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. bobby

    You are so misguided. There is no WAR on women. Above I asked abut the right to live for the unborn and no one addressed that but rather talked about the mother. You still want to call it an embryo which is what Liberals do so they can satisfy their own conscience. The problem is that doesn’t change reality. God’s judgement is falling on this nation as he does listen to cries of all of the unborn who were denied their right to life.

  2. Bobby
    Your obvious anger is about something inside if you, not about the dialogue that was started here. Blogs are for free thought but it is intrusive and unhelpful when a participant spews anger. Others of us may feel passionately about our perspectives, yet we refrain from over generalizing that everyone who has a contrary perspective falls within one stereotype of a person.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    You know, Joseph.. There’s a lot to what you say.. & a lot to what I said. Anger & joy are both inside of us, so that’s essentially an empty statement. As for over generalising/stereotyping, I happen to have the pleasure of travelling to & living with people across the country who spout the RR line on a daily basis.. & then call for single mothers to ‘give up their child & go to work’. I’ve watched for near 50 years the RR increase their attack on the poor & un-educated/well indoctrinated – including, “don’t use birth control & ‘smack’ when a girl gets pregnant”, “the poor are lazy” – while continuously setting up economic & social policies designed to keep the poor, poor, etc.. The RR likes to say that political correctness means not being able to say the ‘n’ word or some such. They are wrong. Political correctness in the U.S. more accurately means pretending the RR ‘cares about the babies’, is trying to ‘make society a better place’, that they are actually ‘Christian’ & that they are rational people.. when all is obviously false.

    I’ve seemingly had enough. I now call RR B.S. when I see it. Coddling the RR & their obvious lies/hypocrisy has produced an ever increasing spiral down into the abyss of RR hell. Maybe bringing a little honesty & forthrightness to the table will take the wind out of the RR sails.

    “You can’t change a problem with the thinking which created it”. If one thing isn’t working, try something else. That’s part of the meaning of ‘liberal’, eh?

    I’m happy to be a liberal. To me, that means I care about others, esp, those who need help most – & that I’m willing to change when one course of action has obviously failed. As I said/implied, 50 years (of my observation) of an ever increasing spiral into RR hell pretty much means ‘something isn’t working’. Care to join me in trying something else? Put forward ‘something else’ yourself & I might join you. But change is needed – & change doesn’t start without acknowledging the problem – said problem which very much includes RR social, religious & political irrationality’s. Jim’s statements were obvious lies & misdirections. As long as the “Jim’s” of this world are treated as if the irrationality’s they share have any debatable ‘truth’ to them, they will take the encouragement and continue to fantasize on those irrationality’s having validity as well as spout them as facts – I called it as it lay – & will likely continue to do so.

    Perhaps on being called on them, the Jim’s of this world might actually question the lies/irrationality’s/hypocrisy the RR/Fox/Limbaugh/Falwell/Weiner(aka Savage)/FOTF/Ryan/Rove/Cantor/Pope Benedict XVI – seemingly ad-infinitum – are feeding them – maybe not, but we know coddling doesn’t work. We have ample evidence of that.

    Thank you for your thoughts.


    BTW – I am aware that the reality of Cognitive Dissonance means most of the Jim’s of this world are likely to change only in that their eyes lose focus & cross for a bit before they fall back on their ‘truths’ – more properly, irrationality’s. So be it. As a young man, I met a few who dared to challenge the ’emperors new clothes’ – you need see only one white crow to realise that not all crows are black – an eye opening experience is a wonderful thing. Perhaps a young ‘un is reading this blog. If naught else, it is for they that I write.

    1. Bobby
      I understand that you are frustrated from the perspective that you are experiencing the world. What you presume is that your frustration is more right than mine and therefore you have license to behave outside of politeness so that your point is understood.

