Home Ethics A Rebuttal of Thomson’s Abortion Defense

A Rebuttal of Thomson’s Abortion Defense

by Gil Sanders
A Rebuttal of Thomson’s Abortion Defense

In an article entitled, A Defense of Abortion, Judith Thomson presents what is perhaps the most famous article ever written on abortion, and is indeed one of the most frequently cited articles in academic literature on abortion. Pro-choice supporters had often denied the status of personhood on the fetus, some even going so far as to deny that the “clump of cells” qualified as human life. Thomson, on the other hand, does something quite unique in that she grants the personhood of fetuses but denies that this provides them an unqualified right not to be killed. Her well known violin example provides a clear case where a violinist has a right to life, but of which does not entail that they have a right to the involuntary use of your own body in order to ensure their own survival. Thomson therefore provides a general justification of abortion, but allows that there may be cases in which it is indecent (or selfish) to resort to abortion. She also states that while you have a right to remove life support, you do not have a right to ensure the death of that life should it survive after the removal of life support. This article will note several problems with Thomson’s argumentation, and show that in fact she has not shown that most cases of abortion are morally permissible. 

Right to Life’s Slippery Slope

At the very beginning, Thomson briefly objects to what she calls the “slippery-slope” argument against abortion. This argument states that determining when a thing has a right to life in its development is arbitrary, so it must have that right from conception. In response, Thomson argues that this can just as equally be applied to the development of acorns, and yet it does not follow that acorns must be oak trees from conception. But this provides an uncharitable reading of the pro-life argument and is in fact a straw man. Their argument is more fairly treated as a reductio ad absurdum against abortion because it argues that if you reject that a fetus has a right to life at conception, then in principle there is nothing that substantially differentiates an infant outside of the womb and a fetus inside the womb (at whatever period of time) that would suddenly grant it a right to life.

A slippery slope is only fallacious because it causally claims that A will lead to B when the connection to A and B is at best a synthetic truth, where no clear causal connection has been empirically established between the two. A reductio ad absurdum, by contrast, focuses on logical principles that concern the entailment of relations between various propositions. If A is permissible, then this logically entails that B is permissible. The pro-life argument is eliminating general principles that might grant the status of a right to life (which does not require an exact time) – e.g, location, brain waves, ability to experience pain, birth, etc. It is argued that none of these principles are sufficient to grant a right to life, which entails that infanticide would be permissible if a fetus has no right to life at conception, but of course this is absurd. Therefore the fetus must have a right to life at conception. It is very easy to see how this argument is valid and possibly sound. 

Furthermore, Thomson obfuscates matters by conflating an acorn with an oak tree. An acorn is just a seed, but when its growth has become actualized (its conception), it is indeed of the oak tree kind at conception even if it has not reached full maturity in its development. So if by oak tree we simply mean the adult period of an acorn’s development, then of course it is not an oak tree, but it should be obvious that its conception grants it the status of being an oak tree, just not of the fully developed sort. Similarly, no one is claiming a fetus is a fully developed person at the moment of conception, only that its personhood is being developed (or gradually actualized) at conception. So for pro-lifers, it is the possession of the essence that grants one a right to life. This personhood does not need to be fully developed for one to have a right to life anymore than claiming that an acorn must be fully mature in order for it to have the status of belonging to the oak tree kind. So defects can occur along the way such that one’s rational capacities do not get properly developed, but since they participate in the human kind, they still have a right to life.

The Violinist of Death

Of course Thomson’s main argument is that abortion is still permissible even if we pretend that it does have a right to life, and that is what we will now dispute, but it was necessary to explicate the pro-life position before doing so. With respect to her famous violinist analogy where a dying violinist is attached to her body without consent, she admits that at best this only permits abortion in the event of rape, but then says that the right to life “shouldn’t turn on the question of whether or not you are the product of rape” (49). It would appear that there is a conflict of intuitions here. Our intuition that cutting off support for the violinist is permissible would be an argument for aborting a child who is the product of rape, but on the other hand, we do not want the right to life to hinge on how that life came to be. To reconcile this, we can say that the violinist is disanalogous after all.

We can invoke the foresight–intention distinction. With the violinist, one can foresee his death after withholding life support without intending or directly causing his death. The violinist’s death is the result of his own illness. But this is not analogous to abortion since abortion is a direct killing of a life via tearing apart of limbs or some other such method, not simply a foreseeing of its death by a removal of life support. This distinction allows the mother to save her life even if it foreseeably comes at the death of the fetus as long as it is not intended. Another disanalogy is in the fact that the child’s life biologically requires that particular mother for its growth, whereas the violinist is an artificial juxtaposition onto another. There is a sense in which that particular birth is the result of natural processes (albeit under coerced circumstances) whereas the violinist is completely artificial, and this makes a significant difference in how we treat either case because nature is the ground of our natural rights.

