Refuting Judith Jarvis Thomson's "A Defense of Abortion" (Part 3)

Judith Jarvis Thomson
Click here to read part 1.
Click here to read part 2.

This is the continuation 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. I have not put the "important parts" in italics this time, because this section is relatively short. My comments are (in parentheses and underlined).

This particular section is, for the most part, correct. Things get stickier in the later sections, but this one is pretty much a logical argument--it's the way Mrs. Thomson says these things that is unsettling. Her conclusion isn't incorrect--it's the manner in which she gets there that is wrong. Be aware as you read it that she is setting the stage to convince you later that the woman has a right to do whatever she wants with her unborn children. At this point in time, she is still speaking about times where the mother's life is in danger.
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.)


The extreme view [that abortion is not permissible even to save the life of the mother] could of course be weakened to say that while abortion is permissible to save the mother's life, it may not be performed by a third party, but only by the mother herself. (But since it is not immoral to kill one person in order to prevent both of them dying, it doesn’t matter who performs it.) But this cannot be right either. For what we have to keep in mind is that the mother and the unborn child are not like two tenants in a small house which has, by an unfortunate mistake, been rented to both: the mother owns the house. (Not directly, perhaps. Usually though, the mother has already risked allowing another person into her house, so therefore it is not the other person’s fault that he is now in the same house as the mother.) The fact that she does adds to the offensiveness of deducing that the mother can do nothing from the supposition that third parties can do nothing. But it does more than this: it casts a bright light on the supposition that third parties can do nothing. Certainly it lets us see that a third party who says "I cannot choose between you" is fooling himself if he thinks this is impartiality. If Jones has found and fastened on a certain coat, which he needs to keep him from freezing, but which Smith also needs to keep him from freezing, then it is not impartiality that says "I cannot choose between you" when Smith owns the coat. (Except that Jones wouldn’t be in danger of freezing if it weren’t for Smith. And usually Smith isn’t in danger of freezing—only Jones is.) Women have said again and again "This body is my body!" and they have reason to feel angry, reason to feel that it has been like shouting into the wind. Smith, after all, is hardly likely to bless us if we say to him, "Of course it's your coat, anybody would grant that it is. But no one may choose between you and Jones who is to have it." (Unborn children don’t steal their mothers’ bodies.)

We should really ask what it is that says "no one may choose" in the face of the fact that the body that houses the child is the mother's body. It may be simply a failure to appreciate this fact. (No one may choose because choosing is murder. The mother must decide what’s best when it’s either her life or her unborn child’s life at stake.) But it may be something more interesting, namely the sense that one has a right to refuse to lay hands on people, even where it would be just and fair to do so, even where justice seems to require that somebody do so. Thus justice might call for somebody to get Smith's coat back from Jones, and yet you have a right to refuse to be the one to lay hands on Jones, a right to refuse to do physical violence to him. This, I think, must be granted. (Like doctors refusing to perform abortions. Even if it wouldn’t be murder, they should indeed have the right to do this. As it is murder to choose “Jones”…then nobody is morally allowed to make that choice.) But then what should be said is not "no one may choose," but only "I cannot choose," and indeed not even this, but "I will not act," (In the case of the mother’s life in danger, yes. She (with the help of the father) are the only people who can make that choice.) leaving it open that somebody else can or should, and in particular that anyone in a position of authority, with the job of securing people's rights, both can and should. So this is no difficulty. I have not been arguing that any given third party must accede to the mother's request that he perform an abortion to save her life, but only that he may. (Thank goodness for that, at least.)

I suppose that in some views of human life the mother's body is only on loan to her (What?? No, the mother’s body is only on loan to the child, not the mother!—unless Mrs. Thompson is talking about a religious view (our bodies are God’s), which I suppose she may.), the loan not being one which gives her any prior claim to it. One who held this view might well think it impartiality to say "I cannot choose." But I shall simply ignore this possibility. My own view is that if a human being has any just, prior claim to anything at all, he has a just, prior claim to his own body.(Unless that person has already willingly (albeit perhaps accidentally) loaned out her body.) And perhaps this needn't be argued for here anyway, since, as I mentioned, the arguments against abortion we are looking at do grant that the woman has a right to decide what happens in and to her body. But although they do grant it, I have tried to show that they do not take seriously what is done in granting it. I suggest the same thing will reappear even more clearly when we turn away from cases in which the mother's life is at stake, and attend, as I propose we now do, to the vastly more common cases in which a woman wants an abortion for some less weighty reason than preserving her own life.

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1 comment:

  1. In the part of this article which states, "I suppose that in some views of human life the mother's body is only on loan to her. . ."
    I took this to mean that is some views--such as in Christian views--our bodies are not our own; our bodies belong to the Lord/God. If that were not so, why would she say, ". . .since, as I mentioned, the arguments against abortion we are looking at do grant that the woman has a right to decide what happens in and to her body." If this is not what she is saying, it is not clear to me exactly what her point is on this; other than she repeatedly asserts the mother's "right to decide what happens in and to her body."


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