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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A Critique of Judith Jarvis Thomson's A Defense of Abortion, Part V

For part one of this series, you can go here. For part two, this is where you should be. For part three, follow this link. And here’s part four.


7. Do parents have a special responsibility to their offspring?


Throughout this series I have engaged Thomson’s analogies and found all of them to be lacking. I have established that Thomson, though she believes she does, really is not granting the pro-life view of personhood. I have argued that the violinist analogy (and the others) do not establish that women have the right to an abortion. And while I do believe abortion is still wrong and should be illegal in the case of rape, even if we grant that it should be legal in the case of rape you can’t get from “abortion should be legal in the case of rape” to “abortion should be legal under any and all circumstances.”


So she argues that the pro-life position doesn’t follow, that even if we grant the unborn is a person that doesn’t mean that abortion is wrong or should be illegal. But considering that her argument only works in the case of rape (which she admits several times in the article), I have shown that it does, in fact, follow that if the unborn are full human persons, then it is wrong and should be illegal to kill them. Of course the next step would be to argue that the unborn is not a person, but Thomson doesn’t take that route so I have not defended the position that they are.


So she takes one final stab at justifying her position, arguing that parents don’t actually have any sort of obligation to their children at all, only if they assume it. I am actually planning a future article on parental responsibility and how it pertains to the abortion issue, so I won’t say too much about it here. But I will say that her position here is simply reprehensible. I consider it quite obvious that a parent has a moral obligation to care for their children. She says they could assume responsibility, then once they take it home they cannot revoke it at the cost of her life because they now find it difficult to provide for it. But it’s not clear why they should be able to do this. If a parent could have their child killed while inside the womb, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t allow a child to be killed outside the womb. Presumably if a mother decides to keep her child but two months later while still in utero decides to revoke her parental obligation, I’m sure Thomson would have no problem with allowing her to have an abortion. So again, it goes back to bodily rights (since the only reason Thomson would say we should allow the death of the child in utero is because it is dependent upon her body and she is under no obligation to allow it continued use of her body). So again, the issue here is not one of parental responsibility -- either parents are responsible for their children inside and outside the womb, or parental responsibility is irrelevant and she should be allowed the right to refuse whether or not she assumed responsibility for it. And if we’re going to say that inside the womb one can revoke responsibility to care for a child at the cost of the child's life, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t allow it once the child is outside the womb.


Parental responsibility is not assumed, it is inherent by virtue of biology. As my friend Josh Brahm likes to say (and I’m paraphrasing), if your neighbor’s kid raids your fridge, you can have him arrested. But it makes no sense to call your own kid a thief if he raids your fridge.


That’s all I’ll say for now. I will say much more on this in the future.


8. Is Thomson’s position truly reasonable?


Thomson finishes off her essay with an appeal to our emotional side. She argues that her position is reasonable because she doesn’t argue that all abortions are permissible. Some would be positively indecent, such as a woman in her seventh month of pregnancy who wants the abortion just to avoid the nuisance of postponing a trip abroad. So we have some common ground there.


She argues that pro-life people are suspect because we treat all abortions where the woman’s life is not at stake (and some pro-lifers won’t even make that concession) the same. But think of what she’s saying. What if I was to criticize laws against murder because it treats all murderers the same, whereas while not all murders are permissible, there may be genuine times where we need to take a life in cold blood (say to make an example of would-be criminals for minor crimes)? If abortion truly is murder, if abortion is the intentional taking of innocent human life, then it is not unreasonable to argue that all, or at least the vast majority, of abortions are impermissible and should be illegal.


But there is another aspect to her statement. She says that we consider all abortions performed as morally on a par, but I really don’t think that’s true when you boil it down. For example, a woman who knows what her unborn child is but goes in for an abortion because she just doesn’t want kids, certainly is not morally on a par with the girl in Thomson’s example, the desperately frightened 14-year-old schoolgirl, pregnant due to rape. Not all killings are equal. That’s why our laws distinguish between murder and manslaughter, between different degrees of murder, premeditation and crimes of passion. Not all women who abort are morally on a par, but all abortions morally amount to the same thing -- the intentional killing of an innocent human being.


Finally Thomson makes the statement that once you unplug, you are not guaranteed the death of the violinist. If he miraculously survives the unplugging, you do not have the right to slit his throat. She, in effect, argues that the right to abortion carries with it the right of separation from the child, not the right of termination of its life. I disagree that there is a right to an abortion, but it seems reasonable that if a mother could separate herself from the child without killing her, then that would be better than killing her to have her removed. Christopher Kaczor discusses this at greater length in his book The Ethics of Abortion. But it seems to me that what Thomson is advocating is the right to slight the violinist’s throat before the separation, since Thomson supposedly endorses surgical abortions. Now as I have argued elsewhere, this isn’t the strongest rebuttal since there are methods of abortion that are more literally like unplugging than direct killing, such as the drug RU-486. But that drug didn’t come about until the 90’s, and to my knowledge there were no drugs that would simply “unplug” in the 70’s, when Thomson wrote her essay. So it seems that this confession equally works against her position.


