In an essay entitled “A Defense of Abortion” author Judith Jarvis Thomson offers a number of considerations that would justify abortion in almost all cases without denying the personhood of an unborn child. Thomson’s argument is not based on the distinguishing comparison between human beings classified as members of a species, namely homosapiens, who possess the human genetic code, and the actual human person who possesses cognitive consciousness or the ability to know what is going on around him/her. Instead, her argument is based on the assumption that every person has a right to life. Although Thomson herself does not believe that the life of a human person begins at conception, for argument’s sake, she is willing to admit this. Thus it is granted that every fetus is a person, and every person has a right to the right to life. In Thomson’s view, abortion remains justifiable.
Thompson begins by giving an example of a violinist with fatal kidney disease. Suppose you wake up one morning, in a hospital bed, and find yourself attached at the back to a famous violinist. Upon talking to the doctors, you learn that you were kidnapped by “The Society of Music Lovers”, who in a desperate attempt to save this violinist, has plugged in his circulatory system with yours, turning you into a human dialysis machine. The doctors later inform you that they are sorry that this has happened to you, but it will only take nine months for the violinist to recover, at which point he can be “unplugged” from you, but to unplug him from you now would cause him to die. Since violinists are people too, and since every person has the right to live, Thomson uses this to point out that no matter how long the violinist needs to get better, even if it takes him nine years you are expected to lie there because he has a right to life, and thus you have no right to take his life from him by “unplugging” him from you.
The violinist example is merely a strategy that Thomson uses to point out the major flaw in the pro-lifer’s view. Since Thomson previously establishes the pro-lifer’s view to be: “…a person’s life is stronger and more stringent than the mother’s right to decide what happens in and to her body…” (740). In using the situation described in the violinist example, Thomson draws a parallel between the violinist’s right to life and the fetus’s right to life, and subsequently your right to decide what happens to your body and that of a mother to decide what happens to her body regarding the abortion of her unborn child.
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In the case that you choose to “unplug” the violinist from your body, killing him, this would be equal to a mother getting an abortion. This is where Thompson points out the major flaw in the pro-lifer’s argument. According to the argument, every person has the right to life, so you can not “unplug” the violinist from yourself because a person’s right to life outweighs that of your right to control what happens to your own body. Thus you are helpless in the situation. Even if it takes the violinist nine years to recover, you must, according to the pro-lifer’s argument, wait it out.
The same can be applied when looking at the situation of a mother and unborn child. The mother can not get an abortion because the fetus is a person. Thus, the mother finds herself in a situation much similar to that in which you and the violinist were in. That is, she is helpless, bound by the fact that the fetus’s right to life outweighs that of her right to control what happens to her own body. From this example, Thomson argues that you are not morally required to host the violinist. Thomson believes that the violinist situation is similar if not alike to that of pregnancy by rape or perhaps health situations in which the mother must spend the whole nine months of her pregnancy bedridden.
Thomson next looks at a view which she labels “the extreme view”. This is the view that abortion is not permissible even if it could save the mother’s life. Her reasoning here is that children are innocent and innocent beings cannot be killed. In other words, performing an abortion on the mother would mean killing an innocent being, and since “…directly killing an innocent person is always and absolutely impermissible…” (741) an abortion may not be performed. She then argues that not aborting the fetus could kill the mother, who obviously being a person has a right to life, and since the fetus is a direct threat to life, why not abort it?
Thus one finds a stalemate in the argument; for who has the right to live in this situation, the mother or the fetus? Thomson then questions what it means to have a right to life, in order to answer the stalemate. She concludes that according to the extreme view, this means that no one can ever kill you, even if the cost of not killing you will cost another person his/her own life. Thus, Thomson still justifies abortion according to her view.
Thomson next examines a variation on the extreme view in which a third party is involved. This variation states that abortion is allowed to save the mother’s life, but a third party can not perform the abortion, because the third party must be impartial to both the mother and the child. Thomson questions whether or not impartiality actually exists by giving an example in which you are trapped in a very small house with a rapidly growing child, and in a few minutes you’ll be crushed to death by the child if something is not done.
