A Defence of Abortion
Judith Jarvis Thomson has argued that pregnancies resulting from a rape or where the life of the mother is in danger should be terminated on moral grounds. In ‘A Defence of Abortion’ she begins by conceding that an unborn baby is indeed a person – the argument offered most often by those opposed to abortion – on biological grounds. She does not accept that a foetus is a person from the moment of conception, but proposes to concede this anyway. Her next move is to offer the following thought experiment.
You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an 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 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 as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, ‘Look, we’re sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you – we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it and the violinist now is plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it’s only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can dsafely be unplugged from you.’ Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice if you did, a great kindness. But do you still have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says, ‘Tough luck, I agree, but now you’ve got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person’s right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him.’ I imagine you would regard this as outrageous.
Thomson argues that in no way are we obliged to keep the violinist attached to us despite the fact that they are a person, although it would be “a great kindness” to do so. The idea is that the anti-abortionist is arguing for just such an imposition. She also argues that abortion is morally preferable to actively kill a foetus should a (potential) mother be in a position where her life is threatened.
As Thomson notes at the end of the paper, it could be argued that the mother’s responsibility to the child is entirely different to that of the kidnap victim to the violinist. Her response is to suggest that no special responsibility exists to a child that is conceived despite every precaution. She maintains that a very early abortion need not involve killing a person, that not all abortions are justified, and that abortion should be a choice that is always offered in some situations.
Judith Jarvis Thomson, “A Defence of Abortion” Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 1, no. 1 (Fall 1971).
An online copy of the paper is available here.
1. Do you agree with Thomson that it would be outrageous for the doctor to insist that you remained plugged in to the violinist for the rest of your life? If you agree, does this mean that you think that the right to decide what happens in and to your body sometimes does outweigh the right to life? If so, does it follow that a woman has a right to abort a foetus whether or not it has a right to life?
2. What is the distinction Thomson draws between something that it would be nice or noble to do and something that you have to do? Is this a safe distinction? What other examples might it be used in? Does it apply to abortion?
3. Imagine that a mother, finding her burden of care too great, kills her young child. This action is different from other sorts of murder, for not only does the woman in question fail to respect the child’s right to life, but also fails in her special duty (as a parent) to care for her child. But should such a duty only begin when a child is born? Why? If not, surely it follows that abortion is a violation of parental duty.
Filed under: Abortion, Ethics, Killing, Normative Ethics, Philosophy, Questions | 9 Comments