Thomson finishes up by saying that she’s only been pretending (her word) that the unborn is a person from conception. She dismisses early abortions by claiming that it’s not a person at that time (though of course, she doesn’t support her assertion). So early abortions are not dealt with by anything in her essay. This is just strange, considering that she has been arguing that even if the zygote/embryo is a person abortion would still be permissible. This last statement just amounts to question-begging, by assuming that an early embryo is not a person.


I hope I’ve made it clear that Thomson’s essay certainly doesn’t justify abortions, especially abortions on demand. Her analogies do not hold up under scrutiny, especially the violinist analogy, which she is most well-known for. The reason that so much is written in the literature about whether or not the unborn is a person is because that is a crucial question that the abortion issue hinges on. If the unborn is not a person, then a woman should be able to get an abortion whenever and for whatever reason she wants to. If the unborn is a person, and has all the basic human rights you and I do, then abortions are impermissible and should be illegal.

12 comments:

ChristinaDunigan said...

One thing I'd never seen mentioned is that the Violinist is DYING from natural causes at the time the plugging-in takes place. He is at the end of his natural life. It would take a technological intervention to save him. To "unplug" is to return the violinist to his un-interfered-with state, that is, dying of kidney failure. To unplug is not to deprive him of life that is his, but to withhold a gift of additional life.

The fetus, on the other hand, is not in a naturally dying state at the end of her natural life. She is at the beginning of her natural life. If one does not interfere, the child can expect a lifespan of decades, perhaps even a century. It is intervention that robs the child of that natural lifespan.

To unplug from the violinist does not steal his life. To "unplug" from the unborn child does.

Clinton said...

I generally agree with you and I have used this argument before. However, I'm not sure dying of a kidney ailment is considered dying of natural causes (which is usually considered old age). When I use this argument, the common response is that in the same way you are allowing the violinist to die of a previous condition (the kidney ailment) and not actively killing him, if you unplug from the unborn child you are not actively killing him but allowing him to die of a previous condition, that is, not being developed enough to survive outside the womb. This does seem like a cop-out of a response to me, but I haven't been able to convincingly reply to this argument.


I usually respond by arguing that if that were the case, then we could justify murdering someone by dropping them off in Antarctica (or on the Moon!) without protective clothing or equipment, since we're not killing them we're just "allowing them to die from a previous condition of not having developed the capacity to survive in that environment," but this doesn't seem a very convincing response to those who use the first argument.


I'd be interested in hearing how you'd respond to that.

ChristinaDunigan said...

Again, though, you are not taking an action that deprives the Violinist of his life span. He has, independently of you, developed the kidney condition that is killing him. You have taken no action to place the Violinist in the moribund state, and if you unplug him you are simply returning him to his moribund state.

Abortion IS taking an action that deprives the fetus of her lifespan. The fetus is not in a moribund state. The ACTION of "unplugging" the fetus would create a moribund state that had not existed until the interference.

To abort and say that one is simply returning the unborn child to her natural condition of unviability is fatuous; dependence is normal for a human at that age. It is not a disease but is part of the normal maturation process. "Unplugging" her CREATES an unnatural situation.
It's a matter of remaining unmolested lifespan. Left to himself, provided only with the normal human needs of nutrition and oxygen and so on, the violinist can expect to die soon. Left to herself, provided with only the normal human needs of nutrition and oxygen and so forth, the fetus can expect decades of life span. One is DISRUPTING this natural lifespan by aborting.

The closest actual parallel to pregnancy would be Lori and George Schapell, conjoined twins. George is smaller and disabled and dependent upon Lori for many things.
If Lori just decided that she'd had enough of Lori using her body to provide her with transportation and so on, and demanded "unplugging" by dividing their entangled brains in such a way that every choice of how to go forward favors Lori, George will die. Does Lori have a right to demand this?

What if a doctor did an MRI and discovered that if he implanted a structure in George's brain, within a few months George would be able to be safely separated from Lori, should Lori be required to wait until George can survive before demanding the separation?
Would they argue that Lori has a right to "unplug" George and cause his death? Would they argue that Lori had no obligation to wait until George could survive independently?

THIS is more akin to pregnancy than a moribund hypothetical violinist. Lori and George are real and George is healthy and can expect many years of life if not "unplugged" by his sister.

Clinton said...

Thank you for your response.

Coyote said...

"Parental
responsibility is not assumed, it is inherent by virtue of biology. As
my friend Josh Brahm likes to say (and I’m paraphrasing), if your
neighbor’s kid raids your fridge, you can have him arrested. But it
makes no sense to call your own kid a thief if he raids your fridge."

