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Friday, March 29, 2013

A Critique of Judith Jarvis Thomson's A Defense of Abortion, Part II

For part one of this series, click here.
Section 1. The “extreme” pro-life view. [1]

I agree with Thomson that the view that abortion is impermissible even to save the mother’s life is an extreme pro-life view. I believe that abortions are justified if the mother’s life is in immediate jeopardy. [2] She does wonder how we are supposed to weigh the mother’s life against the unborn child’s when the mother’s life is at stake, but at that point her right to self-defense should be asserted.

Thomson modifies the violinist thought experiment to illustrate this: “ cannot seriously be thought to be murder if the mother performs an abortion on herself to save her life. It cannot seriously be said that she must refrain, that she must sit passively by and wait for her death. Let us look again at the case of you and the violinist. There you are, in bed with the violinist, and the director of the hospital says to you, ‘It’s all most distressing, and I deeply sympathize, but you see this is putting an additional strain on your kidneys, and you’ll be dead within the month. But you have to stay where you are all the same, because unplugging you would be directly killing an innocent violinist, and that’s murder, and that’s impermissible.”

This presents a problem that I have written about in a prior article. Abortion is an act of direct killing (because you dismember, kill through poisoning, etc.) the unborn child. The case of the violinist is not direct killing, you are letting someone die without violating their rights. The violinist scenario is only analogous to abortions in which you literally let the child die, such as RU-486 (which is more literally like “unplugging” from the child). However, as I indicated in my linked article, I agree that life-saving abortions are permitted, and frankly I think they’re permitted for much stronger reasons than Thomson argued.

But there is a difference between what someone may do to save themselves, and what a third-party may do to save someone else (again, I address this in my linked article). Thomson considers this as well, and presents another science fiction scenario to test our intuitions. [3] She writes, “Suppose you find yourself trapped in a tiny house with a growing child. I mean a very tiny house, and a rapidly growing child -- you are already up against the wall of the house and in a few minutes you’ll be crushed to death. The child on the other hand won’t be crushed to death; if nothing is done to stop him from growing he’ll be hurt, but in the end he’ll simply burst open the house and walk out a free man. Now I could well understand it if a bystander were to say, ‘There’s nothing we can do for you. We cannot choose between your life and his, we cannot be the ones to decide who is to live, we cannot intervene.’ But it cannot be concluded that you too can do nothing, that you cannot attack it to save your life. However innocent the child may be, you do not have to wait passively while it crushed you to death.”

The problems with this analogy should seem obvious. First, certainly there are things that can be done to avoid killing the child. A window could be broken, or a door bust open to save the person inside who is about to be crushed. Life-saving abortions (that is, abortions which result in the child’s death) are only permissible if nothing can be done to spare the child’s life.

But second, as John T. Wilcox indicates, there are other unknown variables. He writes, “ did you get ‘trapped’ in such a tiny house? Did you walk in and give the child a growing potion, though you knew that this potion would cause such growth as to ‘threaten’ your life? If so, you would not be justified in subsequently killing the child and pleading self-defense; you got yourself into the predicament, you did not just ‘find’ yourself there. Or is it that the child himself, knowing he would grow in that way, locked the door and swallowed the key? Then it is self-defense when you kill him, for he has evil intentions and it is he who trapped you there. But pregnancy is not like that. Who is it who traps you, in ordinary pregnancy?” [4]

Thomson arrives at a conclusion, that a woman can defend her life against the threat to it posed by the unborn child, even if doing so involves her death (which I agree with, as long as her life is genuinely threatened). But ironically, it doesn’t seem that her arguments and analogies actually justify her position.

Section 2. Weakening the “extreme” pro-life view.

Thomson weakens the “extreme” pro-life view to say that it may be impermissible for a third party to intervene, but it would be permissible for her to go through with the abortion, herself. I have already indicated that it would be permissible for a third party to intervene against an innocent aggressor. She uses an analogy to show that the third party can’t remain neutral when it comes to choosing between the woman and the unborn child (which I agree with). She writes, “If Jones has found and fastened on a certain coat, which he needs to keep him from freezing, but which Smith also needs to keep him from freezing, then it is not impartiality that says ‘I cannot choose between you’ when Smith owns the coat.” If Smith owns the coat that Jones is wearing and needs it to survive, he has the right to take the coat back because the coat belongs to him. It is not impartiality to claim we can’t choose between the two, so we let Jones keep the coat. You are, in effect, choosing Jones over Smith.

She writes in her essay that even if one particular person does not feel justified in acting to retrieve Smith’s coat from Jones, that doesn’t mean that no one can. Someone in a position of authority, with the job of securing peoples’ rights, can order Smith’s coat returned. So even if a given “extreme” pro-life advocate would not perform an abortion out of a sense of moral irresponsibility, that doesn’t mean that someone in the position to do so should not act to save the mother’s life (namely, the physician).

She ends this section with the following claim: “...the arguments against abortion we are looking at do grant that the woman has a right to decide what happens in and to her body. But although they do grant it, I have tried to show that they do not take seriously what is done in granting it. I suggest the same thing will reappear even more clearly when we turn away from cases in which the mother’s life is at stake, and the vastly more common cases in which a woman wants an abortion for some less weighty reason than preserving her own life.”

The claim that a woman has a right to do whatever she wants in and to her body is a very extreme claim, and difficult to justify. No one has the right to do just anything in and to their body, especially if there is an innocent human being residing in there. Pro-life people do take seriously the right to bodily integrity, but not at the expense of innocent human life. [5]

Section 3: Is the right to life problematic?