      Roe v. Wade has been the judicially created law since 1973. I suppose I might have a better case than you for wanting to “attack” the status quo since I believe that a deveolping human should be afforded protection just as a developing baby at 8 months of gestation and a developing child at 1 minute after delivery. Framing any debate on the possible problems with abortion as being anti-woman, including a desire to have women paid less in the work place or a return to Pre-suffrage disenfranchisement (which have been accused here in this thread) is preposterous an intellectually light. There may be more examples of this type of thinking than either one of us would like, but the second does not naturally follow the first.

      I, too, have 50 years of life experiences. I work everyday to end cycles of poverty and illiteracy so the societal beat downs that you describe don’t occur. I am also frustrated by your logic and methods, as well as those who espouse the same justification to be rude because they have the more worthy position and believe that the end justifies the means. Despite all of these, I treat you with respect and persevere in our conversation as a microcosm of the larger debate so that we can work toward a societal structure that is more beneficial to us all.

  3. Castle Doctrine and the Right to Choose:

    As I have stated before I think there are risks in pushing an analogy too far. And I have doubts that Castle Doctrine will really prove useful in supporting right to choose or opposing antiabortion legislation.

    But, it seems to me that Castle Doctrine might provide a useful lens to examine the treatment of women. Consider three areas 1. the person-hood of the intruder, 2. reasonable fear of harm, 3. judgment of the women or occupant.

    1. Under Castle Doctrine the person-hood of the intruder is essentially ignored. We know any intruder to the home would be a fully formed individual, with an appreciation for their life, with understanding regarding the possible loss of their life, and with actual, meaningful relations. Yet, it seems that under Castle doctrine, none of this is given any special weight.

    Under anti abortion legislation, the largely potential or hypothetical person-hood of the unborn is practically all that is considered. Despite the fact that the unborn has no appreciation of life or the loss of it, and has not developed any personal relations, the unborn is give the status of a fully formed person.

    2. Under Castle Doctrine reasonable belief that bodily harm is immanent is sufficient to justify the taking of life.

    Under anti abortion legislation the current debate seems to center not on reasonable belief by the mother regarding harm, but only on the most extreme forms of harm – typically a clear threat to the mothers life.

    Consider a hypothetical: Suppose we can identify cases were physical pain, loss of blood, amount of time incapacitated, required medical care, and other harm are all about equal when compared between pregnancy and an intruder. Does anyone really suppose that prosecutors would say that reasonable belief in that level of harm was not sufficient to justify Castle Doctrine. My guess is that the kind of harm that results from pregnancy and birth would be more than enough to justify Castle Doctrine.

    3. Under Castle Doctrine, I would argue that there is little examination of the occupants judgment. The mere presence of the intruder and the assertion by the occupant that they feared bodily harm is generally considered sufficient evidence that there is a reasonable basis to act.

    Under antiabortion legislation, the woman’s judgment is largely irrelevant. It hardly matters what she thinks regarding her situation. This may not be true in every state in every circumstance. But it seems largely true – even in circumstances where expert opinion suggest that the mother is suffering great psychological harm.

    So what could possibly account for these differences in the treatment of women when they believe it is necessary to terminate pregnancy and the treatment of a home owner who believes it necessary to use lethal force?

    The most obvious to me seems to be an inability or a refusal to accept the judgment and authority of women regarding their own bodies. The view that pregnancy and birth are natural processes that must be protected from interference might also weight in all this.

    In any case, it seems that antiabortion legislation leads to a situation where we defer to and protect the unborn person at most any cost. While under Castle Doctrine and other variations of SYG, one persons belief is sufficient to justify taking the life of an individual.

    I am struck by the difference in the treatment of person-hood in the two situations. And I am struck by the deference given to the judgment of occupants in comparison with treatment of judgments made by pregnant women.

  4. Men in America are practicing Sharia Law. This RepubliCon Platform is the whole Sharia ballgame. Own your women. Own your neighbor is she is a woman. You humans need to stand on all fours and bark for your rights.

  5. @Jim;

    “Who is going to speak up for the unborn?”


