In her essay “A Defense of Abortion,” Judith Jarvis Thomson states she does not consider fetuses to be human persons. However, since many opponents of abortions claim that fetuses are persons, Thomson agrees to accept this position “for the sake of argument” (48). After making this statement, she notes anti-abortionists do not explain why this fact means that abortion is wrong. Thomson’s essay aims to examine if the statement that fetuses are persons indeed means that abortions are morally wrong.
To do this, she suggests her famous experiment with an unconscious violinist. A person is kidnapped to be attached to a famous violinist who suffers from kidney failure. The donor will have to lay in bed with him for nine months because the violinist will die otherwise.
1. The first section of the essay examines situations when pregnancy is dangerous for a woman’s life. Thomson tries to understand if a child’s right to life outweighs such right of his mother. Anti-abortionists claim that abortion is a direct killing of an innocent person, and doing so is more wrong than just letting a woman die. Thomson prefers to look at this situation from the perspective of one’s right to save his or her life. In such a case, abortion is a life-saving procedure, and no one can forbid a woman to do it.
Thomson also notes that pro-lifers mainly focus on ethical dilemmas of the third party, forgetting that it is a mother who decides to have an abortion. To prove that this position is wrong, the author offers the tiny house though experiment. A person and a rapidly growing child are in a small house. If not killed, the child will crush the person to death. In such case, it is claimed that the third party cannot judge who must live and who must die. However, a pregnant woman has a right to defend her life by killing a child. Therefore, claims Thomson, the extreme view that abortions are always wrong is false.
2. In the tiny house experiment, the third party omits a crucial detail which allows looking at the situation from the entirely different perspective. The mother owns the house, and the child has no right to be there. Thus, it is just to help her to end the pregnancy. Even if someone refuses to do so, some other person may agree to help. This is how Thomson deals with the problem of the third party.
3. In the third section of the essay, the author’s reflects on what it means to have the right to life. The right to have a bare minimum to keep oneself alive does not mean that some other person is obliged to provide it. In the author’s example, Henry Fonda does not have to save her life by coming to her. In such case, it is a kindness on his part, not duty. “Having a right to life,” writes Thomson, “does not guarantee having either a right to be given the use of or a right to be allowed continues use of another person’s body–even if one needs it for life itself” (56). Therefore, the right to life is not an ultimate argument against abortions.
4. It is even impossible to say that abortion is unjust towards a fetus because injustice means a violation of one’s rights. A woman does not grant a fetus with a right to use her body, although it has a right to life. Thomson offers her emendation to the concept of the right to life. According to it, a person has a right not to be killed unjustly. In such a case, abortion does not violate this right at all. After stating that, she focuses on whether a woman may grant a fetus a right to use her body.
Fetuses conceived during rape are refused such right because pregnancy has occurred involuntarily. For other cases, Thomson offers yet another thought experiment with an opened window and people-seeds. People who do not want children put protection screens on their windows, and even if screens happen to be defective, these people are not responsible for the pregnancy. They do not have to give a child the right to live in the house.
5. The next section of the essay is examining if it is morally indecent to have an abortion. If the violinist from the first experiment needed only an hour instead of nine months, and helping him had no health risks, it would be indecent to refuse to help him. A person ought to help him. However, this fact does not mean that the violinist gets a right to use one’s body. Refusing him may be egoistic and indecent, but not unjust.
6. The sixth section examines the difference between the Good and the Minimally Decent Samaritan. In the Bible, the Good Samaritan was the only one to help a robbed and beaten man. In fact, he gave him even more than a minimal decency requires. Usually, people are not expected to provide too much or even make sacrifices to help others. When a woman understands she cannot be a Good Samaritan to a child, she has right to ask others to help her out of this situation by making an abortion.
7. Another perspective examined by the author is parental responsibility for a child. It is claimed that parents are responsible for children in any case. Thomson reminds that people, in general, are not in charge for anyone unless they voluntarily acknowledge it. Therefore, parents who have assumed their responsibility for their child, have no moral right to give it away. If pregnancy occurred against their will, they are free in their decisions to be or not to be Good Samaritans to a child.
8. In her conclusion, Thomson states that she does not think that abortion is always permissible, and there are situations when it is indecent for a mother to ask for an abortion. Also, she does not believe that the right to have an abortion guarantees that a fetus must be destroyed. A woman has a right to detach herself from it, but she cannot ask to kill it if it survives the procedure.
In my opinion, Thomson’s essay makes innovative points in defense of abortions. Being a woman, she can see inconsistencies in arguments of her opponents who often forget the impact of pregnancy on health. In the 1970s, the feminist movement was condemning the position that a woman’s body is just a house for a child, and she has to keep it because of moral obligations. Therefore, this essay addresses both ethical and feminist issues, proving that anti-abortion movement is anti-feministic.
I agree that anti-abortionists emphasize too much the fact that fetuses are persons. As Thomson has proved, people have the right to defend their lives from any person, whether it is adult or a fetus. Most of the points stated by opponents of abortions diminish the role of a woman, refusing her the right to own her body. Thomson offers a revolutionary argument that biological relationships do not mean that a person is obliged to take responsibility for a child. She has a right to make this decision, and nobody can violate it.
Overall, this essay opposes patriarchal views on motherhood and female body. Its imaginative use of thought experiments allows a reader to look at the situation from a unique perspective of a pregnant woman. It proves that women have the moral right to control their bodies and decide if they want to keep their pregnancies.
- Thomson, Judith Jarvis. “A Defense of Abortion.” Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 1, no. 1, 1971, pp. 47-66, www.jstor.org/stable/2265091. Accessed 10 November 2017.