Judith Jarvis Thomson is a veteran philosopher who, several decades ago, penned a thought-provoking essay that features in virtually all of the contemporary texts used in college-level ethics courses. Her objective is to show that what she takes to be the standard argument against abortion fails to preclude allowances for abortion in cases of rape, the endangerment of the mother’s life, and even those instances when a pregnancy is unplanned.
According to Thomson, the conventional argument against abortion goes something like this: (1) All human beings or persons have a right to life; (2) The fetus is “a human being, a person, from the moment of conception;” (3) Therefore, the fetus has a right to life; (4) Therefore, abortion is wrong.
Now, as a matter of fact, Thomson rejects the second premise: she does not believe that “the fetus” is “a human being, a person,” from “the moment of conception.” However, she notes, even if we assume that it is true, not nearly as much follows from it as the opponents of abortion suppose.
By way of a particularly clever thought experiment, Thomson first tries to establish that even if a fetus is a person with a right to life, abortion in the case of rape is no injustice—i.e. it is not a violation of this right.
Imagine, she says, that one morning you awake to find yourself attached to a world famous violinist that happens to be suffering from a fatal kidney disease. While you slept, “the Society of Music Lovers” abducted you, for upon canvassing the world high and low for a suitable blood match for the violinist, it discovered that you and you alone are the only eligible candidate. You and you alone can save his life. The problem, though, is that you will now have to remain hooked up to the violinist for the next, say, nine months. If you unplug yourself from him, he will surely die.
In this hypothetical scenario, because you have been forced against your will into “carrying” this violinist, you are like the woman who has conceived as a consequence of rape. The violinist, then, is an analog to the fetus. Even though both the violinist and the fetus are innocent persons with a “right to life,” Thomson thinks that it’s obvious that in neither instance does this “right” generate for the coerced person a duty to shoulder the burden of remaining attached to someone for whom responsibility was never volunteered.
“If anything in the world is true,” Thomson declares, “it is that you do not commit murder, you do not do what is impermissible, if you reach around to your back and unplug yourself from that violinist to save your life.”
Similarly, by (what Thomson takes to be) parity of reasoning, “if anything in the world is true,” it is that the rape victim acts permissibly in aborting the fetus within her.
But is this all that obvious?
For starters, it should be observed that Thomson implies that an agent’s obligations must be grounded in his consent: unless a person agrees to this to that set of arrangements, he has no duties with respect to them. This line of thought, however, is deeply problematic, for as ethicists from at least the time of Aristotle have known, it is precisely in just those associations that are not the products of choice—our families, local communities, and the governments under which we are born and live—that the stuff of the moral life is to be found.
It is not that choice or consent is morally irrelevant; sometimes—often in fact—it makes all of the difference. But to impute to consent the character of dogma, to make it the be all and end all, is to turn it into a fetish while reducing the richness of moral life to a one-dimensional caricature.
And to make consent the defining feature of the relationship between, not a woman and “the fetus” inhabiting her “body,” but a mother and her child, is to do this most intimate and unique of human relationships a grave disservice. To this last point, we will return.
Secondly, it is worth noting that the act of detaching oneself from a dying person is an arguably very different sort of act from that of aborting—i.e. killing—a fetus. In the first instance, the intention is not to end life; it is nature or the illness from which the violinist suffers that is the cause of death. In the second event, the fetus’s demise is the result of the abortionist’s intent to kill it.
Thomson, to be fair, anticipates this objection. Rather, though, than meet it head on, she substitutes for the violinist analogy one featuring a woman stuck in a tiny house with a rapidly growing child who threatens to crush her to death unless she kills him first. Though the child is innocent in the sense that he means no harm, the woman would still be justified in killing him if this is the only way that she could save herself.
Similarly, a woman whose life is threatened by her pregnancy would be acting permissibly if she pursued an abortion.
On its face, this argument seems plausible as far as it goes. But does it go that far? In fact, is this even an argument?
While Thomson may be correct in claiming that a woman does not act wrongly in pursuing an abortion when the pregnancy threatens her life, she hasn’t actually argued for this conclusion. Or, if you will, what argument can be found is fallacious, question-begging. No one, least of all a believer in rights, thinks it is permissible to defend one’s life—or the lives of others—at all costs. Whether abortion is a morally acceptable course of action to take in this situation is exactly what is in question. Thomson needs to supply an argument to prove that it is.
At any rate, we can surely envision circumstances in which killing an innocent person in order to save one’s own life or the lives of others—even the lives of those, like our children, who are nearest and dearest to us—would be unconscionable. For instance, suppose your child has been kidnapped, and the kidnappers inform you that unless you kill, say, the child of a king, his heir apparent, they will kill your child. Few people, particularly those, like Thomson, who argue from the standpoint of a rights-based ethics, would even think to look upon such an act as anything other than murder.
There is one final consideration that must be borne in mind: When discussing the relationship between a mother and her child, the language of “rights” is woefully inadequate. And when it is the relationship of a mother to her unborn child, it is even that much more improper, for such a relationship is unique in that it is uniquely intimate.
That is, the relationship in which the issue of abortion centers is not an adversarial one between two rights-bearing individuals but, rather, an intrinsically loving relationship between a woman and her offspring, a rapidly growing human being that is utterly dependent upon her and her alone.
In evaluating the moral standing of abortion, it is this relationship that must be our focal point.