    Not ME. I spent 18 years trying to speak for the already BORN — didn’t work. Can’t be done. Too tired.

  6. @Jim;

    Who is going to speak up for the unborn? Who advocates for their right to live? There are so many people who are waiting to adopt..


    That is so much b.s. There are already an uncountable number of unwanted babies & little children in the world.. & not near enough want_to_be_parents. Early abortions are not on ‘the unborn’. they are on embryos which are not yet individuals. Still, it would be far better if the Repug’s & Ridiculous Righter’s simply stopped their War On Women and the fighting of before the fact birth control making it so there would be less unwanted pregnancies. Less unwanted pregnancies = less abortions.. Simple math for simple people. ‘Right To Life’ is all about controlling women.. essentially, the R & R R’ers deny them the right to their own life – “Women should be pregnant & holding down two jobs!” is their mantra – they fear an educated, self reliant woman!

    Meanwhile, where are you on helping mothers raise children? I saw a “help your local school” donation card in the store today.. I didn’t see a “help your air force bomb innocent civilians world wide” donation card.. Wonder why the air force has enough to kill & schools haven’t enough to help children – more of whom you seem to want to bring into the world? NTM, where are you on ending the death penalty – Right to Life, Eh?!

    To answer your question, I speak for the unborn. Let women control their lives & bodies & we will have less unwanted born. The unborn do not want to be born unwanted.

    RWT’s piss me off. Under the bridge with you!


    1. Bobby
      Your obvious anger is about something inside if you, not about the dialogue that was started here. Blogs are for free thought but it is intrusive and unhelpful when a participant spews anger. Others of us may feel passionately about our perspectives, yet we refrain from over generalizing that everyone who has a contrary perspective falls within one stereotype of a person.

  7. @Leejcaroll

    If you are interested in this kind of stuff you might want to check Castle Doctrine in Wikipedia.

    I think it is definitely possible to push analogies too far. But sometimes a bit of a stretch can be interesting.

    Castle Doctrine is a sort of SYG principle for home owners. Wiki describes 4 main requirements. I think two are irrelevant for our discussion of choice. To me the other two have reasonable analogies with aspects of choice.

    The first has to do with an intruder making an unlawful entry. To me it does not seem to hard to draw an analogy between an intruder and an unwanted pregnancy.

    The second has to do with the occupant having a reasonable fear of harm or death. Well isn’t that exactly why women want to terminate a pregnancy – reasonable fear of some kind of harm.

    As I said it is possible to push these things too far.

    But if guys can blow some one away for standing on the front porch then perhaps women ought to check it out and see what kind reasoning men find persuasive – particularly the men who populate state legislatures.

    After I have said all that, I am not sure I am persuaded. But,to me at least, it is interesting.

  8. Bigfatmike, said Is it possible that a woman’s right to choose shares common ground with Stand Your Ground?
    If you look it as a parasite then y ou are protecting your life if abort. (protecting it on a number of grounds, physical, mental, psychological.)
    David Blauw Thaks that was the link I was unable to find.

  9. Jim, but then there are far too many women who, faced with the newborn, cannot let go of it- and who can blame them? And when these women give a baby up for adoption it is a trauma they never get over. I know I could not give up a baby, I would live in poverty instead.

    I know a girl of 17 who was in a cult and was going to give up her baby at birth because the cult leader told her to. This mother of this young mother told me she planned to kidnap the baby from the hospital if her daughter decided to give up the baby. Luckily, the girl decided to keep her baby despite her spiritual advisors ‘advice’.

    Some women may feel they did a great thing, as you say, but some will be unable to go through with it when the baby becomes a reality. And many will regret it their whole life.

  10. The Republicon Party Platform on abortion IS the Akin program. They dropped the word “legitimate”. I can not believe that they are beating up on poor Todd. Voters in Missouri need to vote for Todd for the Senate and Ron Paul instead of Willard. Show me your balls Willard. You walked away from a patron saint.