She begins this section by stating that the right to life is problematic. Bernard Nathanson once wrote, “In morality, life can only be equated with life, not with convenience or sociology or politics or economics or poverty; not even (in the truly hard cases) with the burden of responsibility for a seriously retarded or handicapped child, or of bearing a child resulting from rape or infidelity. In arguing an issue of life, one can only invoke issues of life to counterbalance it.” [6] Thomson disagrees, of course.

Thomson writes, “In some views having a right to life includes having a right to be given at least the bare minimum one needs for continued life.” I’ve honestly never heard anyone give this explanation as to what constitutes the right of life. I think she may have set up a strawman argument here. To me, the right to life entails the negative right not to be intentionally killed unjustly. But it also seems that while it does not entail the right to the bare minimum one needs for continued life (as in the violinist’s continued use of your kidneys), it does, actually, entail the positive right to the bare minimum a child needs to live. This includes adequate nutrition and an adequate environment. It seems that this obligation does not begin at birth, but as soon as the child comes into existence (and indeed, even pro-choice people believe that pregnant women have an obligation to care for their unborn child if she “consents” to its presence in the womb). Since children can’t take care of themselves, and their dependence on their mother doesn’t end at birth, it seems that the obligation to give the bare minimum one needs to live doesn’t begin at birth, either.

She gives another scenario, equating Henry Fonda with Jesus, “If I am sick unto death, and the only thing that will save my life is the touch of Henry Fonda’s cool hand on my fevered brow, then all the same, I have no right to be given the touch of Henry Fonda’s cool hand on my fevered brow. It would be frightfully nice of him to fly in from the West Coast to provide it. It would be less nice, though no doubt well meant, if my friends flew out to the West Coast and brought Henry Fonda back with them. But I have no right at all against anybody that he should do this for me.” Again, Fonda may not have a moral obligation to come and touch her forehead to save her, but that doesn’t mean that parents don’t have the obligation to give their children the basic necessities of life. In fact, John T. Wilcox argues that the parental obligation is very important in the violinist scenario. He wrote in his essay, “I’ll grant that Henry Fonda had little or no obligation to save Judith Thomson. But if Jane Fonda had been the one Henry could have saved, surely it would have been monstrous to refuse.” [7]

She does talk about those who take the right to life to mean that one has the right not to be killed by anybody, but again this is a subtle strawman. The right to life does not entail the right not to be killed. [8] It’s the right not to be intentionally killed unjustly. She argues that if you have the right not to be killed, this means you would be obligated to remain plugged in to the violinist (on top of not having the right to slit his throat or shoot him), but that doesn’t follow at all. When you unplug from the violinist, you are not the active agent in his death; he is dying from a prior kidney ailment. Plus, the intention is not to kill the violinist. The intention is to unplug from him, for whatever reason.

She does clarify that she believes in the natural right to life, just that it does not guarantee having either a right to be given the use of or a right to be allowed continued use of another person’s body -- even if one needs it for life itself. However, this seems to be incorrect. At the very least, if a man and woman engage in the act of sex which is intrinsically ordered toward procreation, then since they are responsible for creation of that naturally needy child, they bear a responsibility to care for that naturally needy child. By engaging in the act that creates the child in the first place, the woman waives her right to bodily integrity.

So far, her analogies don’t seem to be supporting her position. At the very least, they don’t seem to hold up to scrutiny. But her more bizarre thought experiments are yet to come.

The preceding article also appeared on the Secular Pro-Life blog.

[1] The individual sections of Thomson’s essay are not titled. I have given them titles to summarize the section.
[2] Remember that the right to an abortion does not automatically entail the right to the death of the embryo/fetus, as Thomson even writes later in her essay. So if the child can be delivered without death occurring, then the child should be delivered whole, intact, and alive to save the mother’s life.
[3] I’m a science fiction fanatic myself but the problem with science fiction scenarios is that they don’t accurately test our intuitions. To test our intuitions we should use examples that are “closer to home,” so to speak, such as the example used in my article about an innocent aggressor who drinks his beverage when, unbeknownst to him, it was spiked with a mind-altering substance. I’ll go into more detail regarding the problem with science fiction scenarios, fun as they are to think about, when I come to her more implausible thought experiments.
[4] John T. Wilcox, Nature as Demonic in Thomson’s Defense of Abortion, from The Ethics of Abortion: Pro-Life vs. Pro-Choice, ed. Robert M. Baird and Stuart E. Rosenbaum, (Prometheus Books; Amherst, NY, 2001), pp. 266-267 (emphasis in original).
[5] Some pro-life advocates actually do believe that abortion is justified in the case of rape specifically because of the right to bodily integrity, as the responsibility objection does not hold in that particular case.
[6] Bernard N. Nathanson, M.D., with Richard N. Ostling, Aborting America, (Doubleday: NY, 1979),  p. 240. Keep in mind that although converting to Catholicism later in life, Dr. Nathanson was an Atheist at the time he wrote this book.
[7] John T. Wilcox, p. 261 (emphasis in original).
[8] This is a topic for another essay, but there are times in which one could forfeit one’s right to live, such as if they commit murder in cold blood.


  1. Cheers for all these posts mate, all very enlightening and a helpful resource ;) Sent someone your way today already.

    1. Thanks! I'll probably have the last part finished sometime this week. The whole purpose for me starting this blog was to give people accessible responses to the arguments they may hear from pro-choice people, so I'm glad it's coming in handy.