On the Permissibility of Abortion: A Critique of Judith Jarvis Thomson
Assignment for Philosophy 100

©2001 Zhan Huan Zhou

Abortion is one of most controversial topics today. There exists the extreme pro-life movement proclaiming that the life of the fetus always outweighs the life of the mother and thus abortion is impermissible. On the other extreme is the pro-choice movement stating that the mother’s autonomy always outweighs the life of the fetus and thus the mother can decide on an abortion. In the middle ground, the mother’s autonomy sometimes outweighs the life of fetus, depending on the circumstances. However, the set of circumstances are vague and ill defined. Judith Jarvis Thomson clearly outlines a set of circumstances in which abortion is permissible. These circumstances are discussed in the following paragraphs.

Thomson first assumes that a fetus is human from the time of conception. Despite the fact that she does not agree with this conclusion, it simplifies her arguments because it is difficult to draw the line exactly when a fetus becomes a human being. Furthermore, this fact is largely irrelevant to her arguments.

The first scenario Thomson describes is the case when the pregnancy is life-threatening to the mother. She argues that a woman should at least be able to defend herself from a threat to her life. Thus, out of self-defence, the mother should be able to have an abortion. However, since she cannot perform an abortion on herself, she requires help from a third party. Critics may argue that a third party should not interfere with the situation because he cannot choose between the life of the mother and the fetus. In Thomson’s eyes, this argument is invalid because the body clearly belongs to the mother so to say that a third party cannot decide is ludicrous. The third party can always choose, however, he may not always act. So in situations where the life of the mother is in danger, abortions should be allowed.

The next set of arguments by Thomson assumes that the health of the mother is not in danger and questions the rights of the fetus. She suggests that even if the fetus has a right to life, it does not have the right to use someone else’s body. Using the example of the violinist who is using your kidneys, she argues that even though his life depends on you, he has no right to use them. Even if we have no right to unplug him, you have the right to do so. This leads into the discussion of unjust killings. Does unplugging the violinist from you kill him unjustly? Thomson does not think so. She says that the violinist had no right to use your kidneys from the onset, so you would not be killing him unjustly by unplugging him. Furthermore, in the case of rape, the woman never gave any right to anyone, so an abortion cannot be considered an unjust killing. Her bottom line is that we do not have the right not to be killed, but rather the right not to be killed unjustly. Even in the case where a pregnancy was caused by faulty birth control methods, she argues that the fetus still has no rights since the mother did not desire it. It must be emphasized that she does not establish that all abortions are unjust killings. Abortion is not unjust killing if the mother did not wish to have a baby and therefore the fetus has no right to life.

Finally, she argues for abortion on the grounds of moral arguments. Some may think that the woman has a moral obligation to the child. She ought to keep the child because it is morally correct. However, does this ought necessarily translate into a right? Thomson disagrees. Even if the woman ought to take a certain course of action, this does not automatically give rights to the fetus. Even if pregnancy lasts only one hour, the fetus still does not any rights despite the fact that she ought to keep the child. Furthermore, asking the mother to keep the child to her detriment is asking her to be Good Samaritan, perhaps even a Splendid Samaritan. There are not even laws governing that we should be Minimally Decent Samaritans. Pro-life advocates are asking women to go above and beyond their moral obligations in society to carry a child, even if it is to the detriment or health. So, even though morally, a woman ought to carry the child, this does not translate into a right for the fetus thus abortion is permissible.

Like, Thomson, I agree that abortion is permissible in certain situations, but my criteria are quite different. I agree that the mother has every right to an abortion if the pregnancy was a result of rape or if the pregnancy endangered the health of the mother. I disagree with Thomson on virtually every other point. The remainder of the paper raises two objections to Thomson’s arguments.

