Abortion is an extremely complex and highly debated public issue that has consumed much of the American social and political arena in the late twentieth century. People on both sides of the debate present strong arguments that establish valid points. Society clearly states that child abuse and the murder of one’s child is illegal, but does allow abortion. Regardless of whether it is right or wrong, the fine line that exists between abortion and murder will be discussed and debated for decades to come.
In Judith Thomson’s article, “A Defense of Abortion,” she argues that abortion can be morally justified in some instances, but not all cases. Clearly, in her article, Thomson argues, “…while I do argue that abortion is not impermissible, I do not argue that is always permissible” (163). Thomson feels that when a woman has been impregnated due to rape, and when a pregnancy threatens the life of a mother, abortion is morally justifiable. In order to help readers understand some of the moral dilemmas raised by abortion, Thomson creates numerous stories that possess many of the same problems.
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Thomson begins her argument by questioning the validity of the argument proposed by anti-abortion activists. Thomson explains that “most opposition to abortion relies on the premise that the fetus is a human being….from the moment of conception” (153). Thomson thinks this is a premise that is strongly argued for, although she also feels it is argued for “not well” (153).
According to Thomson, anti-abortion proponents argue that fetuses are persons, and since all persons have a right to life, fetuses also possess a right to life. Regardless, Thomson argues that one can grant that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception, with a right to life, and still prove that abortion can be morally justified. In order to prove this argument, Thomson proposes the example of “the sick violinist.”
According to this story, Thomson explains, imagine that one morning you wake up and find yourself in bed surgically attached to a famous unconscious violinist. The violinist has a fatal kidney ailment, and your blood type is the only kind that matches that of the violinist. You have been kidnapped by music lovers and surgically attached to the violinist. If you remove yourself from the violinist, he will die, but the good news is that he only requires nine months to recover. Obviously, Thomson is attempting to create a situation that parallels a woman who has unintentionally become pregnant from a situation such as rape.
Thomson has created a situation in which an individual’s rights have been violated against their will. Although not the two situations are not identical, a fetus and a medically-dependent violinist are similar situations for Thomson. In both cases, a person has unwillingly been made responsible for another life. The question Thomson raises for both situations is, “Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation?” (154).
Most individuals would find the situation ludicrous and feel little, or no, an obligation to the sick violinist. But, Thomson points out, one may use this example to illustrate how an individual’s right to life does not mean other individuals are morally responsible for that life. Remember, Thomson explains, anti-abortion activists argue that all persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons (154). Granted an individual has a right to decide what happens in and to their body, Thomson continues, but as anti-abortion activists argue, a person’s right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and out of your body (154).
Therefore, you are obligated to care for the sick violinist. Yet, most people would find this obligation completely ridiculous, which proves to Thomson that there is something wrong with the logic of the anti-abortionists’ argument. Thus, Thomson concludes that an individual does have the right to decide what happens to their own body, especially when pregnancy has resulted against a person’s will (rape) and in a manner that violates her rights.
Another story that Thomson utilizes to address the abortion debate is the “people seeds” example. According to this story, one is to imagine that there are “people-seeds” flying around in the air like pollen. An individual desires to open their windows to allow fresh air into their house, yet he/she buys the best mesh screens available because he/she does not want any of the people seeds to get into their house. Unfortunately, there is a defect in one of the screens, and seed takes root in their carpet anyway.
Thomson argues that under these circumstances, the person that is developing from the people seed does not have a right to develop in your house. She also argues that “despite the fact that you opened your windows” the seed still does not have a right to develop in your house (159). Thomson is drawing a parallel to a woman who accidentally becomes pregnant despite using contraception. Like the person who got the people to seed in their house, despite using precautions, the woman is not obligated to bear a child. The woman clearly used contraception and tried to prevent pregnancy, and is not obligated to bear this child in her body. Thomson thinks that, under these circumstances, abortion is definitely permissible.
Finally, Thomson tells another tale to illustrate an answer to some of the questions raised by the abortion debate. Thomson asks the reader to imagine a situation in which she was extremely ill and was going to die unless Henry Fonda came and placed his cool hand on her brow. Yet, Thomson points out, Fonda is not obligated to visit her and heal her. It would be “nice” of him to visit her and save her life, but he is not morally obligated to do so.
This, for Thomson, is similar to the dilemma faced by the woman who has become pregnant but does not want to keep her baby. Thomson feels it would be “nice” for the woman to bear the child, but no one can force her to do so. Just like Henry Fonda must choose whether or not he wants to save Thomson’s life, the mother has the right to choose whether or not she wants to give birth to the baby. Pregnancy is a condition that affects the woman’s body and, therefore, the woman has the right to decide whether or not she wants to have a baby.
Although I agree with many of Thomson’s arguments, there are a few aspects of her argument that I feel are not correct. First, Thomson states that if two people try very hard not get pregnant, they do not have a “special responsibility” for the conception. I completely disagree and think that two mature individuals have to be held responsible for the results of sexual intercourse. The couple engaged in an act that is understood to have significant consequences and the couple has to be held responsible for the products of intercourse. Furthermore, if a couple had engaged in sexual intercourse and both contracted a sexually transmitted disease, both people would be held responsible for their actions. Thus, I feel a woman possesses the right to decide whether or not she wants to bear a child, but I do think individuals have to realize that they are responsible for the results of a serious act like sexual intercourse.
However, Thomson does respond to this criticism of the people seed argument by offering to ask the question, “Is it realistic for a woman to get a hysterectomy, so she never has to worry about becoming pregnant due to rape, failed contraception, etc.?” Obviously, there is some logical merit to this response, but I do not think it appropriately addresses the real issue of “special responsibility.” For example, imagine a young boy who gets very hungry for dinner. Yet his mother has had a hard day at work and taking a nap upstairs. His father hasn’t come home from work yet either, so the boy decides to heat himself up some soup. He knows he is too young to use the stove, so he decides to use the microwave which is much safer. In fact, he even uses potholders when he takes the hot bowl out of the microwave because he does not want to burn himself.
But, as he walks into the living room to watch television, he slips spills the hot soup on his arm and breaks the bowl on the floor. Now, even though the boy took “reasonable precautions” he still is at least partly responsible for his mistake. He took many “reasonable precautions” to avoid hurting himself, but, in the end, he still accidentally hurt himself. This situation exactly parallels a woman who has used contraception and still gotten pregnant. The woman tried not to get pregnant, but accidents happen. Thus, the little boy has to be held partly responsible for burning himself because he chose to cook himself hot soup. Similarly, the female has to be held partially responsible if she gets pregnant even if she used contraception because she, like the boy, put herself in a risky situation.
In conclusion, Judith Thomson raises numerous, strong arguments for the permissibility of abortion. Overall, she argues that the woman has the right to decide whether or not to have an abortion because the woman has the right to decide what happens to her body. Still, in closing, Thomson interestingly notes, “…I agree that the desire for the child’s death is not one which anybody may gratify, should it turn out possible to detach the child alive”
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