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)

Synopsis: Today we completed our discussion of Noonan and turned to Thomson.

Recall that knowing that an argument is unsound tells us nothing, repeat nothing, about the truth or falsity of the conclusion. Showing an argument unsound is equivalent to discarding the argument; we throw the argument out since it doesn't give us any reason for thinking that the conclusion is true, any more than it gives us a reason for thinking that the conclusion is false.

So Noonan has to provide additional arguments to show that

  • Every human conceptus is a human being.

Unfortunately it is a relatively trivial matter--much to the dismay of Noonan, I'm sure--to show that each of these arguments is likewise unsound. The arguments are valid, so you should be able to state, in each case, which premise is false and why it is false.

In particular, the Argument from Potentiality,

1. If a human conceptus is potentially a human being, then it is a human being.

2. A human conceptus is potentially a human being.

Therefore

3. A human conceptus is a human being.

assumes with premise (1) that anything which is potentially an F is an F, where F is some property. But clearly this general principle is false, since, for example, a pre-med student is potentially a physician but no one would make the mistake of thinking that the pre-med student is a physician. Potentially being something, a doctor or lawyer or what have you, does not make you that thing. But then there's no reason to think that a human conceptus is a human being just because it is potentially a human being. Hence premise (1) is presumably false, since Noonan gives us no reason for thinking that being a human being is a special property such that, if one is potentially a human being, one is a human being.

Similarly, premise (1) of the Argument from Conception is false.

1. If a human conceptus is conceived by human parents, then it is a human being.

2. A human conceptus is conceived by human parents.

Therefore

3. A human conceptus is a human being.

It is certainly possible for human parents to conceive something which is clearly not a human being. The history of severe and tragic deformation--i.e., anencephalic and headless fetuses, etc--provides numerous examples.

Finally, premise (1) of the Argument from Genetic Code is also clearly false.

1. If x has a human genetic code, then x is a human being.

2. A human conceptus has a human genetic code.

Therefore

3. A human conceptus is a human being.

For if the only condition sufficient for being a human being is having human genetic code, then each cell in my body is a human being, and every time I bruise myself I am a mass murderer. But that is patently absurd, so premise (1) cannot be true.

We seem to be at an impasse. We find that arguments for the thesis that the human conceptus is a human being are unsound, and we find that arguments for the thesis that not every human conceptus is a human being are unsound.

What have learned from Noonan? Very little, it turns out. We simply don't know whether the human conceptus is a human being. We're completely in the dark on the status of the human conceptus.

I submit that we are at this impasse for a very good reason. We aren't getting anywhere in establishing whether or not the fetus is a person because we are asking the wrong question.

Thomson sets aside the question of whether or not a human conceptus is a human being by simply assuming that, indeed, the human conceptus is a human being or, as she puts it, a fetus is a person. Debates over abortion are ordinarily thought to hinge on the status of the fetus. If it's a person, then it is usually thought that the argument against abortion is sound, much as we saw with Noonan. The step from "a fetus is a person" to "abortion is morally wrong" is usually taken for granted.

As Thomson points out, that the step to showing that abortion is morally wrong from the assumption that a fetus is a person is by no means obvious or straightforward. Thomson shows this by appeal to the Principle of Analogy in the Case of the Famous Unconscious Violinist. If Thomson is correct, it is morally permissible for you to unhook yourself from the Violinist and thereby let the Violinist die. But if that's the case, then there is something wrong with the argument which concludes that it is morally wrong for a woman to abort a pregnancy due to rape. In particular, since it has a false conclusion and is valid, it must have a false premise.

In fact, it is precisely the point of Thomson's argument to show that the abortion (Noonan's) argument is unsound because one of its premises is false. It is false that the fetus' right to life outweighs the mother's right to determine what happens in and to her body. But is it generally false, or is it only false in cases of pregnancy due to rape? Surely there are a number of variations on the basic abortion argument. That is to say, by granting for the sake of argument that the fetus is a person Thomson correctly teaches us that it does not thereby follow that abortion is morally wrong. But the task of showing that the proposition,

  • If the fetus is a person then abortion is morally impermissible,

is false requires an astonishingly intricate and complicated argument.

