A Defense of Abortion
"A Defense of Abortion" is a moral philosophy paper by Judith Jarvis Thomson first published in 1971. Granting for the sake of argument that the fetus has a right to life, Thomson uses thought experiments to argue that the pregnant woman's right to control her own body and its life-support functions trumps the fetus' right to life, and that induced abortion is therefore morally permissible. Her argument has many critics on both sides of the abortion debate, yet continues to receive defense. Thomson's imaginative examples and controversial conclusions have made "A Defense of Abortion" perhaps "the most widely reprinted essay in all of contemporary philosophy".
Overview of the essay
- You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist's circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. [If he is unplugged from you now, he will die; but] in nine months he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.
Thomson takes it that you may now permissibly unplug yourself from the violinist even though this will cause his death: the right to life, Thomson says, does not include the right to use another person's body, and so by unplugging the violinist you do not violate his right to life but merely deprive him of something—the use of your body—to which he has no right. "[I]f 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."
For the same reason, Thomson says, abortion does not violate the fetus's legitimate rights, but merely deprives the fetus of something—the use of the pregnant woman's body and life-support functions—to which it has no right. Thus, by choosing to terminate her pregnancy, a woman does not violate any moral obligation; rather, a woman who carries her pregnancy to term is a 'Good Samaritan' who goes beyond her obligations.
Third-party participation – the “expanding child”
Thomson criticizes the common method of deducing a woman’s right to abort from the permissibility of a third party committing the abortion. In almost all instances, a woman’s right to abortion may hinge on the doctor’s willingness to perform it. If the doctor refuses, then the woman is denied her right. To base the woman’s right on the accordance or refusal of a doctor, she says, is to ignore the mother’s full personhood, and subsequently, her rights to her body. Thomson presents the hypothetical example of the ‘expanding child’:
- Suppose you find yourself trapped in a tiny house with a growing child. I mean a very tiny house, and a rapidly growing child—you are already up against the wall of the house and in a few minutes you’ll be crushed to death. The child on the other hand won’t be crushed to death; if nothing is done to stop him from growing he’ll be hurt, but in the end he’ll simply burst open the house and walk out a free man.
Thomson concedes that a third party indeed cannot make the choice to kill either the person being crushed or the child. However, this does not mean that the person being crushed cannot act in self-defense and attack the child to save his or her own life. To liken this to pregnancy, the mother can be thought to be the house, the fetus the growing-child. In such a case, the mother’s life is being threatened, and the fetus is the one who threatens it. Because for no reason should the mother’s life be threatened, and also for no reason is the fetus threatening it, both are innocent, and thus no third party can intervene. But, Thomson says, the person threatened can intervene, by which justification a mother can rightfully abort.
Continuing, Thomson returns to the ‘expanding child’ example and points out:
- 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 unfortunate mistake, been rented to both: the mother owns the house. 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.
If we say that no one may help the mother obtain an abortion, we fail to acknowledge the mother’s right over her body (or property). Thomson says that we are not personally obligated to help the mother but this does not rule out the possibility that someone else may act. As Thomson reminds, the house belongs to the mother; similarly, the body which holds a fetus also belongs to the mother.
Pregnancy resulting from voluntary intercourse – “people-seeds”
To illustrate an example of pregnancy due to voluntary intercourse, Thomson presents the ‘people-seeds’ situation:
- 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.
Here, the people-seeds flying through the window represent conception, despite the mesh screen, which functions as contraception. The woman does not want a people-seed to root itself in her house, and so she even takes the measure to protect herself with the best mesh screens. However, in the event that one finds its way in, unwelcome as it may be, does the simple fact that the woman knowingly risked such an occurrence when opening her window deny her the ability to rid her house of the intruder? Thomson notes that some may argue the affirmative to this question, claiming that “...after all you could have lived out your life with bare floors and furniture, or with sealed windows and doors”. But by this logic, she says, any woman could avoid pregnancy due to rape by simply having a hysterectomy – an extreme procedure simply to safeguard against such a possibility. Thomson concludes that although there may be times when the fetus does have a right to the mother's body, certainly in most cases the fetus does not have a right to the mother's body. This analogy raises the issue of whether all abortions are unjust killing.
