Summary of Judith Jarvis Thomson’s, “A Defense of Abortion”

Stella Browne, a pioneering feminist, campaigned for the liberalization of abortion law.

Thomson’s (T) imaginative examples and controversial conclusions have made “A Defense of Abortion perhaps “the most widely reprinted essay in all of contemporary philosophy.”

T does not think the conceptus (a neutral way of referring to the fetus) is a person from the moment of conception, any more than an acorn is an oak tree.  But, for the sake of argument, she will grant this claim and ask if the impermissibility of abortion follows.

Assuming the personhood of the fetus, the anti-abortionist argument proceeds thus:

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.

T responds with a thought experiment:

You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with a famous but 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 … [If he is unplugged from you now, he will die; but] in nine months he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.

While it would be kind of you to let the violinist stay attached to your body, almost no one would think you are morally obligated to do so. This suggests that abortion is morally permissible in cases of rape (and also that the mere fact that the violinist is a person doesn’t preclude the permissibility of abortion.) Of course, strong opponents of abortion may still say that one has a right to life even if one is conceived as a result of rape or the mother’s life is in danger.  (T calls this “the extreme view.”)

Section 1 – How can we defend the anti-abortion position in cases where the mother will die if she brings the child to full term? We could say that abortion kills the innocent child, whereas the mother will merely be allowed to die. But T argues that cases of self-defense are clearly not murder. So abortion is justified in cases where the mother’s life is in danger.

The abortion debate often focuses on what a 3rd party (a physician for example) may do when a woman asks for an abortion (since she probably can’t safely perform the procedure herself.) Now a 3rd party may say they don’t want to kill a growing child trapped with you inside a tiny house in another of her thought experiments. But surely you have the right to self-defense in that situation. This shows the extreme anti-abortion view is false.

Section 2 – The anti-abortionist (AA) could change their argument and say that abortion is ok in cases of self-defense but 3rd parties shouldn’t perform them, only pregnant women should. But this is false as another thought experiment shows. If you own the house that the growing child is expanding in you have more right to that house (your body) than he/she does. 3rd parties should recognize this just as they would recognize the owner of a coat has a right to it.

You are justified in saying that you don’t want to get the coat back (perform the abortion) but you shouldn’t say that someone else shouldn’t kill a person who is threatening another’s life. Since T has vigorously defended abortion in cases of self-defense, she now turns to other possibilities.

Section 3 – Does having the right to life mean I have a right to the minimum that it takes to keep me alive? Suppose that the only thing that will keep me alive is if you give me one of your kidneys.  Does this mean you are obligated to share your kidney with me? No. Nobody has a right to your kidney unless you give them that right. It might be nice of you to share your kidney, but I don’t have the right to demand that you do.

Now suppose that the right to life means I have the right not to be killed. Even so, my right to life doesn’t give me the right to use your body unless you give me permission. Even if your life isn’t threatened by my using your kidneys for 9 months, you don’t have to give me permission to use your kidney—even if you know that your refusal will result in my death.

Section 4 – “In the most ordinary sort of case, to deprive someone of what he has a right to is to treat him unjustly … [but] The right to life consists not in the right not to be killed, but rather in the right not to be killed unjustly.”  You do not kill something unjustly if you kill it so you don’t have to share your kidneys with it. So the argument against abortion must show it is unjust killing. In the case of rape, no permission to use your body has been granted and thus the killing of the fetus is justified.

But what about the cases of voluntary sexual activity? In those cases, did the woman invite the fetus in and does the fetus now have a right to the woman’s body? And how do we determine the extent of this responsibility? If a woman opens her window or leaves her house knowing there are rapists in the world (or charming men) is she then responsible if she gets pregnant? Suppose she installs bars on her windows (contraception) and burglars (or charming men) get in anyway even though she took precautions against this happening. Is she responsible and does the fetus now have a right to her body?

Or suppose:

Peopleseeds 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 personplant who now develops have a right to the use of your house?

We can hardly expect you never to go outside or have a hysterectomy or only travel with an army to protect yourself.  Each of these cases is different but in some cases, abortion would be unjust killing and in some cases, it wouldn’t. (Imagine a continuum with “you never leave home at one end” and “you sell yourself on the street to get pregnant so you can have an abortion” at the other end. So as your responsibility for becoming pregnant increases so too does your obligation to carry to full term. But your responsibility is not the only factor to consider. We must also consider how much you are inconvenienced.)