As a discussion of Thomson, let us briefly consider each step in turn.

Thomson opens by explaining that it is no straightforward matter to get from the premise that the fetus is a person to the moral impermissibility of abortion. What is required is an additional assumption like

  • P1: A fetus' right to life is more stringent than a mother's right to determine what happens in and to her body.

But this assumption is clearly false. To show that it is false, Thomson constructs the Case of the Famous Unconscious Violinist. Using the Principle of Analogy, Thomson is able to show that if we think intuitively, as most do, that it would be perfectly morally permissible for one to disconnect oneself from the Famous Unconscious Violinist, then we should think that it is morally permissible for a woman pregnant due to rape to get an abortion. But then the conclusion to Thomson's variation on Noonan's argument is false, which implies that the above assumption must be false since the argument is valid and every other premise is either true or granted for the sake of argument. This, note, is a style of argument that Thomson will employ repeatedly.

Thomson's Variation on Noonan

3/13/02

Noonan's Argument:
 

 


 


 

 

 

1

If x is an act of harming a human being and x has no sufficient reason, then x is morally wrong.
 

 

2

If x is an abortion then x is an act of harming a human conceptus (embryo, fetus).
 

 

3

A human conceptus is a human being.
 

Therefore

4

If x is an abortion then x is an act of harming a human being.

2&3


 

5

If x is an abortion then, if x is not a case of cancerous uterous or ectopic pregnancy, then x has no sufficient reason.
 

Therefore

6

If x is an abortion and x is not a case of cancerous uterous or ectopic pregnancy, then x is an act of harming a human being and x has no sufficient reason.

4&5

Therefore

7

If x is an abortion and x is not a case of cancerous uterous or ectopic pregnancy, then x is morally wrong.

1&6

Consider Thomson's Variation:

Thomson's Variation:

 


 


 


 
 

Step 1:

1

Every fetus is a person.  
 

2

Every person has a right to life.  

Therefore

3

Every fetus has a right to life.

1&2

       

Step 2:

4

A fetus' right to life is more stringent than a mother's right to determine what happens in and to her body.  
 

5

If a fetus' right to life is more stringent than a mother's right to determine what happens in and to her body, then no fetus may be killed.  

Therefore

6

No fetus may be killed

4&5

Compare the two:

1 Noonan's Argument is valid, as is Thomson's Variation.

 

 

 
2 Both arguments take two steps.

 

 

 
3 Both arguments assume that the human conceptus is a human being.

 

 

 

 

 
Premise (3) in Noonan's Argument

Premise (1) in Thomson's Variation


 

 

 
4 Premise (4) in Thomson's Variation is an analog of Premise (5) in Noonan's Argument.

 

 

 

Thomson's Argument

We first establish the point of the story:


 

1

If some defensible ethical theory is true, then it is morally right for you to disconnect yourself from the famous violinist.
 

 

2

Some defensible ethical theory is true.
 

Therefore

3

It is morally right for you to disconnect yourself from the famous violinist.

1&2

Next, we spell out the rest of the abortion argument:


 

1

No fetus may be killed.
 

 

2

If no fetus may be killed, then it is not morally right for a woman to abort a pregnancy due to rape.
 

Therefore

3

It is not morally right for a woman to abort a pregnancy due to rape.

1&2

But now we have the analogical argument:


 

1

PA : If one of any two actions which are similar in all morally relevant respects is morally right, then so is the other, and if one of any two actions which are similar in all morally relevant respects is morally wrong, then so is the other.
 

 

2

Disconnecting yourself from the famous violinist and a woman's aborting a pregnancy due to rape are similar in all morally relevant respects.
 

 

3

It is morally right for you to disconnect yourself from the famous violinist.
 

