Saturday, April 18, 2015

Judith Thompson's In Defense of Abortion

In defending her view that abortion is at least some times permissible—in cases of rape or in instances when the mother’s life is endangered by her pregnancy, for instance—Judith J. Thompson advances a number of analogies to support her position. In 1971’s A Defense of Abortion, her analogies support her position by conceding the Argument from Personhood and instead attack the premise of a fetus’ right-to-life.

Thompson’s first analogy is to compare an unwanted pregnancy due to rape to one of us being kidnapped and having us wake up to find a famous violinist attached to us so that the violinist may use our kidneys to live. Thompson’s question is to ask us if it is morally required of us to consent to our newfound condition. In quoting the hypothetical doctor in her scenario, Thompson writes, “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.” Our intuition is that this is preposterous and indicates there is something wrong with the right-to-life premise. This is because we generally believe we are not morally obligated to aid someone against our will, particularly when that aid requires an undue burden. As it applies to this analogy, being forced to let the violinist to use our kidneys for one hour is not an undue burden in the way that being forced to let the violinist use our kidneys for nine months is. (There have been cases where a pregnant woman alleges she didn’t know she was pregnant before birth or for months after being impregnated. This wouldn’t seem to count as a burden if someone didn’t know they were being burdened.) Nonetheless, having even one hour of kidney use be forced upon us would be a violation of our negative [unalienable] rights, if we are inclined to believe in such rights. Perhaps Thompson could have also argued for an undue burden insofar as the rape victim being reminded every day of her ordeal. This would strengthen the argument for allowing abortion in instances of rape.

In instances when the mother’s life is endangered due to a pregnancy, Thompson compares this to being trapped in a very tiny house with a rapidly growing child. If we do not take action, we’ll be crushed to death by the child. Earlier in her article, Thompson concedes that two lives may be equal in value, but hints that this equality does not necessarily exclude one’s right to self-defense. Thompson says that here, the proponents of a fetus’ right to life are wrong to equate the mother’s life with “the status of a house, to which we don’t allow the right of self-defense. But if the woman houses the child, it should be remembered that she is the person who houses it.” However, Thompson is careful to acknowledge that there are limits to self-defense but that this circumstance is special, being that both persons are innocent and in a situation neither has willed. For this reason, Thompson thinks it is understandable not to let a third party intervene, but the person whose life is threatened can. Unfortunately, Thompson doesn’t address the vital question of who, if anyone, is allowed to defend the defenseless, especially when she has conceded that a fetus is a person. If the situation is such that one person has the ability to “defend” themselves and the other does not, her analogy suffers.

Finally, Thompson defends abortion for those who have taken reasonable precautions against pregnancy. She makes a comparison between (presumably reliable) birth control methods and leaving a window open in a stuffy room through which a burglar climbs. “It would be absurd to say, ‘Ah, now he can stay, she’s given him the right to use her house—for she is partially responsible for his presence there, having voluntarily done what enabled him to get in.’” Abortion would be permissible in this case according to Thompson in order to preserve the quality of a woman’s life which, we presume, includes having sex for pleasure. This argument would give an unborn person a right to life so long as the potential mother took no precautions along with the understanding that having sex might result in a pregnancy. This would constitute a willful act on part of the woman and such intentions are where a fetus’ right-to-life would arise from. Proving a mother took no precautions along with the understanding that having sex might result in a pregnancy may be difficult, however. Thompson’s attempt to preserve a woman’s right to a certain quality of life hinges on the notion that it is permissible for woman to have sex for pleasure, a notion not widely entertained outside of Western cultures.

Thompson defends abortion on the grounds that a fetus’ right-to-life is suspect on a number of accounts, though some of those accounts are clearly stronger than others. Foregoing the Argument from Personhood, Thompson built an interesting case against a prohibition on abortion. If nothing else, Thompson taught us to go beyond the Argument from Personhood to see if there are any grounds for allowing abortion. It appears there may very well be.

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