Critics of Thomson's argument (see the table below) generally grant the permissibility of unplugging the violinist, but seek to block the inference that abortion is permissible by arguing that there are morally relevant differences between the violinist scenario and typical cases of abortion. One notable exception being that of Peter Singer who claims that, despite our intuitions, a utilitarian calculus would imply that one is morally obliged to stay connected to the violinist.
The most common objection is that Thomson's argument can justify abortion only in cases of rape. In the violinist scenario, you were kidnapped: you did nothing to cause the violinist to be plugged in, just as a woman who is pregnant due to rape did nothing to cause her pregnancy. But in typical cases of abortion, the pregnant woman had intercourse voluntarily, and thus has either tacitly consented to allow the fetus to use her body (the tacit consent objection), or else has a duty to sustain the fetus because the woman herself caused the fetus to stand in need of her body (the responsibility objection). Other common objections turn on the claim that the fetus is the pregnant woman's child whereas the violinist is a stranger (the stranger versus offspring objection), or that abortion kills the fetus whereas unplugging the violinist merely lets him die (the killing versus letting die objection).
Defenders of Thomson's argument reply that the alleged disanalogies between the violinist scenario and typical cases of abortion do not matter, either because the factors that critics appeal to are not genuinely morally relevant, or because those factors are morally relevant but do not apply to abortion in the way that critics have claimed. A summary of common objections and responses is given below.
Table of common criticisms and responses
Tacit consent objection
The pregnant woman voluntarily engaged in sexual intercourse foreseeing that a fetus may result, and so has tacitly consented to the fetus using her body; no such consent occurs with the violinist (or pregnancy due to rape).
The pregnant woman voluntarily engaged in sexual intercourse with the result that the fetus stands in need of the use of her body. The woman is thus responsible for the fetus's need to use her body and so the fetus has a right to use her body. No such responsibility occurs with the violinist (or pregnancy due to rape).
Stranger versus offspring objection
Parents have special obligations towards their offspring (as shown, for example, by laws requiring child support payments and by the fact that child abandonment is morally wrong). The fetus is the pregnant woman's offspring, and so she has a special obligation to sustain it; the violinist is a stranger and so you have no such obligation.
Killing versus letting die objection
There is a morally relevant difference between killing and letting die. Abortion typically kills the fetus and thus is impermissible, but unplugging the violinist merely lets him die and so is permissible.
Intending versus foreseeing objection
There is a morally relevant difference between intending harm and causing harm as a foreseen but unintended side effect. In most cases, abortion intentionally causes the fetus's death and so is impermissible; whereas unplugging the violinist causes death as an unintended side effect and so is permissible.
Less common objections to Thomson's argument (and the pro-choice responses) include:
- the natural–artificial objection: pregnancy is a natural process that is biologically normal to the human species. The joined condition of the violinist and donor, in contrast, represents an extreme and unusual form of "life support" that can only proceed in the presence of surgical intervention. This difference is morally relevant and therefore the two situations should not be used to model each other. The pro-choice response would be to point out that what is natural is not necessarily better or more legitimate than what is not. Cancer is natural and the surgery which cures cancer is unnatural;
- the conjoined twins objection: the relationship between conjoined twins represents a more complete analogy to pregnancy than the relationship between the violinist and the kidney donor. Because the fatal separation of conjoined twins is immoral, so is abortion. The pro-choice response would be to state that conjoined twins have equal claims to their shared organs, since they were conceived at the same time, in contrast to the fetus/prenatal offspring, who was conceived after his/her/its mother and whose claim to her body is thus inferior to that of the woman;
- the different burdens objection: supporting the violinist is a much greater burden than normal pregnancy, and so unplugging the violinist is morally permissible whereas aborting the fetus is not. A reply to this objection would be to point out that childbirth is a great burden, often requiring major surgery and, in the absence of sophisticated medical/surgical care, a significant risk to the woman's life;
- the artificiality objection: our intuitions on bizarre thought experiments of the sort used by Thomson are unreliable and provide no warrant for the conclusions they are intended to support. The pro-choice response would be that this is a thought experiment and thus it is not meant to be realistic;
- the duty to sustain the violinist objection: despite the common intuition, one does have an obligation to support the violinist, and likewise the fetus.
