How does the change in the abortion legislation in the United States affect Finns, women and men? In the science blog, Professor philosopher Sara Heinämaa looks into abortion rights and bodily autonomy from the United States to Northern Europe. The Finnish legislation is also currently extending the powers of the competent authorities to intervene in our bodily self-determination, with implications both for working life and for civil society.

This year, the Supreme Court of the United States overturned the 1973 interpretation of the constitution that guaranteed equal rights to abortion in all U.S. states. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision now empowers the states and their citizens to pass laws on abortion and embryos without federal guidance. About half of the states have decided to strictly limit abortion rights, while about half would continue to protect or even expand access to abortion.

In the most conservative states, abortion is no longer allowed even in those cases in which pregnancy results from incest or rape. In the liberal states, the situation resembles our own situation in northern Europe, where abortions are allowed on both medical and social grounds, and even at a relatively late stage.

How does the change in the U.S. legislation affect Finns – women and men?

Consequences and implications

The new legislation in the United States is already affecting the opportunities for American women to participate in family planning, education and working life. New and strict abortion laws restrict women’s possibilities for mobility and activities of various kinds while subjecting them to governmental surveillance, concerning, for example, interstate travel and miscarriages.

The reform will also have a relatively direct impact on the willingness of U.S. companies to hire female employees. When the right to abortion is severely limited, or when it is taken away completely, women become, from the employer’s perspective, an “inflexible workforce”. The same laws apply to foreigners visiting the country, students as well as teachers and other business commuters.

Moreover, the new restrictive laws of the conservative states will also have an indirect impact on fertility treatments and research in the U.S.

This ensues since the criminalisation of the killing of fertilised embryos also applies to fertilisation treatments in which living embryos need to be transferred, preserved and implanted with relatively high risks of loss. Given the deeply international nature of research and development work in this area, the implications are far-reaching. Married and unmarried couples will be affected worldwide.

However, abortion legislation is not just about practical matters, such as women’s employment and fertility.

The problem is also ethical and moral, and concerns the choices and values of us all, women and men equally.

At the same time, the issue is profoundly political and brings into focus our basic rights and freedoms.

On the grounds of abortion laws

Every person has an inviolable right to decide on their own body, as in the right to determine how their body may be used or not used for the benefit of others. This right of bodily self-determination belongs to all equally, not only to the healthy but also to the dying, not only to adults but also to children, and not only to men but also to women.

Our moral, religious and theoretical intuitions concerning our bodily autonomy provide a basis for the laws and other norms that we set for abortion. At the same time, they guide the setting and maintenance of other legal and social-normative restrictions on our bodily self-determination. Such norms concern not only the conditions set on abortion but also forced isolation, forced labor, prohibition and control of prostitution, and prohibition of euthanasia.

In Western countries, the right of bodily self-determination is usually overridden only in extreme circumstances, such as when a country comes under a military attack.

However, our own law also contains permanent restrictions concerning bodily autonomy, for example restrictions on euthanasia. Intuitions supporting the ban on euthanasia in Finland are primarily religious, ideological and/or social ethical in character. They are by no means self-evident or undisputable.

We realize this when we notice that euthanasia is approached in different ways in different cultures, and that in some European countries, such as Switzerland and the Netherlands, it is practiced legally under certain conditions.

The body is thus permanently the subject of legal and moral debate and controversy, but it is also simultaneously a political matter. This is because we all necessarily need our body to function in a shared world.

Without our body we cannot even move, sense or perceive, but equally we depend on our body also when communicating, working, cooperating and agreeing on common issues with others.

We are dependent on our body not just in physical labour but in all concrete activities: we need it to chop logs or nurse a child, for example, but also to manipulate keyboards, conduct interviews, address officials, cast our vote in elections, and protest on the streets.

When we compromise our right to decide on our own bodies, we jeopardize our freedom to cooperate and act in the human world.

Acute Challenges

Most recently, the COVID-19-process made clear that the issue of bodily autonomy is politically topical also in our own country. In the future, our governments and authorities – like those of several American states – will be able to extend their control over the bodies of citizens with more powerful legal instruments than before. The new Preparedness Act, which came into force in August, provides new, unprecedented opportunities for this.

A concrete example of the change in the normative climate that surrounds legislation can already be found two years ago: the Chancellor of Justice then declared in public that pure life is undoubtedly the highest of all values.

As the highest value pure life would trump the values of democracy, liberty and justice as well as those of good life and significant life.

Leading newspapers and electronic media bolstered the statement by appealing to similar pronouncements by leaders of the church and distinguished Finnish philosophers.

No public media remembered to ask whether the task of determining our values and value hierarchies belongs among the responsibilities of the Chancellor of Justice, or is delegated to religious officials or academic experts. No one wondered whether any of these professionals is capable of determining what we value and must value or if they are justified in doing so, above democratic decision-making, civil dialogue and scientific debate.

Now, when the new Preparedness Act is in force, each of us should start rethinking the role of legal and academic authorities in solving moral problems and questions of value concerning our bodies.

We must ask, first of all, how the concept of pure life alone could enable meaningful moral and legal distinctions to be made between those who need protection for various reasons and in various measures and manners: fertilised embryos, unborn foetuses, newborns, young children, the terminally ill, the old, the severely memory-impaired, the demented, and the brain-dead.

Can our bodies be interfered with or used for the common good, or for some separate ones? If so, then on what moral and ethical grounds?

Ultimately, the matter concerns our freedom to use our bodies for the goals that our own judgment and deliberation tell us are the most significant ones.

Sara Heinämaa

The author works as Professor of Philosophy at the University of Jyväskylä’s Department of Social Sciences and Philosophy.

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