Ohio state recently passed a bill making abortion illegal after the first heartbeat, so I guess with the heated political climate (especially since President-Elect Trump has stated that he will be appointing ‘pro-life’ Justices to the SCOTUS) now is as good of a time as any to revisit the topic. Some of you may recall that the conclusion that I came to last time; that is, abortion is a difficult topic. I maintain that conclusion. However in part of the post I offer a rebuttal to ‘bodily rights’ argument. The day I began writing this post, I was pointed towards this really old abortion defense paper written by Judith Thomson.
Before I discuss the paper, I figure we should first talk about Judith Thomson or as it may be more proper to call her, Dr. Judith Thomson. Dr. Thomson has a B.A., an M.A. and a Ph.D. One thing you will note being absent, is an M.D. Dr. Thomson is not a medical doctor, her degrees are all in philosophy. Which is oddly appropriate, because the paper itself is not about the medical consequences of abortion, but the logic and morality that come about from opposing it.
The conclusion I came up with is that it’s a very difficult issue and the safest option is to outlaw abortion. It is obvious that the fetus is human (it has two human parents). Whether or not it’s alive may be up to debate, but I concluded that it was alive and was no different to a child outside the womb in its dependence on a caretaker. Since murdering children outside the womb is illegal, why should an exception be made for children inside the womb? Perhaps Dr. Thomson will provide me with an answer in her essay. Let’s look at it.
“Most opposition to abortion relies on the premise that the fetus is a human being, a person, from the moment of conception. […] We are asked to notice that the development of a human being from conception through birth into childhood is continuous; then it is said that to draw a line, to choose a point in this development and say “before this point the thing is not a person, after this point it is a person” is to make an arbitrary choice, a choice for which in the nature of things no good reason can be given. It is concluded that the fetus is. or anyway that we had better say it is, a person from the moment of conception. But this conclusion does not follow. Similar things might be said about the development of an acorn into an oak trees, and it does not follow that acorns are oak trees, or that we had better say they are. Arguments of this form are sometimes called “slippery slope arguments“–the phrase is perhaps self-explanatory–and it is dismaying that opponents of abortion rely on them so heavily and uncritically” – A Defense of Abortion
So Dr. Thomson is criticizing the usage of slippery slope arguments. I strongly disagree with her because law is all about slippery slope. If a premise to legalized gay marriage could be used to legalize… I dunno, robot marriage then you can bet your sweet patootie that it’ll be used to legalize robot marriage. So I’m sorry Dr. Thomson, but I must reject your notion here. However, this isn’t the focus of your essay so I don’t care too much that we differ in opinion here.
“I am inclined to agree, however, that the prospects for “drawing a line” in the development of the fetus look dim. I am inclined to think also that we shall probably have to agree that the fetus has already become a human person well before birth. […] On the other hand, I think that the premise is false, that the fetus is not a person from the moment of conception. A newly fertilized ovum, a newly implanted clump of cells, is no more a person than an acorn is an oak tree” – A Defense of Abortion
Dr. Thomson doesn’t explain why a newly fertilized ovum is no more a person than an acorn is an oak tree. But it seems like a bit of a leap. Such a claim would be similar to saying that a newly fertilized ovum is a human adult. No one is making such a claim (to my knowledge). The claim (I believe) she is making is that immature cells are not equivalent to matured cells. It seems irrelevant, because (barring abortions) fundamental human rights are afforded to all humans in the U.S. Whether you’re a babe or a geriatric old man, you have the same rights and are protected by the same laws. She also provides no evidence to support her claim and considering she has no medical degree, I’m not inclined to believe her. And I’ve yet to be presented with any decrees made by a national organization of doctors that says “actually the fetus isn’t a human and here’s why”. So in my ignorance I will continue to assume that the fetus is human because it has human parents. The difficulty (and I point this out in my other post) is in determining whether or not the fetus has rights yet. I’m inclined to think yes, others are inclined to disagree.
Dr. Thomson then proceeds to set up scenarios acting under the assumption that the fetus is a human person with all of the rights afforded to it. She begins with the case of the violinist.
