Thomson’s argument

Notes for September 12

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.

Our discussion

Sam led things off by noting a weakness of the strategy: if you don’t agree about the violinist, the argument doesn’t move forward. Cyrus tagged on by adding that the right to control your body isn’t absolute and that he didn’t think it would always give you permission to unplug yourself from the violinist. We’ll address these points in the second half of Tuesday’s class.

We talked at length about whether the right to life meant that people have the right never to be killed. After discussing some of the problems with science fiction examples, such as the house-busting baby, we settled on what looks like a pretty good reply. The right of self-defense gives someone the right to kill even an innocent threat to one’s life. If remaining hooked up to the violinist would be fatal …

Then we talked about how to extend Thomson’s point from cases of self-defense to cases that are more typical of abortion: those that involve third parties and an interest less weighty than saving life. Again, the violinist example did most of the work for Thomson with the latter issue. As for the question about third parties, like doctors, I said that I thought her view was that they are permitted, though not required, to help others defend their rights. So if a woman’s right to control her body gives her the right to abortion, a doctor could permissibly perform the abortion procedure in defense of the woman’s right. This is a little speculative, as she chiefly addressed third parties in cases where the woman’s life is at stake. But that is how she described her view towards the end of the article, on p. 64.

Next time

We closed with two problems for next time.

Kai noted that there is an apparent difference between the violinist case and most cases of abortion: the violinist case involves kidnapping whereas most pregnancies are not the result of violence and coercion.

We also have the problem from Sam and Cyrus hanging over us: what if you think that the right to control your body does not extend to having the right to withdraw it from the violinist (or a fetus)? Franklin added some detail to a way of putting this sort of point. He noted that in the violinist case you would just leave the violinist to die; the kidney ailment would kill him, not you. But that’s not the way abortion works. It typically involves killing the fetus. Is it obvious that our right to control our bodies extends to killing in these sorts of cases as opposed to letting people die?

We will talk about both problems next week. You’ll want to read the last half of Thomson’s article in preparation.

Key concepts

  1. The violinist case and the basic argument against abortion.
  2. The relationship between interests and rights.
This page was written by Michael Green for Problems of Philosophy, Philosophy 1, Fall 2013. It was posted September 12, 2013.
Problems of Philosophy