The right to abortion Notes for September 13

Main points

Tom best articulated the theme of the day: what are rights? Well, it’s the theme of the article, really. We don’t have a complete answer, but we have a start in thinking about some of the issues.

Specifically, we started with talking about when irresponsible or negligent behavior has the effect of limiting your rights or giving someone else new rights against you. My negligent driving may give you a right to sue me to cover your hospital bills. My risky sky-diving may compromise my right to make a claim against my insurance company for my hospital bills.

The only conclusion I can draw from the flurry of cases surrounding voluntary behavior is that we don’t rely on the distinction between voluntary and involuntary behavior to decide when rights have been altered. We use something like the distinction between responsible and negligent behavior. Is sexual intercourse irresponsible per se? Perhaps it isn’t, but those who indulge in it are still responsible for the consequences if pregnancy results.

Then we turned to the other right in the Basic Argument Against Abortion: the right to control what happens in and to your body. I think there’s a subtle flip in the article. The first half to two-thirds does a wonderful job with the question “what does the right to life give one a right to have?”

It seems to me that the remainder of the article drifts into a different question: “what does the right to control what happens in and to one’s body give one a right to do?”

Answering the first question is relevant to saying whether the right to life shows that abortion is wrong. It’s the second question, however, that is relevant to the broader question suggested by the title of the article: is there a right to abortion?

Wrongs and rights

We started with this distinction. An action may be wrong because it violates someone else’s rights or it may be wrong even though it does not violate someone else’s rights.

How might one argue that abortion is wrong even if it doesn’t violate the fetus’s rights? We looked at three possibilities. It might be selfish. It might be indecent (which may well be a case of selfishness — I haven’t thought that through). Or it might be an impermissible means to defending the right to control one’s body.

In other words, there are at least these three options open to opponents of abortion even if they grant that the violinist example shows that the right to life doesn’t explain why abortion is wrong.

Thomson concentrates on indecency. She concedes that there could be legitimate legal restrictions on some, ‘indecent’ abortions. These might prohibit late abortions for weak reasons, such as wanting to take a trip. (A strong reason would be something like “I may die”).

Are all abortions like this? She appeals to other social practices in reply. We don’t require people to do more than help others at minimal cost to themselves in any other realm. The most we require of people is that they be what she calls “minimally decent” samaritans. We don’t require anyone to undergo anything at all like hard physical sacrifice for nine months simply to save someone else’s life. According to Thomson, this shows that a ban on abortion would go far beyond requiring decent behavior. It would require a unique degree of sacrifice for the sake of others.

An opponent of abortion may say that Thomson’s assumption is false. We do require ‘good’ samaritanism in at least one area of life. We are very strict about what parents must do for their children.

And the relationship between mother and fetus, according to abortion opponents, is just that. It’s the relationship between a parent and a child. Just as a parent’s right to control what happens in and to his body does not give him the liberty to abuse his child, the pregnant woman’s right to control her body does not give her the right to abort hers. There’s nothing exceptional about this kind of required sacrifice, an opponent of abortion may insist. Does Thomson have an answer?

This page was written by Michael Green for Problems of Philosophy, Philosophy 1, Fall 2006.
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