“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. The director of the hospital now tells you, “Look, we’re sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you–we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it’s only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.” Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says. “Tough luck. I agree. but now you’ve got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person’s right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him.” – A Defense of Abortion
I believe the reader is supposed to reach one of two conclusions. Either rights overriding other rights is tricky, or the right to one’s body outweighs the right of someone else to live (or both). I agree with the principle, but not in the way it’s being presented. All it does is point out that this is a very difficult issue to analyze and the answers aren’t in black and white. She then follows it up with this: “In this case, of course, you were kidnapped, you didn’t volunteer for the operation that plugged the violinist into your kidneys.”
She’s probably trying to connect this situation to that of pregnancy. If she is, I’m sorry to say that she did it backwards. The parents implicitly choose to have children during sex. For this example to work, it would have to be the fault of the kidnapping victim that the violinist came down with this kidney ailment. In which case, while I may not agree that the kidnapping victim be hooked up to them by machine, SOME manner of reparation would be due to the violinist. A reparation that is not part of this argument, but I suspect being hooked up to the machine could be one such reparation. In short: the example proves useful only to tell us that which we already know, human rights can be a difficult issue when overlapped.
She then follows it up with a few remarks regarding absolute abortion opposition.
“Nor do they make an exception for a case in which the mother has to spend the nine months of her pregnancy in bed. They would agree that would be a great pity, and hard on the mother; but all the same, all persons have a right to life, the fetus is a person, and so on. I suspect, in fact, that they would not make an exception for a case in which, miraculously enough, the pregnancy went on for nine years, or even the rest of the mother’s life.” – A Defense of Abortion
First, mothers do not spend nine months pregnancy in bed. A vast majority of mothers don’t even know that they are pregnant until they are like two months in. Presumably the mother has a job and continues to work for this duration. And considering the work culture in the U.S. she also works for a few months more as well. But that’s kind of a silly point and its inclusion in this paragraph is an appeal to emotion. I bolded the last sentence of the paragraph because it’s a reduction to the absurd. First, if pregnancies took nine years, I imagine we as a species would find it commonplace and would see it as no different than the current situation of it taking nine months. It seems extreme due to that being 1/8 of a human lifespan but in reality using it as an example brings with it some other fantastical scenarios. The same deal with it taking the rest of the mother’s life. Such a scenario is irrelevant because if it were the case, it would be baked into our species. So it’s incredible to us because we don’t live in such a world, and again, serves only as an appeal to emotion.
Since I do not take the extreme point of view in that abortion is never acceptable, I will not address her inclusion of it in her paper. I personally would permit abortions in two situations. One – the life of the mother is endangered. This comes from a view of pragmatism. The mother is here now, and (obviously) fertile. The mother provides more to the species than an unborn child which may not make it to puberty (especially without a mother). The second case is rape. This is because I view sex, even with contraceptives, (actually moreso with contraceptives) as an implicit agreement to bear children. In rape, no such agreement is made, so the ‘contract’ that is made between parents and nature is not valid. I do not believe Dr. Thomson shares my view in that a nuanced position is necessary, and believes rather that all abortions should be legal.
Dr. Thomson makes some interesting and entirely unimportant comments throughout the paper. One such example is this:
“The extreme view could of course be weakened to say that while abortion is permissible to save the mother’s life, it may not be performed by a third party, but only by the mother herself. But this cannot be right either” – A Defense of Abortion
I understand the idea of “abortions” being done with coat hangers and willful falls down stairs. But this does not help her argument at all. You can easily liken this to a father driving his son to school one day and suddenly deciding that he wants to kill his son in an inconspicuous manner. So he gambles on his probability of surviving a car accident being higher than that of his son, and willfully crashes the car. This is still attempted murder. By definition: “Attempted murder is the failed or aborted attempt to murder another person”.
“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 an 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” – A Defense of Abortion
So I do agree that the mother does own the house. 100% agree. You own your body. And I don’t think that those in opposition to abortion disagree either. But I thought we were operating under the assumption that the unborn child is a human with rights to live. In addition, are we not acting under the assumption that the child is the mother’s child? If we are, then kicking your child to the cold to die is child abuse, and is criminal. If the child isn’t, well then you’re just an asshole, but within your rights (to my knowledge).
