Wednesday, December 28, 2005

"A Defense of Abortion"

Back in 1971, a couple of years before the infamous Roe v. Wade decision, Judith Jarvis Thomson wrote what many regard as the classic defense of abortion. I’ll quote the key portions of her argument and then comment on the excerpts:


Most opposition to abortion relies on the premise that the fetus is a human being, a person, from the moment of conception…Arguments of this form are sometimes called "slippery slope arguments"--the phrase is perhaps self- explanatory--and it is dismaying that opponents of abortion rely on them so heavily and uncritically.

I am inclined to agree, however, that the prospects for "drawing a line" in the development of the fetus look dim. I am inclined to think also that we shall probably have to agree that the fetus has already become a human person well before birth. Indeed, it comes as a surprise when one first learns how early in its life it begins to acquire human characteristics.

For it seems to me to be of great interest to ask what happens if, for the sake of argument, we allow the premise. How, precisely, are we supposed to get from there to the conclusion that abortion is morally impermissible? Opponents of abortion commonly spend most of their time establishing that the fetus is a person, and hardly anytime explaining the step from there to the impermissibility of abortion. Perhaps they think the step too simple and obvious to require much comment. Or perhaps instead they are simply being economical in argument. Many of those who defend abortion rely on the premise that the fetus is not a person, but only a bit of tissue that will become a person at birth; and why pay out more arguments than you have to? Whatever the explanation, I suggest that the step they take is neither easy nor obvious, that it calls for closer examination than it is commonly given, and that when we do give it this closer examination we shall feel inclined to reject it.

I propose, then, that we grant that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception. How does the argument go from here? Something like this, I take it. Every person has a right to life. So the fetus has a right to life. No doubt the mother has a right to decide what shall happen in and to her body; everyone would grant that. But surely a person's right to life is stronger and more stringent than the mother’s right to decide what happens in and to her body, and so outweighs it. So the fetus may not be killed; an abortion may not be performed.

It sounds plausible. But now let me ask you to imagine this. You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist's circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, "Look, we're sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you--we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it's only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you." Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says. "Tough luck. I agree. but now you've got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person's right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him." I imagine you would regard this as outrageous, which suggests that something really is wrong with that plausible-sounding argument I mentioned a moment ago.

For what we have to keep in mind is that the mother and the unborn child are not like two tenants in a small house which has, by an unfortunate mistake, been rented to both: the mother owns the house… We should really ask what it is that says "no one may choose" in the face of the fact that the body that houses the child is the mother's body.

Or again, to return to the story I told earlier, the fact that for continued life the violinist needs the continued use of your kidneys does not establish that he has a right to be given the continued use of your kidneys. He certainly has no right against you that you should give him continued use of your kidneys. For nobody has any right to use your kidneys unless you give him this right--if you do allow him to go on using your kidneys, this is a kindness on your part, and not something he can claim from you as his due. Nor has he any right against anybody else that they should give him continued use of your kidneys. Certainly he had no right against the Society of Music Lovers that they should plug him into you in the first place. And if you now start to unplug yourself, having learned that you will otherwise have to spend nine years in bed with him, there is nobody in the world who must try to prevent you, in order to see to it that he is given some thing he has a right to be given.

I suppose we may take it as a datum that in a case of pregnancy due to rape the mother has not given the unborn person a right to the use of her body for food and shelter. Indeed, in what pregnancy could it be supposed that the mother has given the unborn person such a right? It is not as if there are unborn persons drifting about the world, to whom a woman who wants a child says I invite you in."

But it might be argued that there are other ways one can have acquired a right to the use of another person’s body than by having been invited to use it by that person.

Opponents of abortion have been so concerned to make out the independence of the fetus, in order to establish that it has a right to life, just as its mother does, that they have tended to overlook the possible support they might gain from making out that the fetus is dependent on the mother, in order to establish that she has a special kind of responsibility for it, a responsibility that gives it rights against her which are not possessed by any independent person--such as an ailing violinist who is a stranger to her.

If the room is stuffy, and I therefore open a window to air it, and a burglar climbs in, it would be absurd to say, "Ah, now he can stay, she's given him a right to the use of her house--for she is partially responsible for his presence there, having voluntarily done what enabled him to get in, in full knowledge that there are such things as burglars, and that burglars burgle.'' It would be still more absurd to say this if I had had bars installed outside my windows, precisely to prevent burglars from getting in, and a burglar got in only because of a defect in the bars. It remains equally absurd if we imagine it is not a burglar who climbs in, but an innocent person who blunders or falls in. Again, suppose it were like this: people-seeds drift about in the air like pollen, and if you open your windows, one may drift in and take root in your carpets or upholstery. You don't want children, so you fix up your windows with fine mesh screens, the very best you can buy. As can happen, however, and on very, very rare occasions does happen, one of the screens is defective, and a seed drifts in and takes root. Does the person-plant who now develops have a right to the use of your house? Surely not--despite the fact that you voluntarily opened your windows, you knowingly kept carpets and upholstered furniture, and you knew that screens were sometimes defective.

