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. @leejcarol

    I just wanted to take a moment to thank you for having enough confidence in us to share some of the truly terrible events of you life.

    I don’t have any answers. But I am confident that the start is for all of us to learn to speak openly and clearly about sexual abuse of all kinds.

  2. @leejcaroll “Incest is never consensual. There is always the imbalance of power.”

    I think I have to agree that there are serious questions regarding incest and consent.

    But I am also a bit skeptical regarding formulas that begin with words like all or never.

    For example you tell us that your parents were cousins. Perhaps I am mistaken, but I believe many consider marriage of first cousins to be incest.

    So the question arises, which one of your parents did the coercing?

    I think you remarks show that there is some complexity here. It seems to me that there are some incestuous relations where coercion must be in play.

    But as you indicate there may be other relations that are, by convention, characterized as incestuous, but which have no element of coercion.

    BTW, I have aunts and uncles who married cousins, not sure whether they were first or some other.

    As a matter of fact, not to far down the road I have so many relatives that it is just about impossible for my younger cousins to choose a mate from the area who is not a relative of some sort. Luckily, most of them head off to the state college where nature usually takes its course, albeit with someone so far removed we cant trace the line.

  3. @leejcaroll

    Sorry, with all due respect, I am just not seeing your argument here.

    I agree either abortion is right or it is wrong. But some seem to be saying ‘even if abortion is wrong most of the time, we ought to have an exception some of the time – in particular we should have an exception for the cases that involve incest.’

    My question is what is there about incest that would support an exception.

    You have mentioned coercion. I agree. But at that point it seems to me the reason for the exception is not really the incest; it is the coercion.
    If coercion makes a difference then surely it makes a difference regardless of the fact of incest or the lack of incest. If we have coercion then why discuss incest at all.

    Another reason some might give to support an exception for incest is the potential for birth defects. Again, if the basis for the exception is the possibility for a defective child, then surely the exception should apply regardless of the fact of incest or the lack of incest. Don’t we gain clarity by simply referring to the potential for defect rather than going through the circumlocution about incest?

    There may be other reasons that support an exception for incest. But so far as I can tell you have not mentioned them. If there are other reasons for an exception for incest then what are they?

    It seems that the argument for an exception in the case of incest actually comes down to facts that support an exception regardless of whether incest occurred or not.

    I am not trying to support incest. The point I am making is that including incest in the discussion seems to obscure the real issues that support, or perhaps do not support, and exception.

  4. My parents were first cousins.
    My father and his father died of ALS. Because my mother and father are related it increases my chances of developing ALS.
    Using the availability of genetic testing a ridiculous argument, either abortion is bad or it is not. Your argument suggests let’s not worry because we will make an exception for fetal abnormalities, which has not been called fo:, the repubs want to outlaw it altogether – Ryan stating exceptions stated by Romney “are a start”. (I do not know the statistics but clearly it is more then in the general population since both sides pass ono the same gene irregularities therefore increasing the need for abortion.)
    I am also a ‘victim” of incest. It happened when very, very, very young but I can tell you even at age 60 it has negatively impacted my entire life and relationships.

    Years ago I had a medical resident whom I did not particularly like in a romantic way ask me out. I went and stayed with him for a while, not because I developed feelings for him, but because I feared I would have problems gettting my medical care at the clinic where he worked if I did not.
    Maybe we could call coerced ‘relationships’ between teacher and student, counselor and counselee, doctor and patient, etc. ‘professional incest’.

    Incest is never consensual. There is always the imbalance of power.

  5. BFM, I’ve wondered the same thing about incest and rape–why should there be a “rape and incest” exception as opposed to just a “rape” exception? I am presuming that a rape exception would include statutory rape.

