Criticisms of Thomson Notes for September 15

Main points

We talked about two ways of challenging Thomson’s argument.

First, the violinist example involves kidnapping. That raises the question of whether it only establishes that abortion could be legitimate in cases of rape but not when pregnancy is the result of voluntary intercourse.

Second, the violinist example seems to involve, at most, allowing the violinist to die rather than killing him. Abortion, by contrast, involves killing the fetus. If it is significantly worse to kill someone than it is to let someone die, as many of us believe, then the violinist example may not be enough to establish Thomson’s conclusion that there is a right to abortion. There may be a right to disconnect the violinist but no right to abortion since the latter is much worse than the former.

Assessing the voluntariness objection

The main challenge with the question about voluntariness lies in finding the right analogy. Thomson’s discussion assumes that the right analogy is with voluntary agreements like contracts or promises. For example, you surrender your right to your money to me and I surrender my right not to mow your lawn to you. It seems obvious to me that this sort of case is irrelevant for our purposes. There is no fetus around to be granted any rights and, in any event, that’s certainly not what is being done when people have voluntary sexual intercourse. (At least, that’s what I’ve been told.)

A better analogy was suggested by Sung, Elan, and Emma: tort law, the part of the law governing one party’s ability to gain compensation for injuries caused by another party. If A is responsible for B’s injuries, then B has a right to compensation from A. In this case, the suggestion went, the fetus would have a right to demand sustanence from the pregnant woman, having been put in the extremely vulnerable condition of depending on her for its very physical existence.

This led to a discussion of our general responsibility for bearing the costs of accidents and other foreseeable risks.

What about the right to control your body?

In Thomson’s article, the right to control one’s body is not subjected to nearly as much scrutiny as the right to life is. But someone who believes in a right to abortion will have to defend this right as well as disarming opposing rights.

We talked a bit about whether showing that an action would be wrong also shows that we don’t have a right to do it. I said that I thought Thomson was of two minds about this. The boy who hoards the chocolate behaves wrongly but is still exercising his rights as the owner of the chocolates. It’s wrong to hoard, but he has a right to do so. On the other hand, Thomson clearly allows the state to regulate ‘indecent’ behavior. There, it seems to me, she’s going the other way: because it would be wrong to behave indecently, you have no right to do so. She just maintains that most cases of abortion don’t involve indecent behavior, at least when measured against the standards we apply in all other areas of life.

Finally, I interpreted Robert’s remarks about the difference between killing the fetus and letting the violinist die as a claim about the means you are allowed to take in order to reach a legitimate goal. For instance, our behavior strongly suggests that we think that you are allowed to let people die in order to save for college but you aren’t allowed to kill someone in order to take his money for college. Going to college is a legitimate end, but you can only take some means in order to achieve it. The question is whether abortion involves a permissible means to the legitimate end of controlling what happens to your body.

Robert and Richard debated whether it can be proper to describe abortion as merely letting the fetus die. Richard described a fictional abortion technique as simply letting the fetus die from lack of nutrition. Robert, however, thought it was significant that the violinist was going to die prior to your injection on the scene. The same is not true for the fetus: but for medical intervention it would have lived.

This debate may not matter in the end, since the techniques of abortion that we actually possess are very different from those that Richard imagined. If so, people in our society might not be able to use Richard’s argument to defend the practice of abortion against Robert’s challenge.

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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