The purpose of this blog series, which began yesterday, is to introduce some notable contributions made by moral philosophers to our understanding of the ethics of abortion, while pointing out some of the links between that topic and the website’s overarching theme of ‘saving humans’. In the first post, I began to discuss Judith Thomson’s seminal paper, ‘A Defense of Abortion’, with its memorable violinist example. In this post, I set out in more detail what Thomson takes this thought experiment to show, and point to some disanalogies between using your body to support a violinist and a woman’s being pregnant that have been taken by Thomson’s critics to fatally undermine her case. The discussion of Thomson concludes tomorrow.
As we saw last time, Thomson’s argument aims to show that pro-life opposition to abortion rests on a mistake. But whereas most supporters of abortion choice focus on attempting to unseat the pro-life claim that fetuses are persons with a right to life, Thomson’s strategy is the different, and innovative one of challenging the assumption that if the fetus is a person with a right to life, then terminating a pregnancy must be morally wrong. That assumption, according to Thomson, is unwarranted, since it ignores the fact that there are limits to the sacrifices that individuals can be expected to make through the use of their bodies for the sake of others, even when the latter are full persons and rights-holders.
At the core of Thomson’s case to that effect is the violinist example. The violinist is undoubtedly a person, with a right to life. And he needs the use of your body (more specifically, your kidneys) to continue to live. Yet, as the vast majority of people find, on consulting their intuitions about the violinist case, he lacks a right to be given what he needs, given the sacrifices that you would have to bear to support him. It would not be unjust, most of us think, either for you to unplug yourself to escape the burdens involved in continuing to aid the violinist, or for a third party, acting as your agent, to do the unplugging for you. By analogy, according to Thomson, even if a fetus is a person with a right to life, as opponents of abortion insist, it is not unjust for the pregnant woman to refuse to continue to support it, if the costs to her of doing so are sufficiently great, nor for her to enlist a third party to ‘disconnect’ her by performing an abortion. To claim otherwise, Thomson avers, is to insist on self-abnegation from the pregnant woman to a degree that morality cannot require.
Notice that Thomson’s argument does not rest on the claim that individuals are under no moral duty to use their bodies to assist others, or save their lives. On the contrary, she accepts that, under some circumstances, there is such a duty. What she denies is that we are under a duty to use our bodies in the service of others where doing so comes at high cost to ourselves. Helping others is mandatory, then, only insofar as the associated costs are acceptably low. Thomson calls the duty to help others at low cost the duty of Minimally Decent Samaritanism. This contrasts, in Thomson’s terminology, with Good Samaritanism, whereby a person helps another despite high costs. Unlike Minimally Decent Samaritanism, Good Samaritanism goes above and beyond the call of duty – it is, as philosophers put it, supererogatory. That, at any rate, is what commonsense morality tells us. Relatively few of us are either extremist libertarians, who believe that we are never obligated to come to the aid of others, even when doing so would be costless, or proponents of demanding moralities, who hold that we ought to sacrifice our fundamental interests for others’ sakes. Rather, most of us believe, as Thomson claims, that helping is morally required when the costs are reasonably low, but morally optional where the burdens and risks exceed some threshold of severity. Her argument is all the stronger precisely for not presupposing some controversial account of the limits of our duties to assist others.
Thomson’s commonsense understanding of the limits of the duty to help others implies (she herself suggests) a moderate or qualified right to terminate a pregnancy, whereby a woman is entitled to refuse to continue supporting her fetus if and only if the costs of carriage exceed the threshold of burdens that can be asked of a Minimally Decent Samaritan. Where that threshold lies, precisely, she does not say (it’s an extremely difficult question, after all, as many philosophers would attest). She does, however, point to two cases which she thinks it plausible to suppose lie on opposite sides of the line (see Thomson, 1971, pp. 65-6). To wit, she argues that, even if fetuses are persons, a fourteen year old who is pregnant as a result of rape would certainly be entitled to an abortion. But a woman in the seventh month of pregnancy, and who now wants an abortion merely so that she will not have to postpone a foreign holiday, would not. For the latter woman to complete her pregnancy is within the bounds, Thomson suggests, of what can be expected of someone, as a matter of Minimally Decent Samaritan.
So much, then, for the shape of Thomson’s landmark defence of abortion. If it works, it blows apart the conventional terms of the abortion debate, under which, to recapitulate, it is standardly assumed that abortion is permissible only if the fetus lacks the right to life of a person. Does the argument work, however? Critics of Thomson have argued that it does not, because it fails to give due weight to the ways in which woman’s gestating a fetus is unlike the assistance delivered by Good or Minimally Decent Samaritans. In particular, they have pointed out that
(a) whereas a Good or Minimally Decent Samaritan is merely a bystander who, coincidentally, is in a position to render the needed assistance, a pregnant woman (at least if she has not been raped) is responsible for the fact that the fetus exists, and needs her help;
(b) whereas a Good or Minimally Decent Samaritan is paradigmatically a stranger to the person needing aid, a pregnant woman stands in a special relationship to the fetus – namely that of parent to child.
(c) whereas disconnecting oneself from the violinist, or refusing, in general, to assist a needy stranger whom one stumbles upon involves only allowing him to die, abortion typically involves killing the fetus.
These disanalogies are potentially highly damaging to Thomson’s argument. This is because it seems plausible to suppose that, while persons are in general only under a duty to provide life-saving assistance to others if the costs to them of doing so are reasonable, we can be expected to incur costs on a larger scale for the sake of saving someone for whose neediness we bear responsibility, or someone to whom we are specially related, or someone whom we would have to kill to avoid assisting. Whether Thomson’s argument can itself be saved from the objection that it ignores these disanalogies is a matter for tomorrow’s post.
Judith Thomson, ‘A Defense of Abortion’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 1 (1971): 47-66.
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