    I suspect the best argument for an incest exception in addition to a rape exception is that, even if the definition of rape is not present, there is often (usually?) still a relationship between man and woman such that the man is in a position of power or authority over the woman. The assumption is that there is an element of coercion involved, even if it doesn’t rise to the level of rape. This would be sorta similar to laws that make a teacher having sex with a student illegal even if the student in 18+, because there’s a relationship such that there is a presumption of coercion.

    Let’s think about an example. The age of consent in the US ranges from 16-18. If you had a 16 y/o girl who gets pregnant from a father or uncle living in the same house as her, then I think it’s fair to presume some coercion there, even if the evidence is that she never said “no.” Of course, the problem with an incest exception is that they won’t always involve parental/authority relationships. Some states include cousins and I believe step-siblings. Personally, I don’t think it makes sense to include all incest relationships in an abortion exception, but it does whenever one is young enough or it involves a parental or guardian type authority. But, that might get messy trying to draw the line.

    The possibility of congenital disorder isn’t persuasive at all to me. First, even though the chance of a birth defect is certainly much greater risk relative to a non-incesuous pregnancy, I don’t think it’s all that high in an absolute sense. Second, as you point out, we can test for many (most?) genetic defects and our ability is only improving. Third, if the risk of genetic defect is really driving the exception, then we should just make an abortion exception in all instances when the fetus has a specified congenital defect.

    1. @Waldo

      I think your remarks regarding near underage children are well taken. Of course incest with underage children is clearly statutory rape.

      I would agree that one possible approach is legislation for families analogous to current legislation regarding teachers and other professionals and their relations with those in their care. I think I am pretty comfortable with the idea that parents and maybe older siblings have a special responsibility to younger family members.

      I am not particularly convinced regarding penalties for underage siblings. Those relations may cry out for counseling. But I am not very comfortable with criminal prosecution of minors for sexual activity unless violence is involved.

      Of course I am talking in big general terms here. This is one area where there are all kinds of exceptions and counter examples.

  6. Is there a reasonable basis to distinguish incest?

    Note: I am not arguing that women should not terminate a pregnancy. I am only posing the question: is there any reason to give incest special consideration?

    I would start by posing the question: was the incest consensual or not.
    In my view it comes down to a simple yes or no question: was the incest consensual. If it was not consensual then it must have been rape. If the incest was rape then why would we distinguish rape from incestuous rape. I would argue that if the incest was an act of rape then we should just treat the situation as rape.

    There might be religious reasons to distinguish incest. But, it would seem that the point of this exercise is to find a basis for laws and regulation. Any special legal treatment of incest on the basis of religion would likely encounter significant problems. So I would argue we cannot distinguish incest on the basis of religion.

    Finally we might distinguish incest on the basis of biology. We know there is a significant risk of genetic defect to off spring of incestuous relations. But today we have technology to distinguish many genetic defects.

    One can criticize the use of technology because the technology is not error free and comprehensive. But we are rapidly approaching the time when an individuals entire genome can be sequenced rapidly, accurately and cheaply. If there are reasons to doubt the efficacy of genetic testing today, it is a near certainty that there will be none in the very near future.

    So once again it seems that the issue of incest is not relevant to our consideration. The real issue concerns the baby’s health. Today with the technology available we can make reasonable assessment of the baby’s genetic endowment and problems related to that endowment.

    It seems to me that the question of incest actually folds into issues and questions that have little to do with actual incest. I am not saying that the issues we associate with incest are unworthy of our attention. Rather I am arguing that essence of those issues have a very different basis and that the rubric of incest obscures what we ought to consider openly and clearly.

    If you believe there is an important issue that is related specifically to incest then I invite you to present it here.

  7. Thank you, Eeyore. On second reading, I see that is clearer. I’m so used to seeing the other approach – “What about the fathers feelings?” – regarding abortion, that I roped that one in also.

    From the article:

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

    Pressed as to what he was talking about, Smith responded: “Having a baby out of wedlock.” After that, he seemed to struggle to articulate what he meant.

    “That’s similar to rape?” a reporter asked.