And so also for mother and unborn child. Except in such cases as the unborn person has a right to demand it--and we were leaving open the possibility that there may be such cases--nobody is morally required to make large sacrifices, of health, of all other interests and concerns, of all other duties and commitments, for nine years, or even for nine months, in order to keep another person alive.

Surely we do not have any such "special responsibility" for a person unless we have assumed it, explicitly or implicitly. If a set of parents do not try to prevent pregnancy, do not obtain an abortion, but rather take it home with them, then they have assumed responsibility for it, they have given it rights, and they cannot now withdraw support from it at the cost of its life because they now find it difficult to go on providing for it. But if they have taken all reasonable precautions against having a child, they do not simply by virtue of their biological relationship to the child who comes into existence have a special responsibility for it. They may wish to assume responsibility for it, or they may not wish to. And I am suggesting that if assuming responsibility for it would require large sacrifices, then they may refuse.


Thomson’s defense of abortion centers on two or three arguments from analogy:

a) The mother/child relation is analogous to the relationship between two perfect strangers.

b) The mother/child relation is analogous to the relationship between a landlady and a tenant.

c) The mother/child relation is analogous to the relationship between a homeowner and a house burglar.

By way of reply:

i) Thomson has no moral authority for anything she says. All she does is to consult her own intuition and appeal to the intuition of the reader under the assumption that the reader will see things the same way. I, for one, do not.

ii) In addition, there is no particular reason to assume that even she or a sympathetic reader finds her case intuitively compelling.

What we could have is, instead, a rationalization in which the writer and sympathetic reader both suppress their natural intuition in order to justify sexual license.

Indeed, rationalizations are especially common when we attempt to minimize our social responsibilities in order to maximize our individual liberties.

iii) Thomson frames the whole debate as itfthere were only two parties at issue: the mother and child.

This assumes that the father is not a party to the abortion debate. This assumes that the father has no rights or responsibilities, either to the mother of his child or to the child which he fathered—even though he is equally responsible for setting this process in motion.

iv) Thomson frames the whole debate in terms of individual rights, acquired rights, and competing rights.

The unborn child only has the right to “use” her body if she “gives” him that right, or if he can otherwise “acquire” the right to use her body.

The mother is only responsible if she “assumes” a “special” responsibility, a responsibility which gives the baby rights “against” her.

This whole framework is highly artificial. Since when are you only responsible if you “assume” your responsibilities? Isn’t it possible for someone to shirk his responsibilities? To act irresponsibly?

Why assume that the baby’s right to “use” its mother’s body must be conferred? Why not assume that its right to “use” its mother’s body is an innate entitlement owing to the very nature of the mother/child relationship and the procreative process?

Again, why assume that these are competing rights, as if the right of a baby to “use” its mother’s body is a right which it deploys “against” its mother?

Why cast the mother/child relation in such an antagonistic fashion? Why can’t we think of motherhood itself as a right, as a fulfillment of womanhood, rather than an abridgement of a woman’s rights?

Notice how feminism subverts femininity. It makes a woman a purely sexual object. Her breasts and thighs had no other purpose except to attract and arouse a man.

Far from respecting a woman’s body, feminism is a war with a woman’s body. It is at war with the distinctive design and nature of feminine physicality and psychology.

Men are generally proud of their ability to father a child. They regard that ability as a rite of passage, a mark of manhood. You haven’t come of age until you father a child.

v) It’s absurd to compare a woman’s womb to an apartment which she rents out to a total stranger; it’s even more outlandish to compare her womb to a house, and a baby to a house-burglar.

Such comparisons ought to be deeply offensive to womanhood.

The baby is not a stranger or intruder. The baby is “her” baby. It is genetically related to her. It inherits some of her character-traits.

A woman’s body is not a multipurpose “space” to let or lease. It is designed to conceive and incubate and nurse a child.

vi) Thomson disregards the concentric character of social obligations. We have greater duties to family than to friends, greater duties to friends than to strangers.

I don’t have the same degree of responsibility to your mother as I have to mine, to your kids as I have to mine, to your wife as I have to mine. Yes, indeed, we have a special responsibility for our own family.

vii) The very nature of family life generates a set of interlocking, lifelong obligations. Parents are responsible for young children. Young children are responsible to their parents. Husbands and wives are responsible to and for each other. Older siblings are responsible for younger siblings. Grown children are responsible for aged and enfeebled parents.

A family member may well be obliged to scuttle career plans and lifestyle choices to care for another family member. Personal ambition doesn't trump our fundamental social obligations.

In Christian ethics, and in many traditional cultures, parents are prepared to die for their children.

viii) Conceiving a child is not a design flaw (“defective bars”), but a design feature. Procreation is a primary function of sex.

ix) Pregnancy is not some gratuitous favor which women do for others. Aside from the fact that most women want children, this is the process by which women come into the world; this is how we propagate and perpetuate the human race.

What they have the right to demand in return is support from the men who help them make babies in the first place.

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