Here’s a statement on twitter:
Blogger said woman's rights over own body extend to abortion even if fetus conscious & writing poetry in womb. I profoundly disagree. 1/2
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) August 23, 2014
The “blogger” happens to be me, and here’s what I said in full:
We can make all the philosophical and scientific arguments that anyone might want, but ultimately what it all reduces to is a simple question: do women have autonomous control of their bodies or not? Even if I thought embryos were conscious, aware beings writing poetry in the womb (I don’t, and they’re not), I’d have to bow out of any say in the decision the woman bearing responsibility has to make.
I think that’s the only reasonable position to take: it is a decision by the host, who bears all of the obligations, and it is not right for others, who will not have to carry that same burden, to dictate what may be done.
How about a thought experiment? Scientists are supposed to like that sort of thing. Imagine that an alien species envelops the earth in a cloud of infectious DNA, and little needles carrying embryos rain down on us. If you’re struck by one, you’ll start growing an alien cyst in your body; it will fester for a bit less than a year, draining you of energy and making movement awkward, before rupturing and releasing a semi-autonomous intelligent creature. This process kills roughly 20 in 100,000 infected individuals, so it only has a small but very real chance of being lethal. The released creature is also going to demand approximately 20 years of full time care from its host.
Just to add an ironic twist, by some peculiar quirk of physiology, human women are totally resistant to the infection, so only men experience it.
Another unique feature of the alien cyst is that it is capable of communication. Shortly after infection, it extends a small neuronal process directly into the host’s brain, and begins talking — reciting alien history, literature, and culture. It’s fascinating stuff. Scholars, the military, and the government have a serious interest in compelling all the infected individuals to carry the cysts and share their information.
Of course, there is also a very simple surgical procedure to remove the cyst at any time, with very little risk; there are also drugs — you take one pill, and the cyst is expelled from your body, relatively painlessly.
What do you do? Personally, I’d find it extremely interesting to have a conversation with an alien intelligence, and if infected, I’d be tempted to keep it. I’m also financially stable with good health care, so I could probably cope with the financial burden, and would get the medical assistance to minimize any risk.
On the other hand, though, if I were more insecure economically, or had risk factors that made carrying the cyst more dangerous, or simply did not want to support this alien entity (maybe I have more interesting and important things to do with my life), who are you to tell me that I do not have the right to resist this invasion? Maybe it has brilliant things to whisper to me; maybe it will be unbearably adorable once the cyst breaks; maybe society is saying it really wants me to share the words of the alien; but ultimately, it ought to be my decision to make the sacrifices necessary to carry this creature. And if it is unwanted, it should be my right to end it. Who are you to tell me that the life of this parasite is more valuable than my own?
Being ordered about what I’m allowed to do with this infection would also be particularly galling if the people most insistent about it also happened to be a group of people who were totally immune from any possibility of ever having to host an alien themselves.