A Philosophical Defense Of Abortion

-Submitted by David Drumm (Nal), Guest Blogger

Judith Jarvis Thomson, professor emeritus at MIT, provides some interesting thought experiments in her article entitled In Defense of Abortion. Thomson acknowledges the problem of determining the particular moment during gestation when a fetus becomes a human being, so she starts by granting that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception. From there, the argument usually goes that, since every person has a right to life, a fetus has a right to life. The fetus’s right to life supersedes the mother’s right to decide what happens in and to her body.

Thomson asks you to consider that you’ve awoken to find you’re in a hospital bed with an unconscious violinist of supreme repute. The violinist is suffering from a fatal kidney disease and the Society of Music Lovers has determined that you are the only blood match that can save him. Members of the Society kidnapped you last night and have surgically integrated the violinist’s renal and circulatory systems with yours. Your kidneys are now removing the toxins from the violinist’s blood, keeping him alive. To remove the connection between you and the violinist would mean certain death for the latter. The doctors assure you that after nine months the violinist will have recovered from his disease and the two of you can be disconnected. Should you be legally obligated to save the violinist’s life? Are you morally obligated?

While you were kidnapped and didn’t volunteer for the operation, a victim of rape, legitimate, also didn’t volunteer for her pregnancy.

Thomson also notes the problematic nature of what it means to have a right to life. Thomson writes that “in some views having a right to life include having a right to be given at least the bare minimum one needs for continued life.” Under this view if one is dying from a sickness that only the cool touch of Henry Fonda’s hand can cure, your right to life can not force Fonda to touch your fevered brow. In the violinist experiment, the violinist has no right to the use on your kidneys unless you give him that right.

One might argue that the violinist is a stranger while the fetus is an offspring containing half the DNA of the mother. If the violinist were a brother or sister, would the brother or sister’s right to life impose an obligation against the rights of the mother? While it would be an act of kindness for a person to provide life-giving assistance to a brother or sister, should there be a legal obligation that compels that kindness against a person’s desires? Or is each person’s body secure against another’s intrusion.

The right to life could be viewed as the right not to be killed by anybody. Under this view, the violinist has the right not to be unplugged from you. However, the violinist does not have the right to compel you to allow him the use of your kidneys. You may allow the use of your kidneys out of kindness but it is not something you should be compelled to do.

Thomson considers the case of voluntary intercourse that leads to a pregnancy and the partial responsibility of the fetus inside the mother. It could be argued that the fetus is dependent on the mother and this responsibility gives the fetus rights against the mother, rights not possessed by an ailing violinist. However, this argument would not apply to those pregnancies that occurred as a result of rape.

Thomson uses the concept of people-seeds to make another point. People-seeds float around the air until one makes it into your home where it can take root in your carpeting or upholstery. You don’t want children so you place a fine mesh over your open windows to keep the people-seeds out. However, sometimes screens have defects and a people-seed manages to find its way into your home and takes root in your living room. Does the developing people-plant have the right to the use of your home? Thomson says no. Likewise, if a women makes an effort to prevent conception, even knowing that contraception is not foolproof, Thomson argues that her responsibility doesn’t extend to allowing the fetus to have the right to use her body.

H/T: Massimo Pigliucci.

120 thoughts on “A Philosophical Defense Of Abortion”

  1. Hello there! I could have sworn I’ve been to this blog
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  2. I’m 119, I get to put my penny’s worth in this discussion. Division can both be helpful and harmful. Ms. Thomson’s background as a moral philosopher cannot be overlooked. She has poured a drum of gasoline on a raging bonfire. It isn’t always easy to combine the two, moral-philosophy, in my view, its an oxy-moron.

    Using those examples were feeble attempts to invoke emotional rather than rational thinking. Lets be honest with ourselves and define each one exclusively.

  3. When researching Trisomy 18 effects and other chromosomal irregularies of the regular screening in the UK for the last 30 years, and the many abortions chosen by those parents, it seems illogical that abortion has become the lightning rod it has become in America by discounting the value of having a child without the difficulty of chromosomal deficiencies, some reported to occur in children as high as 1 in 500 up to 1 in 6,000 pregnancies. The mere fact that developed countries have been collecting such data, and allowing parents to make those abortion decisions makes America look backward, and ignorant in passing laws to prevent abortions, or in challenging Roe v Wade – in preference for religious reasons, rather than biological and scientific reasons.

    That America has not researched the experience of other nations to insure that it is consistent with other nations in their approach to successful and productive fertility may well be socially irresponsible as a nation, and in humane to children born with such difficulties.

    Shame on America for having such a closed mind to the biological realities of human reproduction.

  4. Women better start stocking up on the RU-480 right now—by the looks at how the Republiturds are going to cheat in the election, i.e. RobMe-owned voting machines, voter supression, Ohio & Florida trying to shut down early voting in all the poor and minority districts, we’re going back to the ’50’s if RobMe steals this election the way Bush did in 2000 and 2004. Women will once again become 2nd-class citizens—even worse than we are now, that is–and we’ll be little more than chattel where it comes to any rights we’ve got to our own bodies. I’m wondering if there’s a limit to how many RU-480 pills I can buy at one time, because I don’t want to be without them, just in case, if RobMe gets in and bans all of my rights.

  5. BFM, as to your other post, I think that you make a point that actually bodes for the exception: the potential for birth defects is just that, ‘potential’, so we pick and choose who can and cannot get the abortion, and only if there is defect (my defects, for instance, would not have been found while I was fetus, embryo, etc.)
    As with rape I think there is the issue of having to carry through with a pregnancy that is the result of incest, which might be called ‘familial rape’. No one has talked about the emotional health of the person carrying the pregnancy. Potential of birth defect is too small an exception. Being forced to go thru with the product of rape and incest is a burden often too great to contemplate much less be forced to do.

  6. Bigfatmike, Thank you.
    In my case instead of exploding we imploded. (:
    Father had 1 sibling who had no children and mother was an only child.There are 3 halfsiblings (who abandoned me many, many years ago due, to best I can figure, freudian reasons. so I am it and I have no kids. (which given the potential fior ALS as well as some birth defects it is probably just as well.
    As to who coerced whom, good question. I think they probably did love each other but my mother had many psych problems, so was there coersion?
    My feeling is, thinkinig about it not that often, that even though definitionally it was incest, that the issue of coersion and incest is more related to mother/father/aunt/uncle/siblings relationships.

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