The Stoics believed in virtue and, in particular, the chief one among them, justice. The Stoics also believed in preferred indifferents, for example, health, wealth, reputation, pleasure, and education. What did they believe about autonomy though?
The Stoics believed that autonomy was something within our possession. In fact, if we worked hard at it, we would achieve freedom from everything. The only path to freedom was to focus on what was truly in our power: virtue.
In all honesty, virtue is only freedom if you are truly virtuous. Since none of us are truly free, like the Sage, we need a form of autonomy that is lesser in nobility but still carries weight. We need a life of self-determination. We also need a life where we can pursue our preferred indifferents in order to help us work our way to virtue. Our natural preferences for health, wealth, education, pleasure, and reputation are where we derive our rights. We have a right of pursuit of preferred indifferents, so we ought to have a society that allows for our ability to obtain them. Where does this lesser form of autonomy fit? The lesser form is being free to participate in health, wealth, education, pleasure, and reputation within reason. We’re free when we can do this. And these preferred indifferents give us a chance to find the true autonomy: virtue.
Where does a woman’s right to an abortion fit into this? She has autonomy over her own health. She can determine what is best for herself, even if that means terminating a pregnancy. People will debate this point because they feel “life” might begin at conception. I presume these people are wrong because zygotes hardly represent a person in the way we can conceive of them. It becomes almost pointless to discuss pain and pleasure that the fetus would experience because the Stoics would just say, “they don’t have proper use of impressions.” We can maybe agree as a society of Stoics that we can terminate pregnancies up to 9 months. It’s kind of arbitrary to make this determination but we have some historical reasons for doing so. Many of the ancients, Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans believed abortion was permissible and that human life began at first breath. The ancient Stoics in general believed that the fetus was plant-like and became an animal at birth as it took its first breath (pneuma) and so they generally regarded abortion as morally permissible (Sellares, 2003). There were exceptions to this rule, Musonius Rufus did oppose abortion (Lecture XV) but for population reasons not necessarily having to do with respect to the fetus and its interests. With this conception in mind, we have some historical precedent to base our determination on what distinguishes infanticide from a mere abortion. There’s never going to be some perfect philosophical argument for why people have the right to an abortion.
Of course, as a society, if we really want to do away with abortion, one way is to make all forms of contraception free for everyone. This also means educating people about sex and contraception as early as we can.
Not every follower of Stoicism will agree that abortion is a right but maybe we can all agree that access to contraception is a right. One thing is for sure, contraception is certainly worth talking about as often as the taboo topic of abortion arises.