Thomson’s argument Notes for September 13

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 does not settle the matter of whether there is a right to abortion. Even if fetuses are people with the right to life, she maintains, abortion may still be permissible.

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. This, of course, is the case of the person attached to the sick violinist.

In my opinion, she succeeded in showing that questions about the right to abortion are not settled by establishing that fetuses have the right to life. But there are many legitimate questions about whether she has shown that there is a right to abortion.

Our discussion

We talked at great length about what would have to be done to establish some version of the so-called “Extreme View” that abortion is impermissible even to save the mother’s life.

Teddy pointed out that Thomson’s discussion of rights is very different from what we might expect from Singer. Thomson tries to show that we should not simply balance interests in deciding what is right or wrong. Singer, by contrast, seems to insist that this is precisely what we should do. I say “seems” because, as Tena pointed out, Singer actually favors abortion rights. It would be interesting to see if his reason is that the balance of interests (nearly?) always favors the person wanting the abortion. I take it that’s the thrust of the argument Tena mentioned, that fetuses don’t have interests at all if they aren’t thinking beings. If so, there would only be one set of interests to weigh in the balance.

Efe and Robert pointed us to the topics of our discussion in the next class. Efe noted that one apparent difference between the violinist case and most cases of abortion is that the person who is connected to the violinist was kidnapped while the predicament of the person connected to the fetus is usually the result of a more voluntary process. Does that make a significant difference?

Robert argued that the violinist case involved allowing the violinist to perish from his kidney disease. In disconnecting yourself, you leave him alive but on his own. He is sure to die, but you haven’t killed him; it’s the disease that’s going to do that. Abortion seems different. It involves direct killing (assuming that the fetus is a living being, of course). Does that make a difference? Would it enable an opponent of abortion to grant that it’s OK to disconnect the violinist while consistently holding that it’s not OK to have an abortion?

We will talk about both questions next time.

This page was written by Michael Green for Problems of Philosophy, Philosophy 1, Fall 2010. It was posted September 16, 2010.
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