A defender of Thomson could push back by insisting that such distinctions are real but irrelevant because it could be further imagined that the violinist is the mother’s own child. Any such element could be introduced to the thought experiment to bypass the above distinctions. For example, one could imagine the violinist can avoid death by literally being reborn with all of his memories reinstalled later but it must begin within that female’s womb. Is the female morally obligated to give birth to this violinist despite it being done without her consent? To answer this question, it seems we are left again with intention. Did the violinist intend to violate her consent? Because if so, then she has a right to terminate his life even if it is for a good cause. Everyone has a right not to be killed (negative rights), but no one has a positive right to intentionally violate someone else’s life in order to preserve life. For example, it is immoral to rape a woman even if it would save a 100 lives. A woman has a right to kill that person to defend her rights, no matter how “noble” his end may seem.

Suppose, however, that the violinist’s desperate friend goes against both the will of the violinist and the will of the female. Does the female still have a right to kill the reborn violinist? No, precisely because it was not the violinist’s fault. Intentions matter. The female has every right to seek legal action against the friend, but she has no right to kill the violinist. I’m willing to bet that most people’s intuition would support this. Imagine a person dumps an infant in an alt-right’s house by breaking in (and vandalizing) and in response, the alt-right person says, “My house, my choice!” and shoots the infant in the head with a shotgun. Was that morally permissible? Surely not. The infant had no fault in the matter; it was the person who dumped the child that should be held accountable for violating his property rights. In the same way then, we can say that a woman ought not to kill a fetus even if it is the product of rape because the fetus did not intend any violence to her bodily rights. Unless the fetus threatens her life, it seems that rape does not justify an abortion.

Against Death’s Defense

Perhaps the most egregious and definitive error that Thomson makes is her attempt to justify not just rape cases but the majority of abortion cases. To respond to those who argue that pregnancies are the product of a voluntary act, she compares the event of pregnancy to burglary: “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…”  This is as implausible of an analogy as implausible gets. The sexual act is by its very function directed toward the production of life. It is not comparable to some accidental event like burglary or people-seeds floating in the air, it is instead a natural effect of sexual activity that you voluntary partake in, regardless of whether you intend the effect.

Ask any biologist: the sexual organs are for reproduction. Some biologists would deny that this has normative force, but that’s irrelevant to the point here: procreation is not accidental.   To use your sexual organs as if they accidentally produce children is like playing with a gun and being surprised that it killed somebody. It’s obvious function is to kill things. You are responsible for carelessness, and even if you did all in your power to ensure the safety was on, aimlessly pointing your gun at everyone in class is still a stupid thing to do just as much as having sex with contraception countless times is. If you truly do not want the responsibility of taking care of life, then you should not use a “life-making” organ in the first place! So when life is created, even if it is “accidental” with respect to your intentions, it is not accidental with respect to your natural functioning. 

To make matters worse, Thomson takes the role of intention to the extreme when she claims that “we do not have any such ‘special responsibility’ for a person unless we have assumed it, explicitly or implicitly.” If pregnancy is not avoided, if abortion is not obtained, and if child is not put into adoption then the responsibility is assumed. In other words, the parents have “given it rights” by affirming their responsibility for it in some way. This is where Thomson’s argument utterly fails. No pro-lifer would ever accept the idea that the parents can decide whether a child is worthy of having rights or not. Part of what made her case so persuasive is that she worked with pro-life assumptions, but this is so off the ballpark, one can only wonder who she is attempting to convince. Parents do not have responsibility to their children because they choose to, but because they are obligated to. To suggest otherwise is to put the cart before the horse.

Furthermore, if rights can be “given,” then they can just as easily be taken away. Thomson begs the question by assuming that if a right is given through assumed circumstances, it can never be taken away. But why is this the case? The only inalienable rights that we possess are those that we possess intrinsically, but if rights are conditional, then in principle they can be taken away if the conditions no longer apply. To make man the arbiter of rights is one of the most frightful things that one can propose, as it in principle allows for slavery and other kinds of evils. Thomson has endangered the notion of natural rights in her attempt to defend abortion and as such, this gives us a very strong reason to reject her proposal. The presumption in favor of the right to life is still very much alive and well today.

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