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Saturday, April 27, 2013

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

For part one of this series, go here. For part two of this series, go here.

Section 4. Is abortion unjust killing?

Thomson begins this section by considering that “in the most ordinary sort of case, to deprive someone of what he has a right to is to treat him unjustly.”  She illustrates this with the following analogy: “Suppose a boy and his small brother are jointly given a box of chocolates for Christmas. If the older boy takes the box and refuses to give his brother any of the chocolates, he is unjust to him, for the brother has been given a right to half of them. But suppose that, having learned that otherwise it means nine years in bed with that violinist, you unplug yourself from him. You surely are not being unjust to him, for you gave him no right to use your kidneys, and no one else can have given him any such right.” I really think that Thomson is abusing the analogy by extending it to a long period of time. What we must keep in mind is that pregnancy is intrinsically ordered toward procreation. It was never meant to last a long period of time because one of the most basic of human drives is procreation, to continue the species. So it seems that whether or not you’d have to remain plugged into the violinist an extended period of time is really irrelevant to whether or not it is just to forbid a woman from having her offspring killed. Additionally, we aren’t given any information as to the violinist. Would he want to remain in such a state plugged in for nine years? What if the violinist is seventy years old and not likely to survive all that time anyway? It seems that there are even factors affecting the violinist that should be considered if you are going to decide whether or not to remain plugged in.

Thomson here amends her earlier assessment of a right to life, that it’s not just the right not to be killed, but the right not to be killed unjustly. She’s getting closer, at least. But now she claims that it runs the risk of circularity in its definition (which it does not). It seems that from start to finish in her essay, Thomson is not being as fair to pro-life advocates as she claims she is being. It is wrong to kill any human being unjustly. All we are saying is that since the unborn are human beings, if a strong moral justification is needed to kill a human being outside the womb, the same strong moral justification is needed to kill someone inside the womb. There is nothing circular about this argument. Granted, Thomson is arguing for a “right” to abortion based on a similar justification for letting someone die outside the womb; my complaint here is that she’s not really being as fair to pro-life people as she thinks she is. She turns to a consideration regarding the proposition that if the unborn are persons, is abortion, then, an unjust killing?

Thomson now suggests that no woman actually gives an unborn child a right to use her body, stating, “It is not as if there are unborn persons drifting about the world, to whom a woman who wants a child says I invite you in.” This is how she tries to avoid the responsibility objection in cases other than rape. It doesn’t work, though, because by engaging in sexual intercourse, an act intrinsically ordered toward procreation, she tacitly gives her consent to the preborn child’s presence in the womb. Thomson anticipates this objection, stating that if this were the case, then abortion would be “more like the boys taking away the chocolates, and less like your unplugging yourself from the violinist -- doing so would be depriving it of what it does have a right to, and thus would be doing it an injustice.”

Needless to say, her responses to this objection are incredibly weak. First, she asks that if she is responsible for bringing it into existence, then why does she have the right to kill it, even to save her own life? This seems powerful at first, but we must keep in mind that simply bringing an entity into existence does not mean that you don’t have the right to protect yourself from it. Children have been known to kill their parents. If a child turns on his parents, even as an “innocent aggressor,” they have a right to protect themselves.

Her second point is simply that it’s new. She claims that pro-life people have been so concerned about the independence of the fetus that they tend to overlook the possibility that the parents’ responsibility may give the fetus a claim to her body which other independent people may not have, such as an ailing violinist who is a stranger to her. Her response to this is simply that it would leave out children conceived in rape, that aborting them is not depriving them of anything they have a right to. But that’s not an objection, it’s simply the logical conclusion of the responsibility objection. I believe that it should be illegal to abort children conceived in rape (see my linked article for why). Those who do not share my convictions believe that abortions, while still immoral, should not be legally prohibited in the case of rape exactly for this reason -- and it would justify only about 1-2% of abortions. So Thomson’s objection here is really not an objection at all.

Thomson presents two further thought experiments to explain her point, to try and show that the responsibility objection does not go as far as pro-life people believe it does.

The burglar

“If the room is stuffy, and I therefore open a window to air it, and a burglar climbs in, it would be absurd to say, ‘Ah, now he can stay, she’s given him a right to the use of her house -- for she is partially responsible for his presence there, having voluntarily done what enabled him to get in, in full knowledge that there are such things as burglars, and that burglars burgle.’ It would be still more absurd to say this if I had had bars installed outside my windows, precisely to prevent burglars from getting in, and a burglar got in only because of a defect in the bars. It remains equally absurd if we imagine it is not a burglar who climbs in, but an innocent person who blunders or falls in.”

Thomson equates pregnancy with burglary. In The Ethics of Abortion (Routledge, New York, NY, 2011, p. 162), Christopher Kaczor responds, “...the woman’s action of leaving the door unlocked does not cause the burglar to be in the house -- opening the door only removes an obstacle. On the other hand, the man and the woman cause the baby to be where it is, even if they tried to prevent it (just as a drunk driver causes deaths though she may have tried to prevent it, say by drinking coffee to stay alert).”

