10/02/2005

moralhealth.com :: Judith Jarvis Thomson and Abortion

Judith Jarvis Thomson’s essay “A Defense of Abortion” (Philosophy & Public Affairs (1971)) is perhaps the most famous essay on the subject ever to have been written. It is a masterful and ingenious piece of philosophical writing that continues to inspire discussion some three decades later. But what exactly did she establish? Many seem to think that her argument establishes that abortion upon deman is justified. Not so..

The essence of her argument is that a fetus’s having a right to life is not thereby incompatible with removing it from the womb, even if a consequence of doing so is that the fetus die..

What most surely does not follow from Thomson’s thesis is that abortion is always justified. And Thomson herself never claims that abortion is always justified. In fact, she is explicit in stating that there are times when a woman does what is indecent in having an abortion. So she did not think that she was arguing for the view that abortion is always justified. Her concern was to make the case for abortion in instances other than rape, even if we allow that the fetus has a right to life; for the standard view among a great many people has been that abortion is justified in the case of rape. ..

Thomson’s argument is essentially a two-pronged argument: (i) a woman can remove the fetus if the fetus will harm her and (ii) a woman will remove the fetus if she has taken reasonable precautions and the fetus “implants” itself in her uterus nonetheless. Whether or not one think that she has made the case for either (i) or (ii), the simple truth is that jointly they do not entail that (iii) a woman is always, no matter what, justified in removing a fetus from her womb.

For instance, (i) and (ii) do not entail that a woman who refuses to take precautions is justified in removing the fetus from her womb. There may some other argument that establishes this. However, there is absolutely nothing in Thomson’s argument that does. Some people think that the fetus has no more moral value than a piece of human fingernail. This, obviously, is a very interesting view. But this view is not Thomson’s nor is it entailed by her anything that she in fact says in her famous essay; for the argument presupposes that the fetus has a right to life; and piece of fingernail most surely does not qualify in that regard.

In a word, Thomson argued that (a) the fetus’s having a right to life is compatible with (b) the fetus being an undue burden that no woman should be morally expected to bear. Claim I. Self-defense is the obvious case. Even if the potential threat is morally innocent, a person may protect herself from the threat, though a consequence of this should be the death of the innocent threat. Claim II. The next move is about taking reasonable precautions. And that argument is that a who woman who takes reasonable precautions should not be morally required to bring a fetus to term.

No one really dispute the soundness of Claim I. However, there is no logical connection at all between Claim I and Claim II. That is, a person could with perfect consistency accept the first claim whilst rejecting the second one. ..

Without a doubt, Thomson brilliantly undercut a certain kind of pro-life argument in her essay "A Defense of Abortion". It is a mistake, though, to suppose that she thereby established that abortion upon demand is justified. This latter view is, of course, is a very interesting philosophical one, which (for all I know) can be established as sound. Alas, it is not one that is rightly attributed to Judith Jarvis Thomson. Nor is it a view that is a consequence of what she actually says..

Laurence,

I'm not so sure Thomson takes this view,

"For instance, (i) and (ii) do not entail that a woman who refuses to take precautions is justified in removing the fetus from her womb. There may some other argument that establishes this. However, there is absolutely nothing in Thomson’s argument that does."

The women who takes no precautions is analogous to the person who leaves her windows open and has someone fall in through her open window. You recall of course that this is Thomson's example. She urges that person who falls through has no right to stay, though you have taken no precautions at all and you knew that people (in her case, burglers) sometimes "burgle". She doesn't say, but presumably they can be led out, even if they correctly plead that they cannot survive outside your home. To paraphrase Thomson, it would be nice of you to let them stay, but they have no right to your home. So I think that even in cases where you have taken no precautions, the person has no right to stay.
This is consistent with her view in Risks and Rights that taking an unsafe way home from work--knowing full well that there are sometimes muggers on the route--does not give the muggers a right to mug you, though you took no precautions...

Lawrence replies
I do not think that any pregnancy owing to the failure to use contraceptives entails that abortion is wrong. That is why I wrote entry "Doing the Right thing for the Wrong Reasons". In any case, the analogy is very dangerous. We already have the rather warranted intuition that coming into a house uninvited is an invasion of privacy. Period. The trick is to get pregnancy owing to the failure to use contraceptives analogous to coming into a house uninvited in a way that makes the pregnancy analogous to an invasion of privacy.,,

Further, if we take seriously the right to life claim of the fetus, then it becomes rather irresponsible not to use contraceptives in order to prevent pregnancy, knowing that one might bring an innocent person into the world and then dispose of it.

moralhealth.com :: Judith Jarvis Thomson and Abortion

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