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Monday, June 10, 2013

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

For part one of this series, you can go here. For part two, this is where you should be. For part three, follow this link. And here’s part four.

7. Do parents have a special responsibility to their offspring?

Through this series I have engaged Thomson’s analogies and found all of them to be lacking. I have established that Thomson, though she believes she does, really is not granting the pro-life view of personhood. I have argued that the violinist analogy (and the others) do not establish that women have the right to an abortion. And while I do believe abortion is still wrong and should be illegal in the case of rape, even if we grant that it should be legal in the case of rape you can’t get from “abortion should be legal in the case of rape” to “abortion should be legal under any and all circumstances.”

So she argues that the pro-life position doesn’t follow, that even if we grant the unborn is a person that doesn’t mean that abortion is wrong or should be illegal. But considering that her argument only works in the case of rape (which she admits several times in the article), I have shown that it does, in fact, follow that if the unborn are full human persons, then it is wrong and should be illegal to kill them. Of course the next step would be to argue that the unborn is not a person, but Thomson doesn’t take that route so I have not defended the position that they are.

So she takes one final stab at justifying her position, arguing that parents don’t actually have any sort of obligation to their children at all, only if they assume it. I am actually planning a future article on parental responsibility and how it pertains to the abortion issue, so I won’t say too much about it here. But I will say that her position here is simply reprehensible. I consider it quite obvious that a parent has a moral obligation to care for their children. She says they could assume responsibility, then once they take it home they cannot revoke it at the cost of her life because they now find it difficult to provide for it. But it’s not clear why they should be able to do this. If a parent could have their child killed while inside the womb, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t allow a child to be killed outside the womb. Presumably if a mother decides to keep her child but two months later while still in utero decides to revoke it, I’m sure Thomson would have no problem with allowing her to have an abortion. So again, it goes back to bodily rights (since the only reason Thomson would say we should allow the death of the child in utero is because it is dependent upon her body and she is under no obligation to allow it continued use of her body). So again, the issue here is not one of parental responsibility -- either parents are responsible for their children inside and outside the womb, or parental responsibility is irrelevant and she should be allowed the right to refuse whether or not she assumed responsibility for it. And if we’re going to say that inside the womb one can revoke responsibility to care for a child at the cost of her life, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t allow it once the child is outside the womb.

Parental responsibility is not assumed, it is inherent by virtue of biology. As my friend Josh Brahm likes to say (and I’m paraphrasing), if your neighbor’s kid raids your fridge, you can have him arrested. But it makes no sense to call your own kid a thief if he raids your fridge.

That’s all I’ll say for now. I will say much more on this in the future.

8. Is Thomson’s position truly reasonable?

Thomson finishes off her essay with an appeal to our emotional side. She argues that her position is reasonable because she doesn’t argue that not all abortions are permissible. Some would be positively indecent, such as a woman in her seventh month of pregnancy who wants the abortion just to avoid the nuisance of postponing a trip abroad. So we have some common ground there.

She argues that pro-life people are suspect because we treat all abortions where the woman’s life is not at stake (and some pro-lifers won’t even make that concession) the same. But think of what she’s saying. What if I was to criticize laws against murder because it treats all murderers the same, whereas while not all murders are permissible, there may be genuine times where we need to take a life in cold blood (say to make an example of would-be criminals for minor crimes)? If abortion truly is murder, if abortion is the intentional taking of innocent human life, then it is not unreasonable to argue that all, or at least the vast majority, of abortions are impermissible and should be illegal.

But there is another aspect to her statement. She says that we consider all abortions performed as morally on a par, but I really don’t think that’s true when you boil it down. For example, a woman who knows what her unborn child is but goes in for an abortion because she just doesn’t want kids, certainly is not morally on a par with the girl in Thomson’s example, the desperately frightened 14-year-old schoolgirl, pregnant due to rape. Not all killings are equal. That’s why our laws distinguish between murder and manslaughter, between different degrees of murder, premeditation and crimes of passion. Not all women who abort are morally on a par, but all abortions morally amount to the same thing -- the intentional killing of an innocent human being.

Finally Thomson makes the statement that once you unplug, you are not guaranteed the death of the violinist. If he miraculously survives the unplugging, you do not have the right to slit his throat. She, in effect, argues that the right to abortion carries with it the right of separation from the child, not the right of termination of its life. I disagree that there is a right to an abortion, but it seems reasonable that if a mother could separate herself from the child without killing her, then that would be better than killing her to have her removed. Christopher Kaczor discusses this at greater length in his book The Ethics of Abortion. But it seems to me that what Thomson is advocating is the right to slight the violinist’s throat before the separation, since Thomson supposedly endorses surgical abortions. Now as I have argued elsewhere, this isn’t the strongest rebuttal since there are methods of abortion that are more literally like unplugging than direct killing, such as the drug RU-486. But that drug didn’t come about until the 90’s, and to my knowledge there were no drugs that would simply “unplug” in the 70’s, when Thomson wrote her essay. So it seems that this confession equally works against her position.

Thomson finishes up by saying that she’s only been pretending (her word) that the unborn is a person from conception. She dismisses early abortions by claiming that it’s not a person at that time (though of course, she doesn’t support her assertion). So early abortions are not dealt with by anything in her essay. This is just strange, considering that she has been arguing that even if the zygote/embryo is a person abortion would still be permissible. This last statement just amounts to question-begging, by assuming that an early embryo is not a person.

I hope I’ve made it clear that Thomson’s essay certainly doesn’t justify abortions, especially abortions on demand. Her analogies do not hold up under scrutiny, especially the violinist analogy, which she is most well-known for. The reason that so much is written in the literature about whether or not the unborn is a person is because that is a crucial question that the abortion issue hinges on. If the unborn is not a person, then a woman should be able to get an abortion whenever and for whatever reason she wants to. If the unborn is a person, and has all the basic human rights you and I do, then abortions are impermissible and should be illegal.

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

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