Therefore

4

It is morally right for a woman to abort a pregnancy due to rape.

1,2&3

So now we have a valid argument with a false conclusion:

Step 1:

1

Every fetus is a person.
 

 

2

Every person has a right to life.
 

Therefore

3

Every fetus has a right to life.

1&2


 

 

 

 

Step 2:

4

A fetus' right to life is more stringent than a mother's right to determine what happens in and to her body.
 

 

5

If a fetus' right to life is more stringent than a mother's right to determine what happens in and to her body, then no fetus may be killed.
 

Therefore

6

No fetus may be killed

4&5


 

 

 

 

Step 3:

7

If no fetus may be killed, then it is not morally right for a woman to abort a pregnancy due to rape.
 

Therefore

8

It is not morally right for a woman to abort a pregnancy due to rape.

1&7

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:

The act of disconnecting yourself from the famous violinist.

The act of a woman's aborting a pregnancy due to rape.

Kidnapping is morally wrong.

Rape is morally wrong.

The hospital stay would last nine months.

The pregnancy would last nine months.

The violinist is an innocent human being.

The fetus is an innocent human being.

Disconnecting from the violinist amounts to killing the violinist.

Aborting the pregnancy amounts to killing the fetus.

How they differ:

The act of disconnecting yourself from the famous violinist.

The act of a woman's aborting a pregnancy due to rape.

The famous violinist is famous and can play the violin.

The fetus is neither famous nor can it play the violin.

You may not be female.

The woman is female.

You cannot leave the hospital and so do not have freedom of movement.

The woman has, for the most part, freedom of movement.

Disconnecting from the violinist is merely refusing to save.

Aborting the pregnancy is actively killing the fetus.

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.

Step 1:

1

Every fetus is a person.
 

 

2

Every person has a right to life.
 

Therefore

3

Every fetus has a right to life.

1&2


 

 

 

 

Step 2:

4

No being with a right to life may be killed.
 

Therefore

5

No fetus may be killed.

3&4

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.


 

1

Directly killing an innocent person is morally impermissible.
 

 

2

If (1) then (3)
 

Therefore

3

No being with a right to life may be killed

1&2

Second try: Directly killing an innocent person is murder and murder is morally impermissible.


 


 

1

Directly killing an innocent person is murder and murder is morally impermissible.
 

 

2

If (1) then (3)
 

Therefore

3

No being with a right to life may be killed

1&2

Third try: There is a greater obligation to refrain from directly killing an innocent person than there is to keep a person from dying.


 


 

1

There is a greater obligation to refrain from directly killing an innocent person than there is to keep a person from dying.
 

 

2

If (1) then (3).
 

Therefore

3

No being with a right to life may be killed

1&2

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.


 

1

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.
 

 

2

If (1) then (3).
 

Therefore

3

No being with a right to life may be killed

1&2

*************************************

The Second Variation builds on the First:

Step 1:

1

Every fetus is a person.
 

 

2

Every person has a right to life.
 

Therefore

3

Every fetus has a right to life.

1&2


 

 

 

 

Step 2:

4

No being with a right to life may be killed unless it is a fetus, the pregnant woman's life is threatened by its development, and she performs the abortion.
 

Therefore

5

No fetus may be killed unless its development threatens the pregnant woman's life and she performs the abortion.

3&4

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:

A

1

If Smith has a prior claim of ownership to his coat, then it is morally right for someone in authority to return Smith's coat.
 

 

2

Smith has a prior claim of ownership to his coat.
 

Therefore

3

It is morally right for someone other than Smith to return Smith's coat.

1&2

B

1

No being with a right to life may be killed unless it is a fetus, the pregnant woman's life is threatened by its development, and she performs the abortion.
 

 

2

If (1) then it is morally wrong for anyone other than the pregnant woman to perform an abortion.
 

Therefore

3

It is morally wrong for anyone other than the pregnant woman to perform an abortion.