    “No, no, no,” said Smith, who was referring to a daughter’s decision to have a child outside marriage. Then he added, “But, well, put yourself in a father’s position. Yes, I mean, it is similar.”

    Pressed later about whether he was saying that having a baby while unmarried was analogous to having a baby as a result of rape, Smith said, “I never said that. I didn’t even come close to that.”

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

    So, (although he somewhat denies it later) he is saying that (to him) his daughter having a child out of wedlock is the same as or similar to his daughter being raped & having a child. I wonder what his daughter thinks about that? (I wonder what the child’s father thinks about that!) Ones daughter voluntarily choosing to have a child sans approval from the state/a church.. versus being forced to have a child by act of a rapist.. Yes, I can see the similarities.. essentially, one – she is pregnant/has a child. Other than that, none. Poor kid, daughter & grandchild.

    Thanks again for the catch.

    Spin, Jim, Spin! Countries are made of people. People turn the other cheek.. or attack & kill. Those who call themselves ‘Christian’ have an extensive history of ‘attack & kill’ & little to no history of ‘turn the other cheek’. “Render onto Caesar’ referred to physical things (money, esp) – and should be considered further reason for Christians to not attack others over anything, esp such mundane things as oil, cheap source of produce, a ‘market’, difference of opinion etc.. ‘Render onto Caesar’ also fits nicely with his most powerful statement – “sell everything, give it to the poor (& your riches in heaven will be assured) then come, follow me”. You _do_ realize his ‘come, follow me’ meant for you to live your life _exactly_ as he lived his, eh? That would include the ‘let he who is without sin cast the first stone’ (which you blithely skipped over) as well as ‘turn the other cheek’. No, of course you don’t. I have no expectation you can see any of the irrationality’s you state. Indoctrination in a person who will not see is a powerful thing – but you’ll have to take my word for it. You, apparently, won’t see.

    We’re off topic – This is enough.

    Forget ‘fighting abortion’. Focus, instead, on creating a space where abortion will, except for life saving or a malformed embryo/fetus, never be desired – & it will disappear. The buddhist say “put your cows in a field large enough they need not stray, & they will not stray”.

    Meanwhile, WWCD?

    What _Would_ Christ Do?


  8. bobby

    turning the cheek is not turning a blind eye. Turning the cheek is for the individual not a country. Remember Christ said to render unto Cesar what is Cesar’s showing government can do what it needs to do but the individual must give God what is Gods.

  9. Bobby

    Maybe there is a misunderstanding about “father”. Mr. Smith was talking about himself as father of his daughter who is pregnant.

  10. From SwM’s link

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
    Smith backtracked under later questioning, saying that the situations were not exactly the same but that “a life is a life, and it needs to be protected.”
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    Only when the “life’ is still apart of another’s ‘life”.. Once born, it’s kick em to the curb.

    further on-

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
    “That’s similar to rape?” a reporter asked.

    “No, no, no,” said Smith, who was referring to a daughter’s decision to have a child outside marriage. Then he added, “But, well, put yourself in a father’s position.
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    Hmm, always the ‘father’ – who contributed all of 5 seconds of his pleasure to the deal.. and then all too often walks away. Never the mother, who carries the developing being 24/7 for 9 months and cares for & is responsible for the child for 18 years..

    Poor ‘father’..

    No, really! The woman has a Duty, I say, a Duty!, to give her life over to the carrying & raising the “man’s” child! 24/7 for 9 months, then 18 years! It’s her Destiny!

    versus his 5 seconds pleasure – poor ‘father’.. (please see the sarcasm tags!)

    I have a wild thought – how about he put himself in the _mother’s_ position! Ha! He doesn’t even see her as completely human, believing her made from a ‘part’ of he. Guess that’s a fail, too.


  11. Joseph;

    Starting at the end – “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.”

    We agree.

