Refuting Judith Jarvis Thomson's "A Defense of Abortion" (Part 6)

Judith Jarvis Thomson

Click here to read part 1.
Click here to read part 2.
Click here to read part 3.
Click here to read part 4.
Click here to read part 5.

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 relying on a premise created in the critical sections part 4 and part 5.  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).

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


(Notice that in this section, she is going to try to make abortion permissible in any circumstance whatsoever. However, this argument is useless, because she’s relying on the premise she created earlier that says people have an absolute right to bodily autonomy, which they do not.)

There is room for yet another argument here, however. We surely must all grant that there may be cases in which it would be morally indecent to detach a person from your body at the cost of his life. Suppose you learn that what the violinist needs is not nine years of your life, but only one hour: all you need do to save his life is to spend one hour in that bed with him. Suppose also that letting him use your kidneys for that one hour would not affect your health in the slightest. Admittedly you were kidnapped. Admittedly you did not give anyone permission to plug him into you. Nevertheless it seems to me plain you ought to allow him to use your kidneys for that hour--it would be indecent to refuse. (However, if you allow Thomson’s former argument, it is not morally wrong. The mother has an absolute right to bodily autonomy.)

Again, suppose pregnancy lasted only an hour, and constituted no threat to life or health. And suppose that a woman becomes pregnant as a result of rape. Admittedly she did not voluntarily do anything to bring about the existence of a child. Admittedly she did nothing at all which would give the unborn person a right to the use of her body. All the same it might well be said, as in the newly amended violinist story, that she ought to allow it to remain for that hour--that it would be indecent of her to refuse. (But not immoral.)

Now some people are inclined to use the term "right" in such a way that it follows from the fact that you ought to allow a person to use your body for the hour he needs, that he has a right to use your body for the hour he needs, even though he has not been given that right by any person or act. They may say that it follows also that if you refuse, you act unjustly toward him. This use of the term is perhaps so common that it cannot be called wrong; nevertheless it seems to me to be an unfortunate loosening of what we would do better to keep a tight rein on. Suppose that box of chocolates I mentioned earlier had not been given to both boys jointly, but was given only to the older boy. There he sits stolidly eating his way through the box. his small brother watching enviously. Here we are likely to say, "You ought not to be so mean. You ought to give your brother some of those chocolates." My own view is that it just does not follow from the truth of this that the brother has any right to any of the chocolates. If the boy refuses to give his brother any he is greedy stingy. callous--but not unjust. I suppose that the people I have in mind will say it does follow that the brother has a right to some of the chocolates, and thus that the boy does act unjustly if he refuses to give his brother any. But the effect of saying, this is to obscure what we should keep distinct, namely the difference between the boy's refusal in this case and the boy's refusal in the earlier case, in which the box was given to both boys jointly, and in which the small brother thus had what was from any point of view clear title to half. (The difference between the “chocolate” example is that if the younger boy doesn’t get any chocolates, it will not harm him in any way whatsoever. So, in the eyes of the law, the older boy does have an absolute chocolatey right to the chocolates that were given to him. However, nobody has an absolute right to bodily autonomy when having an absolute right to bodily autonomy would harm someone else.)

A further objection to so using the term "right" that from the fact that A ought to do a thing for B it follows that R has a right against A that A do it for him, is that it is going to make the question of whether or not a man has a right to a thing turn on how easy it is to provide him with it; and this seems not merely unfortunate, but morally unacceptable. Take the case of Henry Fonda again. I said earlier that I had no right to the touch of his cool hand on my fevered brow even though I needed it to save my life. I said it would be frightfully nice of him to fly in from the West Coast to provide me with it, but that I had no right against him that he should do so. (Henry Fonda is of no relation to the woman (unlike her unborn child), and Henry Fonda did not bring her into existence.) But suppose he isn't on the West Coast. Suppose he has only to walk across the room, place a hand briefly on my brow--and lo, my life is saved. Then surely he ought to do it-it would be indecent to refuse. Is it to be said, "Ah, well, it follows that in this case she has a right to the touch of his hand on her brow, and so it would be an injustice in him to refuse"? So that I have a right to it when it is easy for him to provide it, though no right when it's hard? It's rather a shocking idea that anyone's rights should fade away and disappear as it gets harder and harder to accord them to him. (Absolutely, if you digress that people have an absolute right to bodily autonomy, the only thing that matters in the world is you and your body, therefore nobody can inconvenience you in any way. See where this is going?)

So my own view is that even though you ought to let the violinist use your kidneys for the one hour he needs, we should not conclude that he has a right to do so--we should say that if you refuse, you are, like the boy who owns all the chocolates and will give none away, self-centered and callous, indecent in fact, but not unjust. And similarly, that even supposing a case in which a woman pregnant due to rape ought to allow the unborn person to use her body for the hour he needs, we should not conclude that he has a right to do so; we should say that she is self-centered, callous, indecent, but not unjust, if she refuses. The complaints are no less grave; they are just different. However, there is no need to insist on this point. If anyone does wish to deduce "he has a right" from "you ought," then all the same he must surely grant that there are cases in which it is not morally required of you that you allow that violinist to use your kidneys, and in which he does not have a right to use them, and in which you do not do him an injustice if you refuse. And so also for mother and unborn child. Except in such cases as the unborn person has a right to demand it--and we were leaving open the possibility that there may be such cases--nobody is morally required to make large sacrifices, of health, of all other interests and concerns, of all other duties and commitments, for nine years, or even for nine months, in order to keep another person alive. (Yes they are, especially if that person is their own child, because nobody has an absolute right to bodily autonomy.)

(And once again, I'm re-posting an example I came up with a few sections ago, that shows how nobody has an absolute right to bodily autonomy. There are many more examples here, and in earlier posts.

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.)

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