Refuting Judith Jarvis Thomson's "A Defense of Abortion" (Part 1)

Judith Jarvis Thomson
Click here to read part 2.
This is the beginning of my dissection of the "ultimate pro-abortion argument". If we can prove this argument wrong, we can prove any pro-abortion argument wrong. This series will probably have roughly nine parts to it, because it is naturally divided up into sections. If you don't wish to read the whole thing, I have put in italics the parts I believe to be the most important/relevant, though I would reccommend reading it as a whole. My comments are (in parentheses and underlined).

(By the way, my presidential candidate breakdown is in process!)

Judith Jarvis Thomson: A Defense of Abortion

From Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 1, no. 1 (Fall 1971).

(Reprinted in "Intervention and Reflection: Basic Issues in Medical Ethics," 5th ed., ed. Ronald Munson (Belmont; Wadsworth 1996). pp 69-80.)

Most opposition to abortion relies on the premise that the fetus is a human being, a person, from the moment of conception. The premise is argued for, but, as I think, not well. Take, for example, the most common argument. We are asked to notice that the development of a human being from conception through birth into childhood is continuous; then it is said that to draw a line, to choose a point in this development and say "before this point the thing is not a person, after this point it is a person" is to make an arbitrary choice, a choice for which in the nature of things no good reason can be given. It is concluded that the fetus is[,] or anyway that we had better say it is, a person from the moment of conception. But this conclusion does not follow. Similar things might be said about the development of an acorn into an oak trees, and it does not follow that acorns are oak trees, or that we had better say they are.(This comparison in this context is unfair. Acorns are not oak trees in the same way that babies (or fetuses) are not adults. An acorn is still an individual oak, just merely at the earliest stages of development, like an embryo is an individual human being at the earliest stages of development. Also, compare a “dormant” acorn (or any seed) to an unfertilized human egg.  The dormant acorn is merely waiting for the right conditions (warmth, water, soil, etc), while the egg is also waiting—first to be let out of the ovaries, second to be fertilized by sperm. Once the acorn actually starts growing, I actually would in fact call it an oak tree—just an extremely small one. Or, even if you don't call it a tree--let's say you crush a developing acorn. Now, did you kill an oak, or didn't you? The same goes for the embryo. If you crush an embryo, did you kill an adult, or didn't you?)  Arguments of this form are sometimes called "slippery slope arguments"--the phrase is perhaps self-explanatory--and it is dismaying that opponents of abortion rely on them so heavily and uncritically.

I am inclined to agree, however, that the prospects for "drawing a line" in the development of the fetus look dim. I am inclined to think also that we shall probably have to agree that the fetus has already become a human person well before birth. Indeed, it comes as a surprise when one first learns how early in its life it begins to acquire human characteristics. By the tenth week, for example, it already has a face, arms and less, fingers and toes; it has internal organs, and brain activity is detectable.(I commend this woman for, at least, unlike other pro-abortioners, admitting that this is true, though it can be true two weeks earlier, not just at ten weeks, depending on how you count it.) On the other hand, I think that the premise is false, that the fetus is not a person from the moment of conception. A newly fertilized ovum, a newly implanted clump of cells, is no more a person than an acorn (As previously stated, a growing acorn, as opposed to a dormant one) is an oak tree. But I shall not discuss any of this. For it seems to me to be of great interest to ask what happens if, for the sake of argument, we allow the premise. How, precisely, are we supposed to get from there to the conclusion that abortion is morally impermissible? Opponents of abortion commonly spend most of their time establishing that the fetus is a person, and hardly anytime explaining the step from there to the impermissibility of abortion.  Perhaps they think the step too simple and obvious to require much comment. (Yes, I would think that intentionally killing another person would be self-explanatory. Notice how she's setting up her argument to convince us that it isn't always wrong to kill a person by suggesting that it isn't always that simple.) Or perhaps instead they are simply being economical in argument. Many of those who defend abortion rely on the premise that the fetus is not a person, but only a bit of tissue that will become a person at birth; and why pay out more arguments than you have to? Whatever the explanation, I suggest that the step they take is neither easy nor obvious, that it calls for closer examination than it is commonly given, and that when we do give it this closer examination we shall feel inclined to reject it.