    Skipping the 1st paragraph for now, I find this phrase – “judicially created law” – as opposed to natures laws (gravity comes to mind) – interesting. It shows the possibility of non-irrationality on your part. But – the focus on ‘protecting the unborn’, as Jim says, or protecting “a developing human”, as you say – which, in light of the other two examples you give, I presume to mean a fertilized egg & just beyond, is wrong. Note I say ‘the focus’. Let’s leave that for a moment. The WoW is not simply “anti abortion” activism, altho that is a part of it. The WoW is the entirety of legislation & social constraints/restraints in the U.S. (& elsewhere) which puts burdens on women that men don’t have to carry – worse, puts burdens on women to carry a man’s baggage/ego (see my next post). I shall not enumerate them all – aware people cannot help but know of them & the unaware will not care, but let’s list a couple –

    1) religiously/socially corrupted (scientific) biological education – aka, ‘sex ed’, which not only does not give young adults the tools & information they need to make informed choices, but actually misinforms them of possibilities & options. When the adults giving the misinformation know of other possibilities & continue with said misinformation, it becomes outright lies. Thank you Texas Board of (non) Education & the RR, including mainstream Protestantism/Catholicism.

    2) Making before the fact birth control unavailable/difficult to obtain for whatever reason – religious irrationality’s of another being just that much worse – to knowingly set young women up for pregnancy can only be called a WoW. Worse, a War on Young Women.. & yet our country claims the high ground of having stringent “child abuse laws”. It is to laugh, if for no other reason than to keep from crying.

    Back to the focus. Let us _not_ focus on after the fact treatment of an ‘unwanted’ embryo/fetus/child. Let us focus on creating a space where women have the information & necessary control over their own bodies so there are no longer any ‘unwanted’ pregnancies, which, as I pointed out in my “simple math for..” statement, leads to less/no need for abortion. Nature abhors a vacuum.. This applies to more than the hot air spouted by the RR. It applies to all physicality’s – including, sadly, abortion. Forcing abortion back into the alley’s will only condemn the unfortunate women who were denied competent care. Creating another thing to replace it (women’s control of their bodies comes to mind) will ‘fill the spot’, leaving no vacuum. The RR’s modus operandi is to pass restrictions – seldom aid (tho they claim the Christian high ground), more-so, punishment (“let he who is without sin cast the first stone”, anybody?).. essentially, forcing the creation of a ‘vacuum’ – into which fall the unfortunate. “There, but for fortune”, anyone?

    As for ‘affording protection to “developing human.. developing baby at 8 months of gestation.. developing child at 1 minute after delivery..”‘, I say, Why differentiate? Affording protection to _ALL_, unborn, born & youth through aged, will give protection to they, too. Which brings us back to allowing women control over their lives & creating an educational/support system to ensure that none starve, none are homeless, none are without possibilities, _real_ possibilities. Women who have control over their lives tend to not get pregnant until _they_ are ready – at which point, the child-to-be/child-when has protection in the form of the love of its mother as well as the support of society. This inevitability means the necessity of the eradication of mainstream (& fringe) Christianity (& others).. as well as the eradication of the political/social conservative. It should not take much thought to realize that ‘social conservatism’, meaning the continuation of existing social structures, & ‘religious conservatism’, including meaning ‘the woman is subservient to the man’ are completely incompatible with changing those social structures to eliminate individual “Wars On..”, be it women, youth, poor, drugs (how utterly ridiculous!), etc..

    Back to the 1st paragraph, the Jim’s of this world, insecure in themselves, need someone they perceive as ‘weaker’ whose cowering covers their fears of inadequacies.. This is not a rude statement, it is a factual statement – albeit, in societal terms, rather frank. In the terms of RR Political Correctness, it _is_ rude, as they wish to not face their beings/actions. As long as we aid them in denying their beings/actions – whether or no we call it ‘politeness’ – we, too, are ‘part of the problem’. – Thank you, Eldridge Cleaver.

