On Judith Jarvis Thomson’s Defense of Abortion

25 Mar

For my ethics class, I’m required to read Judith Jarvis Thomson’s essay, “A Defense of Abortion” and write an informal reaction essay. It fit with the subject matter of this blog for the most part, so I’m posting it here. This is written with the assumption that you have read the essay being discussed. Also, I don’t necessarily agree with everything I say, but I needed to say it to expose weaknesses in Thomson’s argument. As this is not intended to be a philosophy blog, if it’s too jargon-y and hard to follow, let me know what’s unclear and I’ll try to explain stuff.

As Thomson predicts in part eight, I don’t feel like she takes the argument far enough. While I disagree with Mary Anne Warren’s definition of personhood (as was pointed out in class, her analysis of personhood is shallow and could arguably stretch to infanticide or to the killing of those with disabilities or those otherwise considered “less than” in society. Also, depending on how one defines various characteristics of her definition, one could argue that certain species of insect also fit Warren’s description of a being to be accorded human rights, which I also find problematic.), my views on the permissibility of abortion tend towards radically liberal. I’m uncomfortable with a defense of abortion that argues that abortion is permissible almost exclusively from the conception occuring from a rape. I worry that such an argument could influence legislation that permits abortion only in the extreme cases Thomson discusses, such as a case of rape or in the jeopardization of health of the mother. This, I feel, would violate the privacy of rape survivors and victims, as well as trivialize their experiences. I believe that it is unjust to require rape survivors to publicize their abuse, particularly in a society that often blames women for their own rapes. I also believe that when there declaring oneself raped is the only route to a legal abortion, rape reports may be falsified, giving survivors of sexual assault less care and quite possibly considered untrustworthy (I can think of several cases off the top of my head where survivors of rape are not believed, such as in Alice Sebold’s Lucky – and this is while abortion is legal in circumstances other than rape and health concerns).

I find Thomson’s concept of the Minimally Decent Samaritan appealing, but it seems to suffer from an arbitrariness objection – how does one define what is “minimally decent?” Why is an abortion to postpone a trip “indecent,” while abortions resulting from cases involving conception by rape are not? Also, I feel like this highlights a flaw within her violinist example, at least from a utilitarian standpoint.

Suppose you learn that what the violinist needs is not nine years of your life, but only one hour: all you need do to save his life is to spend one hour in that bed with him. Suppose also that letting him use your kidneys for that one hour would not affect your health in the slightest…[I]t seems to me plain you ought to allow him to use your kidneys for that hour–it would be indecent to refuse.

The analogy seems to fail here. Once the hour is up, there is nothing bonding the kidney donor to the violinist, but with pregnancy, even if the 9-month process were condensed into an hour-long process, the woman’s body is more involved with the infant. The role of pregnancy hormones should not be overlooked in the mother’s relationship to the child, and even if after birth the mother never sees the child again (such as in the case of a closed adoption), the mother often retains a painful attachment to the infant. There have been studies likening the high rates of suicide and psychological trauma on the part of birthmothers to post-traumatic stress disorder, which I don’t feel Thomson’s analogy of minimally decent behavior to the violinist covers. While it makes sense in a utilitarian sense to spend an hour hooked up to the violinist, the utilitarian’s calculation of greatest happiness would not be able to rationally extend this to pregnancy.

I feel similarly with the Henry Fonda example.  If it were Howard Hughes, famed agoraphobe and germophobe, whose hand upon Thomson’s brow would save her life, would Thomson be able to make the argument that it’s minimally decent for him to walk across the room and touch the germ-infested, potentially contagious brow of a dying woman, even though the chance is high that it would cause Hughes severe psychological harm? What if it’s Rogue from the X-Men series, who cannot touch others without causing them harm, and herself flagellating guilt? Does life, even though painful, constitute a greater pleasure than death? Or is it “indecent” of Thomson to consider it “self-centered [and] callous” to refuse to bear a child?


6 Responses to “On Judith Jarvis Thomson’s Defense of Abortion”

  1. James Gray March 25, 2009 at 3:51 am #

    I find privacy rights to be irrelevant because the law and morality need to remain separate. By law we have to let people do some immoral things in order to maintain human rights.

    In other words, if we are worried about morality dictating the law, then we might have to lie to ourselves, but that doesn’t make an immoral act into a permissible act.

  2. niemaodpowiedzi March 25, 2009 at 9:56 am #

    But don’t we need to examine the consequences of living in a society where morality is legislated? It would be difficult to argue that society doesn’t sanction morality through the law, not just in currently contentious debates such as the legal permissibility of abortion or same-sex marriage, but in cases that most view as immoral, such as murder or theft. Since it is not the case that we live in a society where morality is not legislated, I don’t feel that whether morality should be a part of the legal system or not is significant in my belief that if morality does factor into legal situations, it could interfere with the right to privacy.

    While morality (assuming morality is absolute) does not change whether it is legislated or not, I would argue that people’s opinions of morality change. Such as in the Ring of Gyges, when there are no negative sanctions on immoral behavior, people would not act from morality.

  3. James Gray March 25, 2009 at 7:04 pm #

    I’m not sure what you are saying. If you say, “Abortion is always permissible before the third trimester” because that is necessary in order to keep it legal, then you might have to lie about its moral status for political reasons. Abortion might need to be legal even if it is bad to do in specific circumstances.

  4. niemaodpowiedzi April 1, 2009 at 12:25 am #

    Ah, I see. I misunderstood what you meant by lying in your first comment.

    Yes, I agree that keeping it legal and accessible is my main desire – one case where I believe that the morality or lack thereof should be inconsequential in the legality.

  5. nedved September 19, 2009 at 12:21 am #

    First of all, I think that her analogy disregards the crucial difference between the obligation parents have to provide their children with normal and natural means of preservation (or some replacement), and the obligation that parents do not have to provide their children with artificial and extraordinary means of preservation.

    Imagine that a baby needed a bone marrow transfusion, and its mother was the only person around whose marrow type matched. Strictly speeaking, she would have no obligation to provide it with one. That is because bone marrow transplants are artificial and extraordinary.

    Now suppose that a baby was born into an environment in which there was no replacement available for its mother’s breast milk; the baby either breastfed, or starved to death. It would have a right to breastfeed, because breastfeeding is a normal and natural means of preserving your life. The mother could not refuse to allow her baby to do so.

  6. nohiddenmagenta February 6, 2010 at 9:10 am #

    Thought you might find this interesting…


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