Dr. Thomson will now reach the case in which it is necessary to save the mother.
“For we should now, at long last, ask what it comes to, to have a right to life. In some views having a right to life includes having a right to be given at least the bare minimum one needs for continued life. But suppose that what in fact IS the bare minimum a man needs for continued life is something he has no right at all to be given?” – A Defense of Abortion
I’m just going to point out the irony in which leftists demand higher minimum wages and healthcare because it’s their right as a human being but also turn around and use the latter part of this paragraph to justify abortion. In all honesty, I personally agree with the conclusion because I tend to have libertarian views especially regarding property. One might then attempt to extend it to the case of pregnancy. But your children actually do have an implicit right to your property in such a case that it is necessary for their survival. To willfully deny your children the necessities (food, water, shelter) is child neglect. This is still illegal. The only way around this is to attempt an argument to suggest that the child inside of you is not your own… which is a humourous suggestion with no way of being proven true barring that of being a surrogate. In the case of a surrogate, you agreed to carry the child, so you don’t get to abort it.
“In the most ordinary sort of case, to deprive someone of what he has a right to is to treat him unjustly. […] suppose that, having learned that otherwise it means nine years in bed with that violinist, you unplug yourself from him. You surely are not being unjust to him, for you gave him no right to use your kidneys, and no one else can have given him any such right. But we have to notice that in unplugging yourself, you are killing him; and violinists, like everybody else, have a right to life, and thus in the view we were considering just now, the right not to be killed. So here you do what he supposedly has a right you shall not do, but you do not act unjustly to him in doing it.” – A Defense of Abortion
Again, she attempts to use this fantastical setup of the violinist to draw conclusions. But I think she has come to the wrong conclusion here. And we come into this situation of ‘two wrongs make a right’. Murder is illegal in the United States, but not unilaterally illegal. It is permissible to kill someone in self-defense. You are not penalized for this murder because it was done to protect your being. It’s really not as complex as Dr. Thomson is attempting to make it.
In fact, my key criticism with this paper so far is that it attempts to use moral arguments and appeal to emotion too much. Which is amusing because she began her paper with an accusation of slippery slope arguments. Slippery slope arguments are viable for the purpose of law, moral arguments and appeal to emotion are not.
“The emendation which may be made at this point is this: the right to life consists not in the right not to be killed, but rather in the right not to be killed unjustly […] But if this emendation is accepted, the gap in the argument against abortion stares us plainly in the face: it is by no means enough to show that the fetus is a person, and to remind us that all persons have a right to life–we need to be shown also that killing the fetus violates its right to life, i.e., that abortion is unjust killing. And is it?” – A Defense of Abortion
She asks this question and then drops it. The answer to this question is yes, because it is child abuse. If you accept that unborn children are people, then killing them is murder. Is there a way to justify murder? Certainly, I gave you an example not that long ago. The justification for most abortions is usually something along the lines of “I can’t afford it” or “The father won’t be present”. Is “I can’t afford it” a justification for stealing? I don’t think so. So why would it be a justification for murder? I can’t think of a comparable example for the father not being present but to be honest, I don’t think it’s terribly relevant as it stands. Current laws dictate that the father has no say in the case of abortion, therefore attempting to use the father as an excuse to get an abortion seems to be in poor taste.
“Indeed, in what pregnancy could it be supposed that the mother has given the unborn person such a right? It is not as if there are unborn persons drifting about the world, to whom a woman who wants a child says I invite you in.”” – A Defense of Abortion
Aha, and here we get to where Dr. Thomson loses me. Because sex is an act of reproduction, I view it as an implicit agreement to nature (or God or whatever you want) that you are inviting a child in. Even with contraceptives, you know that there is a non-zero possibility that you may get pregnant. So you are still signing that contract. This is also why I permit abortions in the case of rape. One of the parents did not consent to sex, they did not ‘sign this contract’ and as such the results of that contract are null and void.
