It is not uncommon for pro-choice advocates to make the claim that “consenting to sex does not entail consenting to pregnancy.” The idea is that even though the woman takes responsibility for engaging in an act of procreation, she bears no moral obligation to take responsibility for the pregnancy that results. In this post, I argue that the idea of “consenting to pregnancy,” per se, is logically incoherent, and that such claims, understood in a logically coherent way, ultimately do nothing to advance the pro-choice position.
It is not difficult to see how it is coherent to say that one may consent to sex. Consent entails giving permission to another person to perform an act that (morally) requires permission to perform. Put formally, person A consenting to some act X, performed by another person B, entails giving person B permission to perform X, since X is an act that, for B to be morally justified in performing, requires the permission of A. It is not hard to see how this applies to the act of sexual intercourse. Indeed, a person engaging in the act of sex without the consent of the other party is generally called a rapist. The requirement of consent, however, extends beyond sex. Doctors generally need a patient’s consent to perform treatment. Schools need parents’ consent to take their children on field trips. What is common, in all of these cases, is that permission is given to another person to perform some act.
So, what exactly does it mean to “consent to pregnancy”? It is easy to see how a woman might consent to participating in an act (such as sexual intercourse), or undergoing a procedure (such as in vitro fertilization) that may result in pregnancy. In both cases, the woman is giving permission to another person to do something to her body that might result in her becoming pregnant. These acts and procedures, however, do not guarantee pregnancy. The body must accept a fertilized egg in order for a pregnancy to occur. If the embryo does not implant, then there is no pregnancy. Thus, it is easy to see that pregnancy is a biological process that occurs within a woman’s body, just as there are many other biological processes, such as menstruation, that occur within a woman’s body.
Yet, do any pro-choice advocates ever use the terminology of “consenting to menstruation?” Does it make any sense to say that a woman consents to her period, in the same way that she consents to sex? Such language sounds absurd, because the notion of consent (as it is used when speaking about sex) entails giving approval to another person to perform some act. But the biological processes occurring within a woman’s body are not actions performed by a person. A woman’s body is not a person, and hence the normal, involuntary biological processes occurring within her body are not acts performed by a person. This is why it makes no sense to say that a woman “consents to menstruation” in the same way that she can “consent to sex.”
In the same way, it is logically incoherent to say that a woman can “consent to pregnancy” in the same way that she can “consent to sex.” Pregnancy is a biological process, not an action performed by a person. Saying that a woman can “consent to pregnancy” is just as meaningful as saying that a man can be a “married bachelor.” As a result, any pro-choice argument that relies upon a woman not giving her “consent to pregnancy” carries as much weight as an argument that relies upon a man being a “married bachelor.”
What is Actually Meant
So what is going on here? Why do pro-choice advocates make this kind of claim, given that it is logically incoherent?
One possibility is that the pro-choice advocate is trying to make the case that the woman has the right to have an abortion. If one must give consent to an act, then such an act cannot be justifiably performed without one’s permission. In speaking of “consent to pregnancy,” the pro-choice advocate attempts to cast the biological process of pregnancy in terms that enable the woman to bring an end to it if she so desires. After all, if consent can be withdrawn from a certain act, giving the woman the right to put a stop to things, then consent can be withdrawn from the pregnancy itself, giving the woman the right to put a stop to the growth of the unborn child within her, putting him to death.
Unfortunately, this approach faces two difficulties. First, as discussed above, it is logically incoherent to speak of “consent to pregnancy” in a way that is comparable to “consent to sex” or any other personal act that involves the woman. Using this verbiage makes as much sense as talking about married bachelors. Second, the idea that the woman has the right to withdraw her “consent” and justifiably end her pregnancy is simply taken for granted. Yet, this is the central contention that the pro-choice advocate has the burden of proof to demonstrate! Arguing that “consent to sex does not entail consent to pregnancy; therefore, the woman has the right to end her pregnancy” is simply an exercise is question-begging. Such an argument is fallacious, since the propositional content of the conclusion of the argument is contained in the premise, within the term “consent to pregnancy,” and the idea that a pregnancy is something to which a woman must consent is simply smuggled in without argument. Hence, this approach fails to advance the pro-choice position.
Another option is that “consent to pregnancy” really means “consent to any act which may result in pregnancy.” In this case, the claim that “consent to sex does not entail consent to pregnancy” really means “consent to sex does not entail consent to any act which may result in pregnancy.” Yet, sex is an act which may result in pregnancy! Thus, this reduces to “consent to sex does not entail consent to sex,” which is hopelessly self-defeating.
A final option is that “consent to pregnancy” really means “being willing to carry the baby to term.” The idea is that if one “consents to pregnancy,” then one will not seek to end that pregnancy by murdering one’s unborn child. Under this interpretation, “consent to sex does not entail consent to pregnancy” really means “consent to sex does not mean that the woman will be willing to carry the baby to term.” I would agree with this particular claim, as it is confirmed by the fact that the vast majority of women who seek abortions consented to the acts of procreation that led to their pregnancies. But, this simple statement of fact does nothing to advance the pro-choice position. Yes, there are women who choose to have sex who later choose to have abortions. But what does this prove? It does nothing to support the contention that those women ought to be able to have abortions. So, if this is what the pro-choice advocate means by “consent to pregnancy,” then this is yet another approach that fails to advance the pro-choice position.
The claim that “consent to sex does not entail consent to pregnancy” is fraught with difficulties, not the least of which is that the idea of “consent to pregnancy” is logically incoherent, if “consent” is taken in the same sense as “consent to sex.” Interpreting the idea of “consent to pregnancy” in other ways lands the pro-choice advocate in a position where this claim does nothing to support her contention that women ought to be able to kill their unborn children. May those who make this claim come to repentance and to the knowledge of the Sovereign Lord who gives life and commands us to protect the weak and the helpless.
Soli Deo Gloria!