Thomson on the Right to Life

Class notes for 25 April

Main Points

Most of the debate about the morality of abortion centers on whether fetuses are persons. Thomson maintains that this is irrelevant: showing that fetuses are persons is not enough to show that abortion is wrong.

The violinist is a person with the right to life. But it is not wrong to kill the violinist by unplugging him, she believes. If so, showing that the violinist is a person is not enough to show that killing the violinist is wrong.

The upshot of Thomson’s article is that we assume that the right to life is simple when, actually, it’s quite complex. Whether you think that she has solved the problem of abortion or not, you can take away the following, rather puzzling and very important, question: what does the right to life give one a right to have?

Class discussion

I thought that our discussion was carried out at an unusually high level of sophistication. Way to go!

We got off to a great start when Mimi noted that, while she favors abortion rights, she didn’t think Thomson’s argument supported that conclusion. She thought that most pregnancies are the result of a process that is more voluntary than the kidnapping that brought the violinist and “you” together. We’ll talk about that Thursday. But right now, I want to note the value of keeping the conclusion that you support distinct from the validity of arguments for that conclusion. Doing that is essential to keeping your wits about you when you’re talking about an emotionally fraught topic like abortion. Huzzah!

Liz thought that the relationship between mother and fetus/child is unlike the property relationships that Thomson uses as analogies. Also a good point. Also for Thursday. But I think that we encountered multiple examples of property analogies today that will help to make Liz’s point next time.

Most of the discussion directed by me was about what Thomson calls the “extreme view”. That is the view that killing is always wrong, even in order to save someone else’s life. In the cases at hand, it is the view that abortion is always wrong even if it is necessary in order to save the mother’s life.

Thomson’s argument against this is fairly simple: this conclusion doesn’t come from the right to life. The person threatening you has a right to life, but you are allowed to defend yourself. The violinist has the right to life, but you are allowed to kill him in order to disconnect yourself.

Things got complicated when we considered third parties. The idea here was that doctors have no good reason to prefer mothers over fetuses: both are innocents and both have their lives at stake, although only one can make her case to third parties. Italia didn’t think this made a difference: if the mother can defend herself, so can a third party. Bonnie, on the other hand, defended its relevance. Thomson was willing to grant that there might be a difference between acting in self-defense and acting as a third party. She denied that it makes a difference to the permissibility of abortion: doctors have good reasons to favor mothers and, at least, they should be permitted to take their side.

The right to control one’s body

Thomson puts a lot of pressure on the right to life. But that alone isn’t enough to show that there is a right to abortion. At most, it undermines an objection to abortion based on the right to life. In her scheme, the right to abortion falls under the right to control what happens in and to one’s body. What happens when we apply similar pressure to that right?

Sean suggested doing that and I followed up.

I said that this right has to be complex too; it isn’t the right to do anything in order to control what happens in and to your body. I can’t shoot Kara to keep her from bumping into me. Or even to keep her from sticking a clean, small needle into my arm.

As Nathana pointed out, there are lots of things my right to control what happens in and to my body does permit me to do. I can yell at Kara to stay away, I can put out my arm, I can step aside, I can run away, and so on.

So we have two classes of actions: those that are not permitted by the right to control what happens in and to your body and those that are.

What Thomson has to do is show that the ways of controlling what happens in and to your body used in abortions fall into the second class rather than the first.

I said that I didn’t think she had done this for two reasons. First, she didn’t try. Second, it seems to me that abortion opponents could make a reasonable case for saying that unplugging yourself from the violinist is not the same kind of act as most abortions are. Unplugging yourself from the violinist leaves the violinist physically intact, for instance, but most abortions (as I understand it) do not leave the fetus physically intact.

Thus it is possible, for all Thomson has shown, that there is no permissible way for mothers to control what happens in and to their bodies. It would be just as if the only means I had available to me to keep Kara from bumping into me would be to shoot her: I’m not allowed to do that, even though I have a right to control what happens to my body.

Note that I’m not saying that’s my own opinion, I’m just saying that Thomson hasn’t ruled it out and it appears to be a reasonable objection to her argument.