She writes that the child will be hurt but he/she will simply walk away from the house after out-growing it. She then states from the view of a bystander that she understands that there is nothing that can be done to help you, and who is the bystander to decide whose life is more important? Thomson then points that “However innocent the child maybe, you do not have to wait passively while it crushes you to death” (742). In other words, you have the right to self-defense.
She compares the status of the house to that of a pregnant woman, which she writes cannot be compared, for we do not grant houses a right to defend themselves, as they can not. But she makes one very important distinction which is crucial to her conclusion: the pregnant woman does house the baby, but “…it should be remembered that she is a person who houses it” (742), and remember a person has a right to life. Thomson tries to show with this example that she believes a third party can legitimately choose the mother if the mother so desires.
An important criticism of her argument that Thomson addresses regard abortion in non -life-threatening and non-rape cases. This criticism states that when a woman voluntarily has sex and accidentally gets pregnant, she is partially responsible for her actions, thus giving the fetus a right to “use” her body. Thomson replies to this by offering the example of “people seeds”. In this example, “people seeds” drift knowingly through the air and if allowed inside your house, they take root in your carpet or upholstery and grow. Screens however are available to protect against the seeds drifting into your house. However, sometimes the screens are flawed and a seed manages to get in. In this example, the screens used to protect the windows represent contraception methods available to women, which on rare occasions like the screen, have been known to fail.
The question that is posed to Thomson here is that if a seed is able to get through a defective screen, then should it be allowed to take root in your house and grow? Consequently, if a contraception method fails, should the woman have the right to abort the baby? To this Thomson answers, if reasonable contraception precautions are taken, then the women do not give the fetus the right to use her body, because the intention to get pregnant was never there in the first place, even though the women knowingly knew that she possibly risked becoming pregnant in choosing to have sex. Thus, in cases where the intention was never to get pregnant, abortion is not wrong.
I do not agree with Thomson’s position on abortion, because her examples that are given are vastly different from and downplay the gruesome reality of abortion. This unfairly makes abortion seem like less of an event, thus making it appear more acceptable to her readers. For instance, consider that calculus for some people is easy, but in general, for the vast majority, it comes less than natural. And if I were to tell a student that all he had to do to get the right answers in calculus was to plug the numbers and equations into his calculator, then he would assume that this would work and would further assume calculus would be easy.
But upon getting to class and discovering he is not allowed to use his calculator on the test and having to do all the calculations in his head, suddenly calculus becomes very difficult, i.e. it looks like a whole different subject. I think that if Thomson presented her readers with examples that more closely resembled the reality of what happens when aborting the fetus, her argument on abortion would be much stronger, but harder to argue, and because of this would be more believable to her readers.
The same can be seen when one looks at the example with the violinist. One could argue that Thomson oversimplifies the matter of abortion in the case of comparing the process of abortion to simply “unplugging” the violinist from the stranger. It is widely known that abortion involves much more gruesome procedures than simply “unplugging” the fetus from the mother. A gruesome commonly used technique is to cut the fetus into pieces and extract the pieces from the mother. This would be the more realistic example of abortion for Thomson to use which would compare with the cutting of the violinist up into pieces and then removing him from your body to that of the actual procedure for abortion.
The same oversimplification can be seen with Thomson’s burglar analogy. There are by far, vast differences between burglary and abortion. If a burglar enters a house, is it not on his/her own willpower that he is doing so? And he is thus knowingly risking the consequences to his own life as he could possibly be killed. We would all agree that the burglar is deserving of whatever comes to him. What about a fetus?
Was it the fetus’s own willpower that caused it to appear in the mother’s womb? To agree would be to say that the mother and the father played no role in the fetus’s creation. The fetus entered its mother’s womb unknowingly, so it is not deserving of punishment, i.e. abortion. Not only does the fetus not knowingly violate anyone’s property rights (as is the opposite with the burglar) but he/she does not even have a say in this. It was not the fetus’s choice. Would it be acceptable to kill such a person?
Jarvis, Judith Thomson, “A Defense of Abortion,” Philosophy & Public Affairs, vol. 1, no. 1, 1971. Copyright @ 1971 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission of Princeton university press.
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