Is the Mother in “Involuntary” Servitude to Her Unborn Child?

The Thirteenth Amendment prohibits “involuntary servitude.”  The argument is sometimes heard that a mother has a right to abort her unborn child because, otherwise, she would be bound to involuntary servitude to her unborn.  The argument lacks any force. 

The argument that carrying a child is “involuntary servitude,” like all arguments for a “right” to abort, suffers from the fundamental mistake of forgetting how the child came into being in the first place.  Fortunately, the relative incidence of forced intercourse is low.  Most intercourse is consensual.  In other words, the man and woman voluntarily decide to have sexual relations.

When an adult voluntarily takes any action, it is (normally) assumed that person is also aware of, and risking, the natural results of that action.  For intimate relations, every adult knows that a common result is the conception of a new, independent homo sapien, a child that, for the first period of its life, is nurtured in its mother’s womb. 

The central point is that there is no “right” to avoid the natural consequences of one’s action.  If I exercise my right to read the newspaper, I do not have the right to expunge from my memory what I have read.  If I exercise my right to associate with those carrying a communicable disease, I do not have a right not to catch it myself.  If I exercise my right to ride a motorcycle without a helmet, I do not have a right to avoid head injury if in an accident.  Similarly, when I engage in sexual intercourse, I have no right to avoid the natural consequence of conceiving a child.

It does not change this calculus if someone has attempted to avoid the natural risk of the voluntary action.  For instance, I can still be seriously injured in a motorcycle accident even if I am wearing a helmet.  The taking of precautions only reinforces that there are natural risks in taking the action. Those supporting a right to abortion often imply that, because contraception is now readily available, they should be relieved of the natural result of their action if contraception either failed or was forgotten.  But the fact that contraception reduces the risk of conception does not mean that the risk is eliminated.  The risk is still present, and it is known that precautions often fail.  Thus, the availability of contraceptives does not eliminate the voluntary nature of the mother’s pregnancy.

Moreover, that it is women who get pregnant, not men, does not eliminate the voluntary nature of a woman’s pregnancy (again, talking of the normal case).  For some supporters of abortion, like Justice Ginsburg, one suspects that this is the crux of the matter:  men do not have to gestate a child, and so women must have the same “right” not to do so.  This is akin to saying that prostate cancer violates a man’s right to life because women do not have prostates.  That men do not carry children is just a fact of biology; it does nothing to eliminate the consensual nature of pregnancy.  Both the man and the woman know that, by having sexual relations, the woman may conceive a child. 

hat a woman will carry any resulting child, and the man will not, may well make the woman more reluctant to engage in intercourse than the man, but it does not alter the fact that the woman who consents does so willingly and with full knowledge of the possible consequences.  Pregnancy resulting from consensual relations is not in any sense “involuntary” servitude.

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