions regarding the authority of parents, Locke considers this imperfect state to be the time during which a child has not developed the full rational capacity to make his own choices.

Interestingly, many abortion proponents make the case that the reason why a child in the womb can be aborted is that he has not developed the rational capacity to be a person. Since they believe personhood is achieved, then they declare that the child in the womb has no right to life. His life can be terminated without consequence.

However, Locke seems to disagree. He believes it is incumbent upon the parent to fulfill her duty toward the “imperfect” child, which would include protection of that child’s life. At this point, we have a clash of rights. The mother wants to exert her right of self-ownership, but the unborn child has a right to life. Since the right of self-ownership is not absolute, the child’s right to life trumps self-ownership. In Locke’s view, parental obligation requires that we protect the rights of the child, the chief of which is the right to life.

Therefore, invoking Lockean self-ownership is not consistent with abortion. If the “penumbras” and “emanations” of the Constitution speak of a right to privacy and self-ownership, they most assuredly speak in Lockean terms. His influence on the Founders is undeniable. If Locke’s ideas are the ones speaking about self-ownership, then we need to consider his thoughts in their context. As we have seen, Locke’s understanding of self-ownership is not absolute, and he places an incumbent duty on parents to protect the rights of their children. Taken together, these ideas nullify a right to abortion based on a supposed right to privacy and self-ownership.


Evan Lenow
Evan Lenow is a fellow of the Research Institute of the ERLC and an assistant professor of ethics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. He is also the chair of the seminary's ethics department and director of the Richard Land Center for Cultural Engagement. Lenow holds the seminary's Bobby L. and Janis Eklund Chair of Stewardship.