I propose, then, that we grant that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception. (This is what makes her argument so convincing: she accepts the pro-life premise.) How does the argument go from here? Something like this, I take it. Every person has a right to life. So the fetus has a right to life. No doubt the mother has a right to decide what shall happen in and to her body; everyone would grant that. But surely a person's right to life is stronger and more stringent than the mother's right to decide what happens in and to her body, and so outweighs it. (Actually, the fetus is not a part of her body, so that’s why she can’t have an abortion. As for “what happens in” her body…99% of the time, the mother has already made her choice about what happens in her body. Now that somebody else has been brought in, she has no right to reverse that choice.) So the fetus may not be killed; an abortion may not be performed.

It sounds plausible. But now let me ask you to imagine this. You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, (Again, 99% of the time the woman made the choice to risk being plugged into the “famous unconscious violinist”. Very rarely is she “kidnapped” to be “plugged in”) and last night the violinist's circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, "Look, we're sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you (In this analogy the woman is subjected to this treatment because of someone else’s somewhat malicious intent. Eg, they know exactly what will happen to her body - people rarely impregnate women just to impregnate women)--we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it's only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you." Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says. "Tough luck. I agree. but now you've got to stay in bed (Rarely is a woman confined to bed for nine months, and of course nine years is absurd, because of a pregnancy. And assuming the woman truly had nothing to do with the risk of getting pregnant, this is still greatly exaggerating the “problem”) , with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person's right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him." I imagine you would regard this as outrageous, which suggests that something really is wrong with that plausible-sounding argument I mentioned a moment ago.(No it doesn’t. There isn’t anything wrong with the “plausible-sounding argument”. Exaggerating the consequences of a “kidnapping” (or rape) distorts the argument and changes the circumstances that the original argument pertained to.)

In this case, of course, you were kidnapped, you didn't volunteer for the operation that plugged the violinist into your kidneys. Can those who oppose abortion on the ground I mentioned make an exception for a pregnancy due to rape? Certainly. They can say that persons have a right to life only if they didn't come into existence because of rape; or they can say that all persons have a right to life, but that some have less of a right to life than others, in particular, that those who came into existence because of rape have less. But these statements have a rather unpleasant sound. Surely the question of whether you have a right to life at all, or how much of it you have, shouldn't turn on the question of whether or not you are a product of a rape. And in fact the people who oppose abortion on the ground I mentioned do not make this distinction, and hence do not make an exception in case of rape. (I agree.) 

Nor do they make an exception for a case in which the mother has to spend the nine months of her pregnancy in bed. They would agree that would be a great pity, and hard on the mother; but all the same, all persons have a right to life, the fetus is a person, and so on. I suspect, in fact, that they would not make an exception for a case in which, miraculously enough, the pregnancy went on for nine years, or even the rest of the mother's life. (Notice the generalizations? Anyway, no, I probably would not make an exception, but it does depend on the circumstances: on whether the mother would be able to support herself, or be supported by others during the pregnancy, and how severe the health problems would be; if they would significantly decrease her quality of life for the rest of her life . The reason an exception would not be made—despite it being, indeed, “a great pity”—is that an entire life (of the fetus) doesn’t fairly compare to less than a year of the life of the mother.) 

Some won't even make an exception for a case in which continuation of the pregnancy is likely to shorten the mother's life, they regard abortion as impermissible even to save the mother's life. (Again, it depends on the individual circumstances. If the mother and fetus would die as a result of the pregnancy, then naturally an abortion would be, sorrowfully, necessary. The point is to save lives. If one must die, as opposed to two dying, that would be more than, though very sad, acceptable.) Such cases are nowadays very rare, and many opponents of abortion do not accept this extreme view. All the same, it is a good place to begin: a number of points of interest come out in respect to it.


  1. How interesting that you do not use the counterargument that, in Thompson's hypothetical arrangement, the violinist is the woman's _fully-grown_ son. Thompson, too, failed to acknowledge the relationship, and though I am sure you do not intend to maintain her distancing effect, your oversight is strange. Such an addendum to the fictional situation might spark the sort of sympathy Thompson meant to suppress.

  2. That's very true...thank you for pointing it out! I'm still developing my skills at taking apart arguments like this. I acutally do point that out (without making that actual comparison) in a later part.

  3. "the violinist is the woman's _fully-grown_ son?" I don't get why you would say this.

    1. I believe what Mr. Yorrick was pointing out is that a mother's responsibility to the well-being to her child is different than her responsibility to the well-being of a stranger.


You are free to disagree with views expressed in the posts, or in the comments, and you're free to express your disagreement. But please do so showing respect both towards me and towards the other commenters. Any comments that are not deemed respectful and/or contain profanity will be deleted. You ARE free to critique me, whether on grammar or ideas or what seems to be faulty information. I'm human, and I make mistakes too!

Thanks for commenting.