1&2

 

C

1

PA: If one of any two actions which are similar in all morally relevant respects is morally right, then so is the other, and if one of any two actions which are similar in all morally relevant respects is morally wrong, then so is the other.
 

 

2

The act of someone other than Smith returning Smith's coat is similar in all morally relevant respects to the act of someone other than the pregant woman performing an abortion.
 

 

3

It is morally right for someone other than Smith to return Smith's coat.
 

Therefore

4

    It is morally right for someone other than the pregnant woman to perform an abortion.

1,2&3

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:

  • No being with a right to life may be killed unless it is a fetus, the pregnant woman's life is threatened by its development, and she performs the abortion.

***************************

The Third Variation picks up where the Second leaves off:

Step 1:

1

Every fetus is a person.
 

 

2

Every person has a right to life.
 

Therefore

3

Every fetus has a right to life.

1&2


 

 

 

 

Step 2:

4

No being with a right to life may be killed unless it is a fetus whose development threatens the pregnant woman's life.
 

Therefore

5

No fetus may be killed unless its development threatens the pregnant woman's life.

3&4

What does it mean to say that someone has a right to life?

A1: If x has a right to life then x has a right to at least the bare minimum necessary for x's continued survival.

 

 

 

 

 

 
Thomson's response: Suppose all she requires for continued survival is the cool touch of Henry Fonda's hand on her fevered brow. Does he have an obligation to fly to the east coast and touch her fevered brow? No. Thus A1 is false.

 

 

 

 
A2: x has a right to life iff x has a right not to be killed.

 

 

 

 

 

 
Thomson's response: But we have already agreed that one does not bear an obligation to the violinist to remain hooked up. Thus A2 is false as well.

Hence,


 

1

If A1 and A2 are false, then if x has a right to life then x does not have the right to the use of another person's body and x does not have the right to the continued use of another person's body.
 

 

2

A1 and A2 are false.
 

Therefore

3

If x has a right to life, then x does not have the right to the use of another person's body and x does not have the right to the continued use of another person's body.

1&2


 

 

 

 

 

4

If (3) then it is false that no fetus may be killed unless its development threatens the pregnant woman's life.
 

Therefore

5

It is false that no fetus may be killed unless its development threatens the pregnant woman's life.

3&4

But then it follows that premise 4 of Variation Three is false.

********************************

We finally come to the Fourth Variation:


 

Step 1:

1

Every fetus is a person.  
 

2

Every person has a right to life.  

Therefore

3

Every fetus has a right to life.

1&2

       

Step 2:

4

No being with a right to life may be killed unjustly.  

Therefore

5

No fetus may be killed unjustly.

3&4

If Thomson is correct, there will only be some cases in which it would be unjust to abort a pregnancy.

Clearly, in cases of rape the mother has not given the fetus the right to use her body, and so may justly abort the pregnancy.

 

 

 

 
What about in cases where the mother intentionally has sexual intercourse, uses contraception, and still gets pregnant. Does she not bear at least a partial responsibility for the fetus' life?

 

 
Thomson's response: The people-seed thought experiment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Suppose peopleseeds drift like pollen on the wind and, if they enter a home, they take root and grow into people. You don't want children, so you put screens on all the windows and try very hard to keep them out. But a hole in one screen allows a peopleseed to enter and implant itself in your carpet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Does the peopleseed person that develops have a right to use your house?

 

 

 

 
What about cases where the mother intentionally has sexual intercourse and fails to use contraception. Does she not bear at least a partial responsibility for the fetus' life?

 

 

 
Suppose you intentionally left the windows and screens up on your house, knowing that there is a likelihood that peopleseeds might float in and take root. It would seem that in that case it might be unjust to kill them.

 

 

 

 
What about cases where the mother intentionally becomes pregnant?

 

 

 

 

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)

  • Replies by Philip L. Quinn, Donald Regan, Douglas Laycock, Drucilla Cornell, Peter de Marneffe, and a rejoinder by Judith Jarvis Thomson

 

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