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Sunday, June 2, 2013

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

For part one of this series, go here. For part two, this is the place to be. And for part three, mosey on over this way.

So far Thomson’s essay has suffered from many critical errors. None of her analogies have helped establish that a woman has a right to abort for any reason, except possibly in the case of rape. She actually turns to this question next.

5. Does length of time matter?

She says that the argument could be made that if someone finds themselves attached to the violinist, through no fault of their own, and one only needed to stay plugged in for an hour to the violinist, it would be indecent to refuse. Similarly, if a woman is raped but must only stay pregnant for an hour, and constituted no threat to life or health, it would be indecent to refuse.

She returns to the analogy of the boys with the chocolates. If the box had only been given to one boy and not both, then the boy that has no claim on it has no right to it. If the brother refuses to share any, he is stingy, callous, but not unjust. Similarly since the violinist has no claim to your body (and the unborn child has no claim on the mother’s body, apparently), one should not be compelled to remain plugged in, even if it would be indecent to refuse. But I think she overlooks an important point -- one can argue that the person plugged in has an obligation to remain plugged in, even if the violinist has no claim to your body. Even pro-choice Atheist Peter Singer, in his book Practical Ethics, argues that we do have an obligation to help the poor, despite them having no claim to our resources. One does not have to have a legitimate claim in order to establish a moral obligation. Although, I think a very compelling argument can be made that the unborn child has a legitimate claim to the mother’s body, even in the case of rape. But that’s a subject for another article. I have written elsewhere as to why I believe a woman has a moral obligation not to kill her child, even in the case of rape.

Scott Klusendorf, in his book The Case for Life (Crossway Books, Wheaton, Il., 2009), drives the point home. He writes, “Assume that Thomson’s and McDonagh’s view is correct...Is there really no obligation to others who are dependent on us? To borrow an example provided by Dr. [Bernard] Nathanson, suppose only the breast-feeding of infants was available, as is true in many cultures. Or take an exact case from pediatrics where the infant can tolerate only the mother’s milk for nourishment. Is the mother justified in either case in “unplugging” the baby from her breast (and hence committing infanticide) on the grounds that she is not obligated to use her body to sustain the life of another?” (p. 196).

To further illustrate her point, Thomson returns to her analogy of Henry Fonda. Suppose he doesn’t have to fly in from the West Coast, but merely has to walk across the room to heal her with the cool touch of his hand. She still has no legitimate right against him that he do this, though he would be indecent to refuse. She argues that it is a shocking idea that anyone’s rights should fade away and disappear as it gets harder and harder to accord them to him. But again, I return to what John T. Wilcox argued in his essay Nature as Demonic in Thomson’s Defense of Abortion, that the parental obligation is an important difference between pregnancy and the violinist. If it were Jane Fonda, and not J.J. Thomson who needed Henry’s hand to heal her, it would have been monstrous to refuse.

So her point with this section is that the amount or length of hardship should not change one’s obligations. Let’s grant her this point. Let’s say that obligations don’t change the harder and harder a situation becomes. This actually works against her. She is starting from the assumption that it would be morally permissible to have an abortion at any time during pregnancy; if the pregnancy only lasted one hour, she should still have this right even though she would be indecent for doing so. Studies have actually shown that most people, pro-life and pro-choice, actually oppose late-term abortion. [1] So it seems more reasonable to start from the position that having an abortion after six or seven months is wrong and should be illegal (since this is agreed by most people and Thomson has not, by any means, established that it would be morally permissible and should be legal to do so). If the pregnancy lasted only one hour instead of nine months, considering that her obligations don’t change, it would still be wrong and should be illegal to have an abortion even if she would only have to remain pregnant for one hour. Her obligations would not change just because the length of time was extended and it becomes harder to fulfill the obligation, or stretching back in time when it was easier. Again, it might establish that right in the case of rape (though I will still argue it doesn’t). Even if it does, one cannot get from abortion is permissible in the case of rape to abortion is permissible on demand.

6. Should We Be Legally Compelled to be Good Samaritans?

Thomson begins this section by quoting a story that any of us have likely heard, whether or not we attended Sunday School as children. The story of the Good Samaritan found in the Gospel of Luke: “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was, and when he saw him he had compassion on him. And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And on the morrow, when he departed, he took out two pence and gave them to the host, and said unto him, ‘Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.”