I disagree with this assumption. I don't think that someone should be forced to help and/or support someone else simply because both of them have very similar DNA/chromosomes/whatever. As for raiding one's fridge, that is a poor analogy, since if you do not have custody of your child (and your child is not living with you), it (probably) is possible to have your child arrested for raiding your fridge. And No, I don't think/believe that a parent should automatically (regardless of whether or not this parent consented to the creation of this child) be forced to assume custody of his/her child and/or be forced to let his/her child live with him/her.

Coyote said...

The Siamese twins analogy is a poor one since both of them have equal claims to their shared organs. Also, dependency on someone else to survive is not normal for someone who is 50+ years old.

Coyote said...

Also, I don't see the relevance of the distinction between someone who is currently using your body previously dying vs. someone who is currently using your body previously not existing at all. One can use a similar rationale to say that since the fetus never existed at all before he/she became conceived and "attached" to your body, by unplugging the fetus one would simply make the fetus stop existing (again, since the fetus previously didn't exist).

Coyote said...

"This does seem like a cop-out of a response to me, but I haven't been able to convincingly reply to this argument."

How exactly is this a cop-out?

"I usually respond by arguing that if that were the case, then we could
justify murdering someone by dropping them off in Antarctica (or on the
Moon!) without protective clothing or equipment, since we're not killing
them we're just "allowing them to die from a previous condition of not
having developed the capacity to survive in that environment," but this
doesn't seem a very convincing response to those who use the first
argument."

And then they can respond that the body is more personal than one's boat or spaceship or whatever, and/or that the boat/spaceship/et cetera situation is a "locational" conflict of rights (meaning that the person who is stuck on your property would survive if he/she was somhow hypothetically transported to a certain different location right now), while the pregnancy in the case of rape situation is not a "locational" conflict fo rights, since there is nowhere else that the fetus can survive at that moment (unless the fetus is already viable, of course).

Clinton said...

Arguing that the unborn are dying from a prior condition of not being developed enough is a cop-out of a response, since they're not dying of "not developed enough," whereas the violinist *is* dying of the kidney ailment.

Being more personal does not mean that killing the person is suddenly justified. Besides, if artificial womb technology ever becomes a reality, a woman would not be justified in killing the unborn child, even though it's intruding upon her body. And simply saying "well, there's an alternative to killing the child" isn't good enough, as there is an alternative now (she can carry the child to term). If she can kill the child now, then she could also decide to kill the child rather than transfer her safe and sound to an artificial womb. And not even Judith Jarvis Thomson would agree with that.

ChristinaDunigan said...

Let's look at it in terms of taking away.

The violinist is moribund. His days are numbered. You can make a GIFT to extend those days, but your decision to not-hook-up is not a decision to TAKE from him those days that he has left. Left unmolested he will die of the kidney disease.

The baby is not moribund. He or she has an entire future of value ahead that you would be taking away by "unplugging" them. Left unmolested he or she would grow up and have a life.

Coyote said...

"Arguing that the unborn are dying from a prior condition of not being
developed enough is a cop-out of a response, since they're not dying of
"not developed enough," whereas the violinist *is* dying of the kidney
ailment."

Well, unlike the Violinist, they haven't been dying yet, but they will be dying due to their lack of development if they are unplugged alive.

"Being more personal does not mean that killing the person is suddenly justified."

I agree with you on this part; I was simply saying that this is what some people will say.

"Besides, if artificial womb technology ever becomes a reality, a woman
would not be justified in killing the unborn child, even though it's
intruding upon her body."

I agree with you on this part, as long as unborn children are considered persons/worthy of rights at that point in time.

"And simply saying "well, there's an alternative to killing the child"
isn't good enough, as there is an alternative now (she can carry the
child to term). If she can kill the child now, then she could also
decide to kill the child rather than transfer her safe and sound to an
artificial womb. And not even Judith Jarvis Thomson would agree with
that."

I meant that there is an alternative *location* in the boat/spaceship scenario where the other person can survive without intruding on your rights. As you said, there would be an alternative *location* for nonviable unborn children once artificial wombs are developed, but there isn't one yet.

Coyote said...

I get the part about fetuses' bodies functioning properly while the Violinist's body is not functioning properly. However, I don't see why this is relevant. One can easily make a claim that a raped woman is giving a gift to her prenatal offspring if she decides to continue letting him/her/it use her body and thus dramatically extend its lifespan. Also, in the Violinist scenario you are not simply choosing not to hook up--rather, you are already hooked up to him, and unplugging him will cause his death (whereas not doing anything will cause him to remain alive).

As a side note, I am glad that many pro-lifers oppose the rape exception. I think that while male victims of rape (including statutory rape) are forced to pay child support, raped women should be unable to get abortions (unless their lives and/or health is seriously threatened, of course).