Refuting Judith Jarvis Thomson's "A Defense of Abortion" (Part 4)

Judith Jarvis Thomson

Click here to read part 1.
Click here to read part 2.
Click here to read part 3.

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. THIS SECTION IS CRITICAL. I have put the "important parts" in italics if you don't wish to/don't have time to read the whole thing, though I would urge you read the whole thing. My comments are (in parentheses and underlined).

This is where Mrs. Thomson begins to use twisted logic and faulty examples to "prove" that abortion is permissible and moral. 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, not matter what the situation. At this point in time, she is speaking only about times where the woman has been raped and the pregnancy has complications, though she is not at risk of losing her life.
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.)

Where the mother  life is not at stake, the argument I mentioned at the outset seems to have a much stronger pull. "Everyone has a right to life, so the unborn person has a right to life." And isn't the child's right to life weightier than anything other than the mother's own right to life, which she might put forward as ground for an abortion?

This argument treats the right to life as if it were unproblematic. It is not, and this seems to me to be precisely the source of the mistake.
For we should now, at long last, ask what it comes to, to have a right to life. In some views having a right to life includes having a right to be given at least the bare minimum one needs for continued life. But suppose that what in fact IS the bare minimum a man needs for continued life is something he has no right at all to be given? If I am sick unto death, and the only thing that will save my life is the touch of Henry Fonda's cool hand on my fevered brow. then all the same, I have no right to be given the touch of Henry Fonda's cool hand on my fevered brow. (There is an extreme difference between this example and being intentionally murdered. A more relevant example would be if Henry Fonda brought Mrs. Thomson into existence (intentionally or accidentally), and then decided he didn’t want to bother caring for her, so he killed her so he doesn’t have to.) It would be frightfully nice of him to fly in from the West Coast to provide it. It would be less nice, though no doubt well meant, if my friends flew out to the West coast and brought Henry Fonda back with them. But I have no right at all against anybody that he should do this for me. Or again, to return to the story I told earlier, the fact that for continued life the violinist needs the continued use of your kidneys does not establish that he has a right to be given the continued use of your kidneys. He certainly has no right against you that you should give him continued use of your kidneys. For nobody has any right to use your kidneys unless you give him this right--if you do allow him to go on using your kidneys, this is a kindness on your part, and not something he can claim from you as his due. Nor has he any right against anybody else that they should give him continued use of your kidneys. Certainly he had no right against the Society of Music Lovers that they should plug him into you in the first place. And if you now start to unplug yourself, having learned that you will otherwise have to spend nine years in bed with him, there is nobody in the world who must try to prevent you, in order to see to it that he is given some thing he has a right to be given. (She is again distorting the argument. Nine years confined to bed is vastly different than nine months confined to bed. Here is the only situation where this argument would be relevant: if the woman was raped, and the pregnancy is so difficult that she will indeed have to be confined to bed for nine months (though not in serious danger of dying). In all other crime cases, like murder, or rape where pregnancy does not result, the deed is already finished, and nothing else can be done for the victims, except catching and punishing the perpetrator. Rape victims who do become pregnant are, in this way, unique, if you have the view that at least part of the problem can still be “fixed”. Namely, killing a child. But what good is this? Mrs. Thomson admits the pro-life premise in her argument, that a pregnancy is a child. So Mrs. Thomson supports the killing of a child if a woman is raped and confined to bed for nine months. How is this at all beneficiary to the mother, besides letting her get out of bed? (I would argue that abortion is not in any way beneficiary, carrying detrimental mental and physical effects with it, but that’s an argument for another time. )Naturally, the mother will need help if she has no way to support herself, but lack of money is never a reason for killing a child. And there are people that will help the mother. She can be given references to them while the investigation is underway. A murder is not the answer. Mrs. Thomson, if you admit the pro-life premise, any argument you present is useless.)

Some people are rather stricter about the right to life. In their view, it does not include the right to be given anything, but amounts to, and only to, the right not to be killed by anybody. But here a related difficulty arises. If everybody is to refrain from killing that violinist, then everybody must refrain from doing a great many different sorts of things. Everybody must refrain from slitting his throat, everybody must refrain from shooting him--and everybody must refrain from unplugging you from him. But does he have a right against everybody that they shall refrain from unplugging you frolic him? To refrain from doing this is to allow him to continue to use your kidneys. It could be argued that he has a right against us that we should allow him to continue to use your kidneys. That is, while he had no right against us that we should give him the use of your kidneys, it might be argued that he anyway has a right against us that we shall not now intervene and deprive him Of the use of your kidneys. I shall come back to third-party interventions later. But certainly the violinist has no right against you that you shall allow him to continue to use your kidneys. As I said, if you do allow him to use them, it is a kindness on your part, and not something you owe him. (Relating her violinist example to the bed-ridden raped mother, you do not “owe” the violinist/child anything. This is true. The reason being there has been no agreement, no contract. The violinist/child cannot possibly have had any contact with you before this happened. You did not agree to this. Neither did the violinist/child. This means one thing: the violinist/child is innocent. You are innocent. Who is guilty? The music society/rapist. They are the ones to be punished.)

The difficulty I point to here is not peculiar to the right of life. It reappears in connection with all the other natural rights, and it is something which an adequate account of rights must deal with. For present purposes it is enough just to draw attention to it. But I would stress that I am not arguing that people do not have a right to life--quite to the contrary, it seems to me that the primary control we must place on the acceptability of an account of rights is that it should turn out in that account to be a truth that all persons have a right to life. I am arguing only that having a right to life does not guarantee having either a right to be given the use of or a right to be allowed continued use of another person s body--even if one needs it for life itself. So the right to life will not serve the opponents of abortion in the very simple and clear way in which they seem to have thought it would.

(Mrs. Thomson’s whole argument so far hinges on the fact that it is not fair to the mother to be forced to be pregnant when it is not her fault. It is not fair to be forced to be ripped apart when it isn’t your fault that you were conceived either.

Let's digress for a moment and come up with a parallel, though fantastical, example. A mother is raped, gets pregnant, and there are complications: something about the violent rape causes complications that in turn cause the unborn child extreme pain while he is developing. However, his pain will stop once he is born, and someone suggests inducing premature labor. Unfortunately, because of other pregnancy complications, inducing labor will kill his mother. In this way, the mother is more dependant on the baby's body than the baby is on hers. She must stay pregnant in order to live. However, in our hypothetical situation,the court rules in the baby's favor and the mother dies.

If this were a real situation and a real pregnancy complication, the baby's pain would be very tragic. But that does not give the baby an excuse to kill his mother, even though the baby did not give the mother permission to use his body. It is not his mother's fault. It's the rapist's, because of the violence during which the baby was conceived.)

1 comment:

  1. Interesting analogy! I had never heard that one before. I like it!


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