Chapter 8 : Abortion
|Reading: Judith Jarvis Thompson: A Defense of Abortion
In cases of self defense: rape, incest, failed birth control
Outline by Don Berkich, University of Texas, Corpus Christi (by permission)
Consider Thomson's Variation:
Compare the two:
We first establish the point of the story:
Next, we spell out the rest of the abortion argument:
But now we have the analogical argument:
So now we have a valid argument with a false conclusion:
We have agreed to accept the truth of premise (1) for the sake of argument. Premise (2) is undeniably true, as are premises (5) and (7). Now recall our all too brief logic lesson. If we have a valid argument with a false conclusion, at least one of the premisses must be false. But all the premisses except premise (4) are either clearly true or granted to be true for the sake of argument. It follows that premise (4) must be false. That is to say, it is false that a fetus' right to life is more stringent than a mother's right to determine what happens in and to her body. As Thomson puts the point, "something really is wrong with that plausible-sounding argument I mentioned a moment ago."
In order for Thomson's argument to work, however, it must be the case that disconnecting yourself from the famous violinist and a woman's aborting a pregnancy due to rape are similar in all morally relevant respects. Let us compare the two:
How they are alike:
How they differ:
It seems, then, that the two actions are similar in all morally relevant respects.
The Extreme View: Abortion is always impermissible, even to save the life of the mother.
Why should we think that premise (4), No being with a right to life may be killed, is true? Thomson considers each of the following arguments, but shows that each is unsound.
First try: Directly killing an innocent person is morally impermissible.
Second try: Directly killing an innocent person is murder and murder is morally impermissible.
Third try: There is a greater obligation to refrain from directly killing an innocent person than there is to keep a person from dying.
Fourth try: If the only options are to either directly kill an innocent person or let a person die, then it is better to let the person die.
The Second Variation builds on the First:
Suppose Smith and Jones are stranded out in the cold and only Smith has a coat. Smith has a prior claim to the coat, since it is his. Surely we would not be justified in saying: we can't make any decision between Smith and Jones as to who should have the coat. After all, Smith does have a prior claim to the coat. Now suppose Jones overpowers Smith and takes his coat. Consider the following argument:
So we have it by Arguments A and C that it is morally right for someone other than the pregnant woman to perform an abortion. But notice that if so, then it's not the case that it is morally wrong for someone other than the pregnant woman to perform an abortion. So the conclusion of Argument B is false. But Argument B is valid, so at least one of its premises must be false. Since premise (2) of Argument B seems correct, it must be the case that premise (1) is false. That is to say, it is not the case that:
The Third Variation picks up where the Second leaves off:
What does it mean to say that someone has a right to life?
But then it follows that premise 4 of Variation Three is false.
We finally come to the Fourth Variation:
If Thomson is correct, there will only be some cases in which it would be unjust to abort a pregnancy.
Anti-abortionists are unjustly requiring women to be Good (in some extreme cases Splendid) Samaritans. No one else is legally required to be even a Minimally Decent Samaritan, although they may be morally required.
It seems that except in cases where we have assumed a special responsibility for someone, we are not morally required to make large sacrifices to keep another person alive.
Judith Jarvis Thomson, "Abortion," The Boston Review, Vol. XX, No. 3, (Summer 1995)
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