Thomson now makes an artificial distinction between types of Samaritans. We have the Good Samaritan who stopped and helped the injured man. But the priest and the Levite weren’t even “minimally decent” Samaritans. She’s not entirely clear on how little you have to do to be downgraded from Good to Minimally Decent. She does try to argue for it in the example of Kitty Genovese who was murdered while thirty-eight people watched or listened, and did nothing to help her. She argues that a Minimally Decent Samaritan would have at least called the police, and a Good, or perhaps Splendid, Samaritan would have intervened. The problem with this is that the Good Samaritan in the story was not placing himself in harm’s way, so who’s to say simply calling the police would have been an act of a Good Samaritan, and intervening (since one has no obligation to place oneself in harm’s way to offer assistance) would have been Splendid Samaritanism? It seems she’s simply trying to argue an artificial distinction between types of Samaritans, rather than arguing in common philosopher terms of moral obligation and supererogation.

Thomson mentions that Jesus afterward said, “Go and do thou likewise.” She says that he may have been saying that we are morally obligated to be the Good Samaritan. She doesn’t seem sure, but from the context of the passage she quotes it’s pretty obvious that Jesus was actually saying that we have a duty to be the Good Samaritan. This doesn’t necessarily entail that we must put ourselves in harm’s way to help someone in need, but we need to “love our neighbor as ourselves,” which was the whole point of Jesus telling the story of the good Samaritan.

In fact, pro-life philosopher Christopher Kaczor, in his book The Ethics of Abortion (Routledge, 2011), argues that Thomson appealing to the parable of the good Samaritan actually weakens her case rather than strengthening it. He writes, “...Thomson emphasizes that the law normally does not compel us to act as Good Samaritans (though laws drafting citizens into the military defense of a country may serve as a counterexample). However, the point of the parable seems to be not a legal one but rather a moral one. We should -- in an ethical sense of should -- help those in need even though the law may not compel us to do so...even if Thomson is correct about what the law holds or what the law ought to be, it may still be ethically required to help those in need. The fact that we do not know the stranger, and that we did not bring about his neediness, is irrelevant. Anyone in need whom I can help is my neighbor. This interpretation accords well with the ethic generally proposed by Jesus.” (pp. 150-151, emphasis in original).

Lest anyone misunderstand his intention of responding to this line of reasoning, Kaczor continues, “I am not making an argument from religious authority in order to point to the immorality of abortion. Of course, if someone is going to follow the teachings of Jesus, then the views of Jesus are authoritative in terms guiding conduct. My point, as I take it was Thomson’s, is to appeal to the wisdom contained in the parable, just as one might appeal to the parables of Aesop, Confucius, or any other figure. If this interpretation of the parable is correct, then using the parable of the Good Samaritan to justify not helping someone in need is rather like using the story of the race between the tortoise and the hare to justify a lack of perseverance or the tale of the three little pigs who built houses of straw, sticks, and bricks to justify playing rather than doing your work well.” (ibid.)

Thomson makes the point that we don’t have laws in our country to compel Good Samaritanism. No one could be held and tried for failure to act to save Kitty Genovese’s life, even for not calling the authorities. This may be true (though I’m not a legal scholar, so I can’t say for sure), making abortion illegal would not be forcing good Samaritanism on women, per se. Making abortion illegal would not force a woman to keep her child rather than gifting the child to a loving family for adoption. They would simply be laws to prevent a mother from killing her child. And again, if you’re arguing that it would be forcing good Samaritanism on women in the case of rape (as Thomson is stuck on for most of this article), then to reiterate, even if that’s true you can’t get from abortion should be legal in the case of rape to abortion should be legal on demand.

Thomson’s argument, again, is undermined by appealing to the parable of the good Samaritan. Not only that, but she seems hung up on justifying abortion in the case of rape, and appearing to argue from that to no woman should have to be compelled to continue her pregnancy, or remain plugged in to the violinist. But as I have argued, her position is simply untenable. In my next and final article on the series, I will turn to the last two sections of Thomson’s essay.

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

[1] Steve Wagner, Common Ground Without Compromise, 2008, p. 39. This is based on a 2003 Gallup Poll that indicated 68% of Americans oppose abortions in the second trimester and 84% oppose it in the third trimester. Granted this is ten years ago but to my knowledge, this is still generally the case.

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