-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.