Thomson on abortion Notes for September 14–16

Main points

The abortion debate, for the most part, concerns whether a fetus is a person with the right to life. Thomson aims to show that this is not as important a question as it seems to be. She maintains that abortion would be permitted even if the answer is yes.

Her strategy for showing this is straightforward. Imagine a case that is very much like pregnancy but has two unusual features. First, both parties are adults with the full right to life. Second, it will strike most people as obvious that one person can kill the other in order to regain control over his or her body. The case, of course, is the violinist.

In my opinion, she succeeded in her goal. She has shown that questions about the right to abortion are not settled by establishing that fetuses have the right to life. Of course, whether that amounts to a full fledged defense of the right to abortion depends on more than this. That’s what we talked about.


One of the main weaknesses that many people find in Thomson’s argument concerns voluntariness. The violinist case involves kidnapping but most abortions do not involve force in the same way.

It’s very hard to make out a clear argument here one way or the other.

For starters, it’s hard to construe voluntary sexual intercourse as giving a non-existent third party, namely, a future fetus, the right to use one’s body. That’s bizarre. So there’s no simple granting of rights.

The more plausible story involves something like liability. If you voluntarily, knowingly put someone at risk, you’re sometimes liable for the costs they bear. We tried several examples and couldn’t find any that cleanly seemed like pregnancy. But that negative result didn’t mean we could dismiss the idea either.

One thing that did seem clear is that this whole line of argument is a significant departure from the argument we began with. That argument turned on the fetus’s right to life and the right to life doesn’t obviously depend on how one’s life begins. In looking at such factors, we’re leaving the right to life to one side.

Is there a right to abortion?

Abortion might still be wrong even if the right to life doesn’t outweigh the right to control what happens in and to one’s body. We talked about two reasons why this might be so.

First, it might be so if the high standards of Good Samaritanism apply to pregnant women. Thomson points out that these standards are not applied in any other walk of life. I noted that they are applied to parents but Alex replied that this could well be because parents voluntarily assume the relevant duties. This is interesting. Opponents of abortion may well think of parenthood as a natural relationship, beyond our voluntary control. Thomson, by contrast, thinks of it as something that should be brought as much under our control as possible.

Second, opponents of abortion might argue that abortion involves illegitimate means to achieve an otherwise legitimate end. By analogy, to borrow from Danny, getting a burglar out of my house is a legitimate goal. But it does not follow that I can use any means at my disposal to achieve this goal.

Similarly, an opponent of abortion might concede that if abortion involve simply unplugging oneself, as in the violinist case, it would be a legitimate means to a legitimate end of controlling what happens in and to one’s body. But since this is not so, abortion as we actually know it is not legitimate and there is no right to abortion.

I don’t mean to say that I think this is true. I don’t mean to deny it either. I’m just pointing out that this is an argumentative option that Thomson did not obviously close off. Those who wish to take up that option, or those who wish to close it off, have to do all the work.

Lessons about rights

Leave abortion aside. What did we learn about rights? I think that we learned at least two things.

First, rights do not involve simple weighing of interests. If they did, then there would be no right to unplug yourself from the violinist.

Second, the relationship between right and wrong is complex. You might think that if you have a right to do something then it would not be wrong to do it. But that’s not the case. The boy who greedily eats all of his chocolates is acting within his rights but what he does is wrong. They’re his chocolates, but he’s still being a greedy twerp.

Many of the questions we took up at then end involved asking whether someone could lack the right to do something because it would be wrong. Does Henry Fonda lack the right to refuse to walk across the room to save my life? Would I lack the right to walk past the drowning child?

I don’t know exactly what Thomson thinks of this question. On the one hand, she is keen to insist that we sometimes have rights to do things that are wrong. On the other hand, she seems to allow that there could be legal restrictions on some so-called indecent behavior, such as terminating a pregnancy very late for the sake of taking a trip. I assume that the legal restrictions are allowable only if they would not violate anyone’s individual rights. If Thomson agrees, then I think she is committed to saying that there is no right to that kind of indecent behavior.

This page was written by Michael Green for Problems of Philosophy, Philosophy 1, Fall 2009. It was posted September 18, 2009.
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