So no, Dr. Thomson, unless you can explain to my why sex is not an implicit agreement to have children I cannot buy this fish. One may attempt to argue that the use of contraceptives is proof that this contract is not being signed, but it isn’t. If anything, it’s a stronger affirmation of the contract, because using contraceptives is proof that you know you are signing the contract. You know the mother could get pregnant, so you try to stack the odds in your favour. But you are recognizing the non-zero probability of pregnancy.
“Suppose a woman voluntarily indulges in intercourse, knowing of the chance it will issue in pregnancy, and then she does become pregnant; is she not in part responsible for the presence, in fact the very existence, of the unborn person inside? No doubt she did not invite it in.” – A Defense of Abortion
She did invite it in, by engaging in sex. To prove to me that she did not invite it in, she has to not consent to sex (rape).
“And then, too, it might be asked whether or not she can kill it even to save her own life: If she voluntarily called it into existence, how can she now kill it, even in self-defense?” – A Defense of Abortion
Self-defense would imply the child is intentionally killing you. While I do support this case of abortion, I do recognize that you are presented with an uncomfortable decision here. There will be some contradictions or exceptions in law. I’m not too bothered by that result. So what Dr. Thomson is trying to do is prove that the moral framework through which you oppose abortion is contradictory, but I’ve yet to be presented with a framework without contradictions. So she serves only to prove the obvious?
“Opponents of abortion […] have tended to overlook the possible support they might gain from making out that the fetus is dependent on the mother, in order to establish that she has a special kind of responsibility for it, a responsibility that gives it rights against her which are not possessed by any independent person […]
On the other hand, this argument would give the unborn person a right to its mother’s body only if her pregnancy resulted from a voluntary act, undertaken in full knowledge of the chance a pregnancy might result from it. It would leave out entirely the unborn person whose existence is due to rape.” – A Defense of Abortion
Exactly. So she comes to the natural conclusion that aborting rape pregnancies (which make up a very minute amount of abortions) is acceptable. Next she’ll attempt to make it a difficult issue by using some false equivalences.
“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, having voluntarily done what enabled him to get in, in full knowledge that there are such things as burglars, and that burglars burgle.” It would be still more absurd to say this if I had had bars installed outside my windows, precisely to prevent burglars from getting in, and a burglar got in only because of a defect in the bars. It remains equally absurd if we imagine it is not a burglar who climbs in, but an innocent person who blunders or falls in.” – A Defense of Abortion
The first half of this is a clear false equivalence because burglars choose to burgle. No one chooses to be conceived (as far as we know). While there is some merit in the latter half, a blunder, it makes you think. Suppose we do permit a forceful ejection from the home in question. Would it be acceptable if murder were the method? In the case of the burglar, it may be argued that it is fine to murder them in self-defense and indeed many do in several states like Michigan using ‘stand my ground’ laws. But we’ve already shown the burglar to be a false equivalency, so it’s a moot point. In the case of an accidental fall in, would you murder this person to get them out of your home? If you can honestly say yes, then sure. You may adopt the pro-abortion position.
“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. Does the person-plant who now develops have a right to the use of your house?” – A Defense of Abortion
I actually prefer this example because it’s the closest to reality but ultimately it’s absurd. This is (loosely) an accurate representation of sex. We actually have to make some final adjustments to make the metaphor work. First, we have to accept that the seeds, when implanted have all of the rights afforded to humans (and the knowledge of this prior to opening the window). Second, sex is opening the window (even with the mesh) during a particularly windy day. Once we adopt both of the changes to make the metaphor work, we arrive at the same conclusion as before, an implicit agreement to care for any seeds that may sprout.
Dr. Thomson is pretty much done at this point, she makes an argument that we shouldn’t have laws in black and white (I agree) so I won’t go any further.
I honestly cannot see why this paper was lauded as it was. It completely misses the mark in regards to good arguments and serves only to tell us that which we already know: morality is filled with contradictions, superceding rights are a difficult issue, and that law requires nuance. The arguments she presents with regards to who has what rights are often followed with false equivalences or absurd comparisons. Largely, she has appealed to emotion. Starting with her assumption that the fetus is a human with human rights, we arrive at the conclusion that abortion is impermissible with two (known) exceptions. But I suppose that’s just my opinion. I’m sorry that this post was so long and if you’ve made it here, well done.Thanks for reading.