    I wish to no longer pretend those who need oppress others are in any way, ‘helping’. Christianity/the RR not only do _not_ have a lock on high moral behaviour, it is apparent at the merest glance that they have no _real_ moral behaviour. In addition to the many ‘wars on..’ they start, see studies showing the Religious exhibit morals directly proportional to the threat of punishment in an after life – all the while realizing the non-religious display moral behaviour on a daily basis with _no_ threat from an after life.

    I’ve about worn this line out – those who need aid others, will – those who need hurt others, will – all the while justifying their actions in terms of ‘protecting this or that’.. Awareness of the realities of Cognitive Dissonance tells us the indoctrinations learned in youth tend to overpower later learning – esp in those who desire to _not_ learn. It might be well to remember the yogi observation of “Learning is best done experientially, not intellectually”.

    YMMV, IMHO..


    my eyes blur, computer screens do me no great service – please excuse typos etc..

  12. What a stupid argument. First, people need to stop pontificating before they define terms. To some, pro-life means that abortion is abominable in all situations. To others, it means protecting a fetus against a mother’s abortion of convenience, which necessarily provides exceptions; e.g. rape, incest, or the life of the mother is in danger. Rather than take the easy, low-handing fruit of the first definition, what of the second? But to hit the stupidity of the argument presented head-on, are lives valued differently? Of course. But it’s not in terms of money or fame. It’s in terms of responsibility to others; i.e. other members of the family (children & spouse) that depend on having a mother/wife.

  13. Anybody read about Smith’s (PA) latest claims about rape/pregnancy/abortion? These men are beyond stupid.

  14. Jim

    Your philosophy boggles the mind.

    I guess dead Japanese and German babies were guilty as hell.

    And if it turns out that you’ve taken the measure of your God and it is as you say, I want nothing, ever to do with such an evil god.

  15. The “no duty to rescue” rule does not apply where the situation is voluntarily caused by the person who now seeks to avoid the duty to rescue. This is a longstanding rule in the common law of tort. Thus, if a person voluntarily caused the pregnancy, there is a duty to rescue, i.e., at least an affirmative duty not to harm the child. Where there is rape or incest, the duty would not apply because the situation is not caused voluntarily. I thought this used to be the republican stance, and I think that stance comports well with the old rule.

    Prof. Thomson’s argument is flawed here: “Thomson asks you to consider that you’ve awoken to find you’re in a hospital bed with an unconscious violinist of supreme repute.” Implicit is the assumption that you are not the voluntary cause of finding yourself in a hospital bed with an unconscious violinist of supreme repute. But this assumption is not true where the pregnancy is voluntarily caused. Practice safe sex; use a condom. If the condom breaks, the persons engaging in voluntary intercourse bear that risk, not the fetus that has no say in the matter. Sue the condom manufacturer if you wish, and see where that gets you.

  16. Jim says – “We are perfectly justified in defending ourselves.”

    Christ says – “turn the other cheek”.

    Hmm, who to believe..

    Jim says – “Remember God can only take so much.”

    I ask – This would be the all powerful, omniscient gawd? & it can “only take so much”? So you, a mere human, must “defend & protect it & it’s feelings”?

    & you consider _me_ misguided?

    Like I said, irrationality’s..


  17. Eeyore
    No! There is a difference between innocence and War. We are perfectly justified in defending ourselves. Blessed is the nation whose Lord is God and the nations mentioned above do not honor that unfortunately. Have you ever wondered why America has been so blessed? Well, it is because of the Christians who pray daily for God’s mercy in the midst of a Gay and Lesbian and abortion agenda. We also pray for our nation to support Israel. Remember God can only take so much.

  18. Jim

    Then may I presume he’s Mighty pissed at us for all the dead BORN ones, too?

    Think: Iraq, Afghanistan, Hiroshima, Dresdin, Wounded Knee for starters.

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