Thomson fails to acknowledge the rights of the other party involved with the pregnancy, the father. Consider a situation where a husband and wife plan a pregnancy. A little while later, the mother discovers that she cannot cope with the pregnancy. The stress is too much for her to handle so she wants to have an abortion. However, what happens if the husband disagrees with his wife’s choice? Since the pregnancy was planned by the two of them and only came into being because of the union of the two, does the husband not also have a right in this situation? According to Thomson’s argument, it is permissible for the wife to have an abortion regardless of what the husband says. Now consider instead of the couple planning a pregnancy, they had decided to purchase a new car with each contributing to exactly half the cost so that they share the car equally. Now suppose that the wife is unsatisfied with the car and decides to sell it one day while her husband is at work. The husband comes home from work later that day to find the car gone. Does the wife have the authority to simply sell the car without her husband’s permission? I would certainly hope not. Since they both shared equally in the purchase of the car, both the husband and wife should agree before selling the car. However, using Thomson’s line of reasoning, the wife has full right to sell the car. One might argue that a pregnancy is different because the wife carries the fetus and so it affects her more than the husband. I disagree because I believe that the pregnancy affects both parents more or less equally from a mental and emotional perspective. I will however concede that there exist physical disparities of the two parties during the pregnancy. It is assumed that the wife was fully aware of the consequences when she agreed to become pregnant therefore ignorance is not a valid reason to have an abortion. This premise is examined further later in this paper. I posit that abortion may be permissible if both the husband and wife agree. Alternative action must be taken if the dispute is unresolved. Legally, it might be argued that that the husband and wife entered a sort of binding contract when they agreed to conceive a child so the wife is obligated to bear the child, even to her distress. This is similar to a company paying out damages due to breach of contract, even if the company will suffer. There is plenty of legal precedent in this matter. Even if it is not considered a binding contract, action can be taken under tort law. One would hope that a married couple would never have to face such a situation. I would hope that the can couple reach an understanding with each other and both agree on a solution. However, in the case of a disagreement, the rights of the wife cannot simply overshadow the rights of the husband.

Two possible objections arise from the scenario I described above. First is the question if the parents are not married. Does it follow that even if there is no legal binding between the mother and father that the permissibility of abortion depends on both parties? Although there is no legal binding between the man and woman, it is in my opinion that the same consideration should be given as if the two are indeed married. This is an issue that should be resolved by the parents. If the issue must be brought to a court of law, I believe that the woman should win, not based on moral grounds, but simply on legal grounds. The woman then is solely responsible for her decision to have an abortion. The permissibility of her abortion is then subject solely on criteria relating to her.

The second objection that may arise is in the case of an unplanned pregnancy. In this situation, I do not think that abortion is permissible. Even if the pregnancy was caused by faulty contraceptive methods, I still believe that abortion is impermissible, unless of course, the mother’s life is at risk. I do not believe that abortion should be accepted as a form of birth control. Thomson would have you believe otherwise. In her example of drifting people-seeds, she suggests that the only sure way to prevent accidentally having one take root is to live “with bare floors and furniture, or with sealed windows and doors” (pg. 171). She likens this to having a hysterectomy or a (reliable!) army to prevent a pregnancy due to rape. However, her analogy is incorrect; she even admits that “it is not as if there were unborn persons drifting in the world” (pg. 170). By virtue of this fact, it can be safely assumed that pregnancy is not a completely random process. Quite the contrary, a woman usually has the choice of indulging in intercourse or not. Furthermore, such a woman is usually fully aware of the possible consequences. Knowing these consequences, she and her partner may decide to use contraceptives or other forms of birth control to reduce the chance of a pregnancy. Thomson argues that in the case of faulty equipment, the woman is not responsible for the resulting pregnancy. I disagree. The woman was fully aware of the consequences. Even if she uses a means of birth control, she knows that there is a chance of a resulting pregnancy. She has the option to engage in intercourse or not. If she takes the risk knowing all the consequences, she should be held fully liable to the fetus. It is then her moral obligation to keep the child. If the woman cannot deal with the possibility of being a mother, she should adapt a lifestyle of abstinence and refrain from intercourse to avoid all possibility. This is the only guaranteed form of birth control. I do not think that abortion should be used a method birth control in the case of unplanned pregnancies.

Thomson argues for the permissibility of abortion on the grounds of endangering the life of the mother, the rights of the fetus, and moral obligations. An abortion should be allowed if the pregnancy is threatening the life of the mother. A fetus does not have rights if the mother did not desire the pregnancy therefore abortion does not constitute an unjust killing. Finally, to ask a woman to carry a child is asking her to perform above and beyond her moral obligations to society. I agree with Thomson that abortion should be allowed if the life of the mother is in jeopardy. I also agree that abortion is permissible if the pregnancy is a result of rape. However, I do not think that abortion is permissible in an unplanned pregnancy, even if birth control is used. Since the woman chose to engage in intercourse she is accepting all the risks and consequences thereby giving rights to the fetus and she is morally obligated to keep the child.

With notes from "Reason at Work," Cahn et al, Third edition, 1996.


©1996-2001 Zhan Huan Zhou. Last updated May-01-2001.

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