The abortion debate can be summarized as follows: abortion rights advocates think women have the right to control their own bodies, which includes terminating a pregnancy; abortion opponents think fetuses have a right to life, whether they are inside a woman’s body or not. Technological changes on the horizon have the power to give both sides what they want – for women: the ability to terminate a pregnancy, and for fetuses: the ability to survive outside the mother’s womb. I suspect this technological change will necessitate a change in the way we argue about abortion, but particularly for the side arguing for abortion.
Law professors Vernellia Randall and Tshaka Randall published an article in the Journal of Health and Biomedical Law titled “Built in Obsolescence: The Coming End to the Abortion Debate.” The Randalls argue that as doctors are able to save fetuses at earlier and earlier stages of a pregnancy, women will be able to terminate a pregnancy earlier and earlier, too, without terminating the life of the fetus. Additionally, the Randalls point to research in artificial wombs, where scientists have already successfully created such a womb for rodents and brought the animals to term in it (although the rodents were not healthy and did not live a normal lifespan).
How will this change the abortion debate? One of the main arguments for abortion rights is that a woman must be sovereign over her own body. This means that she can dispose of tissue in her own body at will, including a fetus growing inside her. A pro-choice advocate could even declare it regrettable that the fetus must perish in the operation. Nevertheless, the woman should not have to carry to term a pregnancy she does not want, and she is within her rights to remove the fetus from her body.
In future decades, pro-life advocates could grant that women ought to be fully sovereign over their own bodies and that they do have the right to remove an unwanted fetus. However, they could argue that while women have the right to remove a fetus, they do not have a right to kill it. For early abortions, removing a fetus and killing it are one in the same. To remove a first-trimester fetus is to deprive it of the only life-giving nutrients available. In the future, that will not be the case. Fetuses at earlier and earlier stages of development will be able to survive their abortions.
All else equal, this new technology should tip the scales in favor of a pro-life position in view of the fact that the main argument for abortion has been undercut.
This should not be interpreted as an endorsement of criminalizing abortion. I think abortion-rights advocates can still make a strong case for the legality and morality of abortion, but they will have to drop the autonomy argument from their arsenal. Instead, I think pro-choicers should focus on the fetus, and explain why killing a fetus is morally distinct from killing a child. I believe this can be done.
For the sake of brevity, I will leave that discussion for another post. My purpose in writing this post was to show that the abortion debate is about to change markedly.