Refuting Judith Jarvis Thomson's "A Defense of Abortion" (Part 5)

Judith Jarvis Thomson
(I apologize for this late post!)

Click here to read part 1.
Click here to read part 2.
Click here to read part 3.
Click here to read part 4.

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.

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.)



There is another way to bring out the difficulty. In the most ordinary sort of case, to deprive someone of what he has a right to is to treat him unjustly. Suppose a boy and his small brother are jointly given a box of chocolates for Christmas. If the older boy takes the box and refuses to give his brother any of the chocolates, he is unjust to him, for the brother has been given a right to half of them. But suppose that, having learned that otherwise it means nine years in bed with that violinist, you unplug yourself from him. You surely are not being unjust to him, for you gave him no right to use your kidneys, and no one else can have given him any such right. But we have to notice that in unplugging yourself, you are killing him; and violinists, like everybody else, have a right to life, and thus in the view we were considering just now, the right not to be killed. So here you do what he supposedly has a right you shall not do, but you do not act unjustly to him in doing it

The emendation which may be made at this point is this: the right to life consists not in the right not to be killed, but rather in the right not to be killed unjustly. (This, in itself, is true, and a reason I support the death penalty. However, there’s a difference in killing somebody because they forfeited their own right to life, and killing somebody because s/he poses an inconvenience to someone else.) This runs a risk of circularity, but never mind: it would enable us to square the fact that the violinist has a right to life with the fact that you do not act unjustly toward him in unplugging yourself, thereby killing him. For if you do not kill him unjustly, you do not violate his right to life, and so it is no wonder you do him no injustice.

But if this emendation is accepted, the gap in the argument against abortion stares us plainly in the face: it is by no means enough to show that the fetus is a person, and to remind us that all persons have a right to life--we need to be shown also that killing the fetus violates its right to life, i.e., that abortion is unjust killing. And is it? (Yes.)

I suppose we may take it as a datum that in a case of pregnancy due to rape the mother has not given the unborn person a right to the use of her body for food and shelter. Indeed, in what pregnancy could it be supposed that the mother has given the unborn person such a right? It is not as if there are unborn persons drifting about the world, to whom a woman who wants a child says I invite you in." (It is not possible to consent to an act but not to the results. It's impossible to consent to a successful surgery. You can only consent to surgery and hope it is successful. It's impossible to consent to only having sex if you don't get pregnant. You can only consent to sex and hope you don't get pregnant.)

But it might be argued that there are other ways one can have acquired a right to the use of another person's body than by having been invited to use it by that person. Suppose a woman voluntarily indulges in intercourse, knowing of the chance it will issue in pregnancy, and then she does become pregnant; is she not in part responsible for the presence, in fact the very existence, of the unborn person inside? No doubt she did not invite it in. But doesn't her partial responsibility for its being there itself give it a right to the use of her body? If so, then her aborting it would be more like the boys taking away the chocolates, and less like your unplugging yourself from the violinist--doing so would be depriving it of what it does have a right to, and thus would be doing it an injustice. (Indeed.)

And then, too, it might be asked whether or not she can kill it even to save her own life: If she voluntarily called it into existence, how can she now kill it, even in self-defense? (Because now the child is actually a threat now, though it isn’t her or anyone else’s fault.)

The first thing to be said about this is that it is something new. Opponents of abortion have been so concerned to make out the independence of the fetus, in order to establish that it has a right to life, just as its mother does, that they have tended to overlook the possible support they might gain from making out that the fetus is dependent on the mother, in order to establish that she has a special kind of responsibility for it, a responsibility that gives it rights against her which are not possessed by any independent person--such as an ailing violinist who is a stranger to her. (The mother has no more a responsibility or attachment to her own child, who is there by a completely natural process, than she does to a stranger unnaturally hooked up to her? What if the mother woke up to find her own child hooked up to her? What then? Would it be fine and legal to unplug herself and kill her own child?)