Of course, critics of Thomson's analogy have replies to these responses, and so the debate goes back and forth.
- e.g., Schwarz 1990, Beckwith 1993 and Lee 1996 on the pro-life side; Tooley 1972, Warren 1973, Steinbock 1992 and McMahan 2002 on the pro-choice side
- Kamm 1992; Boonin 2003: ch 4
- Parent 1986: vii
- Thomson 1971: 48–49.
- Thomson 1971: 55
- Thomson 1971: 63; Boonin 2003: 133–134
- Thomson 1971: 52
- Thomson 1971: 52–53
- Thomson 1971: 53
- Thomson 1971: 54
- Thomson 1971: 59
- Singer 2011:134
- e.g. Warren 1973; Steinbock 1992
- e.g. Beckwith 1993; McMahan 2002
- e.g. Schwarz 1990; Beckwith 1993; McMahan 2002
- Boonin 2003: 133–281
- Thomson 1971: 57–59
- Boonin 2003: 154–164
- Boonin 2003: 164–167
- Boonin 2003: 167–188
- Thomson 1971: 55–59
- Thomson 1971: 64–65; Boonin 2003: 228–234
- Boonin 2003: 249–254
- Boonin 2003: 247–249
- Boonin 2003: 233 n 60
- McMahan 2002: 383–4; Boonin 2003: 193
- Boonin 2003: 189 n 41, noting however that this is an ad hominem reply
- Thomson 1971: 156–159
- Boonin 2003: 199–211
- e.g. Finnis 1973; Schwarz 1990; Lee 1996; Lee and George 2005
- Boonin 2003: 222–227
- Parks 2006
- Himma 1999, Parks 2006
- Boonin 2003: 245–246
- Schwarz 1990
- Wiland 2000: 467. "The story of the unconscious violinist, some argue, is a complete fiction. There is no Society of Music Lovers, there are no famous violinists in need of kidney transplants, and there are no kidnappers forcing others to donate their bodies for the good of another."
- Hershenov 2001, Smith and Brogaard 2001
- Beckwith, F. 1993. Politically Correct Death. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, ch 7.
- Boonin, D. 2003. A Defense of Abortion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ch 4.
- Finnis, J.. "The Rights and Wrongs of Abortion". Philosophy and Public Affairs 2:2 (Winter 1973): 117–145.
- Hershenov, D. "Abortions and Distortions". Social Theory and Practice 27:1 (January 2001): 129–148.
- Kamm, F. 1992. Creation and Abortion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Lee, P. 1996. Abortion and Unborn Human Life. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, ch 4.
- Lee, P and R George. "The Wrong of Abortion". In A Cohen and C Wellman, eds. 2005. Contemporary Debates in Applied Ethics. Oxford: Blackwell: 13–26, at 20–21.
- McMahan, J. 2002. The Ethics of Killing. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Parent, W. 1986. "Editor's introduction". In J Thomson. Rights, Restitution, and Risk. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press: vii–x.
- Parks, B. D. "The Natural-Artificial Distinction and Conjoined Twins: A Response To Judith Thomson's Argument for Abortion Rights". National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly 6:4 (Winter 2006): 671–680
- Schwarz, S. 1990. The Moral Question of Abortion. Chicago: Loyola University Press, ch 8.
- Singer, P. 2011. Practical Ethics. New York, Cambridge University Press, ch 6.
- Smith, B. and Brogaard, B. 2001. "Living High and Letting Die". Philosophy 76 (3):435-442 (2001)
- Steinbock, B. 1992. Life Before Birth: The Moral and Legal Status of Embryos and Fetuses. Oxford: Oxford University Press, at 78.
- Thomson, J. "A Defense of Abortion". Philosophy and Public Affairs 1:1 (Autumn 1971): 47–66.
- Thomson, J. "Rights and Deaths". Philosophy and Public Affairs 2:2 (Winter 1973): 146–159.
- Tooley, M. "Abortion and Infanticide". Philosophy and Public Affairs 2:1 (Autumn 1972): 37–65, at 52–53.
- Warren, M. "On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion". Monist 57:1 (1973): 43–61.
- Wiland, E. "Unconscious violinists and the use of analogies in moral argument". Journal of Medical Ethics 26 (2000): 466–468.