Section 5 – Suppose you were kidnapped by the violinist (raped) but he only needed one hour at no risk to your health. In such cases, you ought not to abort. But this doesn’t mean the violinist has a right to use your kidney. Consider an analogy. It may be nice of me to share my chocolates with you, but that doesn’t mean that you have a right to them. Even if I only need your kiss to save my life, I have no right to your kiss, even though it would be nice of you to kiss me. So even if only an hour of the mother’s body is needed to save a life—the mother is not morally required to share their body.

Section 6 – “We have in fact to distinguish between the two kinds of Samaritans: the Good Samaritan (GS) and what we might call the Minimally Decent Samaritan.” (MDS) (In the above example a GS would share their body but a MDS wouldn’t be morally required to do so.) The law never requires that we be even MDS but “in most states in this country women are compelled by law to be not merely Minimally Decent Samaritans, but Good Samaritans to unborn persons inside them.” To be consistent then, anti-abortionists should work for GS laws. (Imagine if you were required to be GS. You might go to jail for not giving large amounts of money to every homeless person you pass by.) However, if I don’t want to be a GS (not remain pregnant), shouldn’t you help me? After all, I don’t want to be in bed with the violinist for 9 months.

Section 7 – Furthermore, even if the fetus is a person the impermissibility of abortion doesn’t follow.  (In many cases we claim to justify killing persons—war, capital punishment, self-defense.) But maybe the fact that the fetus “is a person for whom the woman has a special kind of responsibility issuing from the fact that she is its mother” makes abortion immoral. Here we must distinguish between cases in which parents didn’t try to avoid pregnancy and thus are responsible, from cases in which they tried not to conceive. In some cases, abortion would be justified and in others, it wouldn’t. (Each case is different.)

Section 8 – However if pregnancy only requires being a MDS, then one should not abort. In other cases, one should abort. But the mother has no right to insist on the death of the fetus if it can survive. (Hence the importance of viability.)

T concludes by noting that she has assumed a fetus is a person, even though this is conceptually problematic if not outright false. (Acorns aren’t oak trees.) But even granting this assumption early abortions are often morally acceptable.

(For more on the abortion issue see: “Ethicists Generally Agree: The Pro-Life Arguments Are Worthless)

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3 thoughts on “Summary of Judith Jarvis Thomson’s, “A Defense of Abortion”

  1. A child is born at delivery when the cord is removed and the baby can live on its own outside the womb. At that time a birth certificate proves life and after that event the child is a person subject to the laws of the land. While it is attached inside tangled the mother can still offer nourishment probably cause a breach birth and the baby is oxygenated to live my premise would apply. Sever the cord in the womb the fetus is stillborn and would not be a live birth subject to the issuance of a birth certificate with rights. For burial purposes and the census States do require a medical statement from the attending physician. Families normally have a small funeral. Life begins at a live delivery. Abortion is similar to removal of an appendix which is medically necessary and not defined as murder. You cannot leave a dead object in the mothers body.

  2. Just wondering, if I have a heart beat and my brain function is in order, but I am connected to an artificial lung and being fed through a tube, am I alive or am I dead?

  3. a conceptus is not an adult human, it is an earlier stage of a human; just as an acorn isn’t an adult quercus robur, it is an earlier stage of an oak.

    the analogies in thompson’s thought experiments are so divorced from the situation she’s trying to model that the are best termed fallacies. any number of scenarios can be imagined to invoke emotive responses in hopes of overcoming logic. instead of the comatose violinist, make the analogy stronger by using a newborn; make the situation more plausible. here’s a real life situation, from china; a mother carrying a child up an escalator steps off the top, falls into an open panel and is chewed to death by the mechanism. she tosses the infant to a stranger. thompson’s reasoining may call this an assault which could injure the catcher, point out the catcher did not invite the toss, and morally allow the child to fall into the machine as well.

    science has granted insight. a human individual is formed at conception; we all develop in incremental overlapping fashion till death, at least

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