Overview

There are many situations in which a human life hangs in the balance, and we do not compel sacrifice through legal means. Even corpses cannot be compelled to donate organs without their prior consent while alive.

Yet pregnant women can be forced to make sacrificial choices against their will. We require informed consent for non-invasive psychological experiments and blood or tissue donation. Do pregnant women deserve less protection?

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My grandmother had a rare blood type. Every so often, she’d get a phone call from the local hospital: could she please give blood—now? This was in the days before blood could be frozen, so blood of a rare type was rarely on hand when someone needed it. So if a person had a rare blood type and had a medical emergency and needed blood, that person had to hope that someone with their blood type would answer the call, go to the hospital right away, and donate some blood for them. Otherwise, they would die. 

Because she was a civic-minded person, she answered the call, again and again.

Once when the call came,  she had given blood a bit too recently, so it wasn’t entirely safe. But she did it anyway. It was very hard on her physically. She decided that she really couldn’t do that in the future. But she also got a letter from the family of the person to whom she had donated that blood. It thanked her for literally saving their loved one’s life.

Here’s the thing: No one forced her to give blood, not even to save a person’s life. No one would have picketed outside my grandmother’s home, called her a murderer, or jailed her for not giving blood. Even when it was necessary to save a person’s life, a donation of body tissue—in this case blood—was not compelled. 

You may see where this is going.

There are those who think that abortion is immoral, and should therefore be made illegal. They claim that it is immoral because a “human life” hangs in the balance. Yet there are many situations in which a human life hangs in the balance, and we do not compel sacrifice through legal means. 

Let’s look at some of the sacrifices that we don’t require people to make.

Organ donation

Fully-developed human beings are known to die from the failure of a necessary organ. If there is a lack of organ donors, our society does not compel people to donate a kidney, or a lung, or a lobe of their liver, or part of their pancreas or intestines, even if it is needed to save a person’s life. And keep in mind that everyone has two kidneys, two lungs, and two lobes to their livers. It could be argued that these organ donations are less of a physiological hardship than pregnancy.

Should we compel mandatory donation of organs while the donor is alive?

Blood donation

People can die if there is not the right type of blood available. Yet, our society does not compel blood donation, not even to save a life. It is clear and obvious that blood donation is a trivial medical inconvenience compared to pregnancy.

If abortion is made illegal, then during a blood shortage, should our society also require mandatory blood donation? If you oppose the idea of mandatory blood donation, then you have no business supporting mandatory pregnancy.

Tissue donation

People can also die for lack of other tissues that can be donated by living donors, including skin, bone, and bone marrow.

Blood and bone marrow can be donated multiple times since the body re-grows and replaces these tissues after donation. If lives hang in the balance, which is often the case, should our society round up people who are tissue matches, and require them to donate a bit of skin, or bone marrow? After all, they will grow back. We do not at present compel their donation.

Organ donation by corpses

One corpse can supply tissues and organs that could save the lives of a whole host of people. Yet, in the United States, we cannot even get organs donated by corpses, unless that person formally and explicitly stated the wish to be an organ donor, in advance, while alive.

So even corpses have the right to say whether or not their organs will be used, even if those organs could save multiple human lives.

We cannot even get organs donated by corpses, unless that person formally and explicitly stated the wish to be an organ donor, in advance, while alive.

So according to the anti-abortion lobby, even corpses have more rights than pregnant women.

Informed consent

The business of formal and explicit stated wishes is a subject unto itself. Express permission, after education as to consequences, is informed consent. There are lots of things that you can’t volunteer yourself for without first giving formal, written, legal informed consent.

Even for an entirely non-invasive psychology experiment, a potential subject must be told about the project and what will be done, ahead of time. The person must sign a form agreeing to participate in the experiment, and for most experiments, the person MUST be over 18 years old. If younger people are to participate, then their parents or legal guardians must also give informed consent. 

In the United States, a person must be 17 years of age or older in order to donate blood, and informed consent must always be obtained. If someone is 16, they may donate blood only if a parent or guardian gives informed consent as well. The reason for this is the idea that, below that age, a person is not capable of giving truly informed consent.

Thus if you are 16, it is legally impossible for you to give informed consent for a blood donation all by yourself. In general, people below a certain age are considered to be legally incapable of giving informed consent all by themselves. This includes consenting to donate organs or tissue of any kind. 

Unless the organ is a uterus, apparently, and the tissues belong to a pregnant teenager.

According to the recently leaked draft from the Supreme Court, a teenager is required to donate her entire body for use by someone else if she is pregnant. Let us note that if she is seeking an abortion, then she is actively trying to avoid donating body tissue. She has explicitly stated her desire to not donate, which in all other cases would end all discussion of a possible tissue donation. 

Yet the anti-abortion lobby feels that she must donate her entire body, and not for her own good. She is being required to make this sacrifice of her own organs and tissues without her consent, in order to help someone else, even though our society does not require this at any other time, from any other kind of person. 

What about responsibility?

Some have argued that the woman’s sexual activity is what caused her pregnancy to come into being. Therefore, it is argued, she is responsible for saving that life in particular. One may argue about the rights of an embryo versus those of a fully-developed human woman elsewhere, but for this article, let us limit this discussion to the “lives” that we have caused to come into being. 

Our society does not require this kind of sacrifice at any other time, from any other kind of person. 

Do we really owe our genetic descendants the sacrifice of our bodies? Specifically, should we be legally required to save their lives? If yes, then this means that a father should be legally compelled to donate a kidney, or blood, or any other bodily tissue, any time that a descendant of his needs it.

I am not asking if a father should donate body tissue. I’m asking if our laws should legally compel him to donate tissue from his body. Should it only apply to children he wanted? How much should it have to hurt him, or disable him, before he gets off the hook? What if the donation and his recovery from it would take a considerable amount of time? What if donating an organ would require him to be partially disabled for nine months to a year, or longer? What if it impacted his ability to work? What if it impacted his ability to take care of his other children? What if he might die as a result? If abortion is legally forbidden, then none of that should matter.

What about a grandfather? What about a great grandfather? What about a sperm donor? If we are required to save the lives that we had a part in creating, then men are slackers. They need to be on the hook, legally, for their entire lives, for blood, tissues, and entire organs, no matter what health consequences follow this donation, or multiple donations. 

We know perfectly well that anti-abortion lawmakers and justices will not be making laws or judicial decisions that compel men to donate their organs, or blood, or tissues. Not now, and not any time in the foreseeable future, even though this is the only consistent position that they could possibly hold. 

It is therefore clear that anti-abortionists are not concerned with saving lives. They are concerned with controlling women. They are perhaps also concerned with punishing women for having sex. And this has no place in a country that supposedly offers all people equal protection under the law.

Anti-abortionists are clearly not concerned with saving lives. Perhaps they are concerned with saving their own souls. However, obtaining personal salvation through the subjugation of others has no place in the laws of a secular democracy.

Dr. Abby Hafer

Abby Hafer is a biologist, educator, and public speaker. She has a doctorate in zoology from Oxford University and teaches human anatomy and physiology at Curry College. Her written works include the books...