  11. Who is going to speak up for the unborn? Who advocates for their right to live? There are so many people who are waiting to adopt and yet women are so eager to get rid of the child when they could live their lives knowing they did something wonderful. Two wrongs do not make a right.

  12. Thanks, a.

    BTW, are you any relation to F*ckin-A? I have never understood him!

  13. So many of you are complete missing the point.

    The main take home point of the argument is this: Right to life, on its own, does not immediately entail that abortion is impermissible. You need _at least_ one additional premise. Many pro-lifers argue as if right to life is all you need; Thompson’s paper shows that its not sufficient.

  14. Moran loves being a mum (in addition to being many other things, like a columnist for The Times of London). She has a sweet and honkingly funny chapter called “Why You Should Have Children.” But she follows that with a whip-smart chapter entitled “Why You Shouldn’t Have Children.” The latter case so rarely gets vocalized, and Moran vocalizes it so damn well, that I want to block-quote the entire chapter. But that would mean a lot of typing for me. So instead I’ll just block-quote a big chunk, and then you’ll have to go buy the book to read the rest. Which you should do anyway.

    [I]f a woman should say she doesn’t want to have children at all, the world is apt to go decidedly peculiar: “Ooooh, don’t speak too soon,” it will say — as if knowing whether or not you’re the kind of person who desires to make a whole other human being in your guts, out of sex and food, then base the rest of your life around its welfare, is a breezy, “Hey — whatever” decision. …

    [T]his injunction for all women to have children isn’t in any way logical. If you take a moment to consider the state of the world, the thing you notice is that there are plenty of babies being born; the planet really doesn’t need all of us to produce more babies.

    Particularly First World babies, with their ferocious consumption of oil and forest and water, and endless burping-out of carbon emissions and landfill. First World babies are eating this planet like termites. If we had any real perspective on fertile Western women, we’d be jumping on them in the streets, screaming, “JESUS! CORK UP YOUR NETHERS! IMMUNIZE YOURSELF AGAINST SPERM!” …

    Because it’s not simply that a baby puts a whole person-ful of problems into the world. It takes a useful person out of the world as well. Minimum. Often two. When you have young children, you are useless to the forces of revolution and righteousness for years. Before I had my kids I may have mooched about a lot but I was politically informed, signing petitions, and recycling everything down to watch batteries. It was compost heap here, dinner from scratch there, public transport everywhere. … I was smugly, bustingly, low-level good.

    Six weeks into being poleaxed by a newborn colicky baby, however, and I would have happily shot the world’s last panda in the face if it made the baby cry for 60 seconds less. The cloth diapers … were dumped for disposables; we lived on ready meals. Nothing got recycled … Union dues and widow’s mites were cancelled — we needed the money for the disposables and the ready meals. …

    Let’s face it, most women will continue to have babies, the planet isn’t going to run out of new people, so it’s of no real use to the world for you to have a child. Quite the opposite, in fact. That shouldn’t stop you having one if you want one, of course …

    But it’s also worth remembering it’s not of vital use to you as a woman, either. … I don’t think there’s a single lesson that motherhood has to offer that couldn’t be learned elsewhere. …

    Every woman who chooses — joyfully, thoughtfully, calmly, of her own free will and desire — not to have a child does womankind a massive favor in the long term. We need more women who are allowed to prove their worth as people, rather than being assessed merely for their potential to create new people. …

    How’s that for being in charge of your vagina? Plus she’s got a bracingly frank chapter about having an abortion and never regretting it.

    How to Be a Woman also hits on masturbation, menstruation, breasts, bras, bikini waxing, and lots more woman stuff. Moran’s righteous ranting is aimed at implementing “a Zero Tolerance policy on All the Patriarchal Bullshit.” And that includes “Zero Tolerance over baby angst.”

  15. Shano, right, and the biggest inequality of all is that if a woman is pregnant, she is NOT pregnant with HER CHILD; she is pregnant with SOMEONE ELSE’S child.

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