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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?