On the other hand, this argument would give the unborn person a right to its mother's body only if her pregnancy resulted from a voluntary act, undertaken in full knowledge of the chance a pregnancy might result from it. It would leave out entirely the unborn person whose existence is due to rape. (Exactly, which is why this argument cannot be used.) Pending the availability of some further argument, then, we would be left with the conclusion that unborn persons whose existence is due to rape have no right to the use of their mothers' bodies, and thus that aborting them is not depriving them of anything they have right to and hence is not unjust killing. (Yes it is. This is assuming that the mother has an absolute right to bodily autonomy, which she (and everyone else) does not. I point to the example I gave in part 4. Here is an idea I heard about here, who got the idea from a pro-abortion blogger who goes by the name Paul W. Let’s say a woman got pregnant from rape, and decides she doesn’t want to give birth, so she just leaves the child in her womb for the rest of her life (which is of course impossible, but let’s just pretend it can be done). The child becomes aware of its surroundings and wants to come out, but she doesn’t let him. He just sits there his entire life until the woman dies. Did the woman do something wrong? Is it wrong for the woman to treat an innocent person as her slave? Not if she has an absolute right to bodily autonomy. Here’s another example. For some medications, such as for acne or morning sickness, it is illegal, or at least difficult to get a prescription, for it, because it harms the fetus. Not the mother. The fetus. If the mother has an absolute right to bodily autonomy, why do these laws exist?)

And we should also notice that it is not at all plain that this argument really does go even as far as it purports to. For there are cases and cases, and the details make a difference. If the room is stuffy, and I therefore open a window to air it, and a burglar climbs in, it would be absurd to say, "Ah, now he can stay, she's given him a right to the use of her house--for she is partially responsible for his presence there, having voluntarily done what enabled him to get in, in full knowledge that there are such things as burglars, and that burglars burgle.'' It would be still more absurd to say this if I had had bars installed outside my windows, precisely to prevent burglars from getting in, and a burglar got in only because of a defect in the bars. (The burglar has malicious intent. She has every right to kick him back out of her house.)  It remains equally absurd if we imagine it is not a burglar who climbs in, but an innocent person who blunders or falls in. (She could still kick that person out. It won’t kill him.) Again, suppose it were like this: people-seeds drift about in the air like pollen, and if you open your windows, one may drift in and take root in your carpets or upholstery. You don't want children, so you fix up your windows with fine mesh screens, the very best you can buy. As can happen, however, and on very, very rare occasions does happen, one of the screens is defective, and a seed drifts in and takes root. Does the person-plant who now develops have a right to the use of your house? (Yes it does. In this very bizarre world, if that’s where people came from, it would be difficult, but yes the person-plant [notice how she’s dehumanizing the person by calling him a seed and a plant) would have a right to your house. However, I hope you can see how absurd this example is, by noticing how there is a vast difference between opening a window to air out a room and having sex for intense personal pleasure.) Surely not--despite the fact that you voluntarily opened your windows, you knowingly kept carpets and upholstered furniture, and you knew that screens were sometimes defective. Someone may argue that you are responsible for its rooting, that it does have a right to your house, because after all you could have lived out your life with bare floors and furniture, or with sealed windows and doors. But this won't do--for by the same token anyone can avoid a pregnancy due to rape by having a hysterectomy, or anyway by never leaving home without a (reliable!) army. (This is stupid. Anybody can prevent some sort of violence by doing any number of things, but then you wouldn’t have a life. This is twisting the argument, making it as if it’s your fault you were raped. It’s not, and everybody knows that. It’s the person who raped you who is in the wrong. People do not have an absolute right to bodily autonomy when someone else’s life is at stake. Sorry.)

It seems to me that the argument we are looking at can establish at most that there are some cases in which the unborn person has a right to the use of its mother's body, and therefore some cases in which abortion is unjust killing. There is room for much discussion and argument as to precisely which, if any. But I think we should sidestep this issue and leave it open, for at any rate the argument certainly does not establish that all abortion is unjust killing. (Yes it does, because there is no such thing as an absolute right to bodily autonomy. Let me repost the example I gave in part 4.

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.)
(I would like to give a special thank-you to this video, from which I took and/or paraphrased ideas and arguments against abortion for this section.)
Image found via Google Images. No copyright infringement intended.

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