In his book, The Case for Life (Crossway Books, Wheaton, IL, 2009, p. 192), Scott Klusendorf, when addressing a similar argument made by Eileen McDonagh (that the fetus is like a mugger), responds in this way: “...the analogy is not at all parallel to a pregnant woman and her child. The fetus, even if unwanted, cannot be responsible for its own existence...As Frederica Mathewes-Green points out, there can be no ‘mugger’ until two ‘joggers’ combine genetic material to create him. On what grounds, then, can any parent who willingly engaged in a sexual act that leads naturally to the creation of a dependent child deny responsibility for him?”

Kaczor adds two more disanalogies between pregnancy and the burglar scenario (pp. 164-165). First, the burglar knowingly and willingly breaks the law by entering your house uninvited and taking your items, so he forfeits some of the rights enjoyed by an innocent person. Even if someone wanders into your house (say a small child or an elderly woman with dementia), you do not have the right to kill that person if that’s the only way you can make them leave.

Finally, the act of leaving doors and windows open, unbarred, etc., does not in itself lead to burglars entering homes in the same way that the act of sexual intercourse leads to pregnancy. He says, “suppose that leaving doors unlocked often led to young children or elderly neighbors wandering innocent into your house. Suppose we spoke of leaving doors ajar as the “neighbor-inviting act,” just as we speak of sexual intercourse as the generative act or reproductive act. Suppose further that you caused the child or elderly neighbor to be in your house, say by grabbing a child or an octogenarian who looked very much like your own niece or grandma off the street and dragging the person into your house. Even if you couldn’t find another way of getting herself out of your house as quickly as you’d like, you would hardly be justified in killing her, because she is in your house only because of your own actions.”

In short, the burglar analogy does not combat the responsibility objection; it only reinforces it.


For her next analogy, Thomson writes the following: “Again, suppose it were like this: people-seeds drift about in the air like pollen, and if you open your windows, one may drift in and take root in your carpets and 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 person-plant who now develops have a right to the use of your house? Surely not -- despite the fact that you voluntarily opened your windows, you knowingly kept carpets and upholstered furniture, and you knew that screens were sometimes defective. Someone may argue that you are responsible for its rooting, that it does have a right to your house, because after all you could have lived out your life with bare floors and furniture, or with sealed windows and doors. But this won’t do -- for by the same token anyone can avoid a pregnancy due to rape by having a hysterectomy, or anyway by never leaving home without a (reliable!) army.”

Now Thomson just gets silly. Aside from the fact that the objections to the burglar scenario work here, too (you are not responsible for the people-seeds drifting in, you were merely removing an obstacle to their implanting in your house, and that opening doors and windows is not an act intrinsically ordered toward bringing people-seeds into your house), John T. Wilcox, in his essay Nature as Demonic in Thomson’s Defense of Abortion (found in The Ethics of Abortion: Pro-Life vs. Pro-Choice, ed. Robert M. Baird and Stuart E. Rosenbaum, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, 2001, pp. 264-265), highlights the difficulty of using science fiction scenarios to test our actual world intuitions: “What would such a world really be like? If people-seeds are like pollen, would putting up screens help at all? Would not you, the house resident, be giving off seeds yourself, and so trapping your own pollen-seeds in your house? Or rather: since pollen is not the right metaphor, after all: would you not have to keep people who gave off pollen out of your house, because their pollen might fertilize your flowers, and then you would give off seeds (like dandelion seeds, say, not like pollen) which might be trapped in your house? And you would like your fertilized seed to be cared for by someone else rather than yourself? Or what? We really are not told enough to know what such a world would be like, and hence what kinds of obligations for their seed-children we might think parents would have...This sort of problem is found in almost all science fiction arguments. Our ethical intuitions are shaped by this world and would be clumsy in a real other world; but when we are not really transported to another world, but only asked to imagine a little bit of another one, our intuitions fail us entirely.”

Pro-life philosopher Frank Beckwith talks about this “possible world” (I really don’t think there is a possible world in which humans reproduce by “people-seeds,” but he’s probably just being generous to the scenario). He continues the point I mentioned in the first part of this series, that Thomson really is not granting the pro-life position regarding human personhood. He writes: “ the seed-sowing world, an essential property of a sowed seed is the generation of a mature version of itself as a plant-person. Consequently, Thomson’s seed-drifting world seem plausible to her because she rejects a philosophy of the human person that is embraced by virtually all pro-lifers: our sexual powers are ordered toward the generation of children whose progenitors are required to care for them. What Thomson is granting, then, is a view of personhood consistent with the pro-life position only insofar as it is aligned with a minimalist understanding of autonomy and choice. That view isolates the individual from other persons -- generationally, contemporaneously, and institutionally -- except as those relationships arise from the individual’s explicit choice. But that is not the pro-life view of personhood.”

So the burglar and people-seed analogies fail to justify the act of abortion. She continually mentions rape, but as I have written previously, even if abortion is justified in that case, that would only justify it in the case of rape. Justifying abortion in the case of rape would not justify abortion-on-demand, a fact that Thomson seems all too eager to ignore.

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

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