Thursday, November 06, 2008

Judith Thomson' defense of abortion

I'm redating this post, since it keeps coming up.

Judith Thomson's famous argument that if the fetus is a person, its right to life might be overruled by the rights of the pregnant woman.


Blue Devil Knight said...

Hers was the first good bit of philosophy I read about abortion. A very clever argument: instead of getting bogged down in debates about when a fertilized egg becomes a person, assume it is a person, and show that abortion is still justifiable. I realize there are some quibbles one can make with her (in the case of voluntary unsafe sex), but for the cases of rape, incest, her argument works.

stunney said...

I never found Thomson's argument persuasive.

Suppose you found someone out of water in a desert. You could help the person, having ample water and food in your vehicle. But getting to where his home is would involve a huge detour, and it would mean a 9 month addition to your journey. However, he must go home so as to prevent a tribal war.

Even though taking him home is extremely inconvenient for you, does that fact make it morally permissible to just abandon him?

I think the obvious answer is no, it does not.

winter.time said...

You may be morally obliged to help this person and it's pretty obvious that helping the person in need would be the right thing to do, but that does not mean that the person in need has the right to your help. You may be labeled as a bad or cruel person for not helping the man in need but you are in no way required to lend your assistance. That is the point behind what Thomson is saying. Her thought experiment is more so meant to disprove an argument of the anti-abortionists, as opposed to being an argument for abortion.

Anonymous said...


But to properly attack Stunney's counter-example, we'd need to go over and chop the person out of water into a bunch of pieces.

Leaving *him* alone would, if things progressed *naturally*, end his life. Leaving the *fetus* alone would, if things progressed *naturally*, simply move him to his next stage of existence - post womb existence.

There's a disctinction between killing and letting die. She can't overcome this *massive* disanalogy.

And, let me add that my moral intutions tell me that if I woke up and was attacked to someone who needed me to support their life, otherwise they would die, I think it is my moral *obligation* to continue to support his life (and Thompson's picture is a bit innacurate. Pregnant women are not stuck in hospital rooms, unable to go anywhere, attacked to full-grown men, for the full 9 months. Being pregnant is *quite a bit* less restrictive than the picture she uses...which throws us off from the start).

And, at best, it appears you've just argued that those who are pro-choice support immoral activities or engage in them. So your comment, if sound, still mkaes pro-life the choice for the morally virtuous person. For the moral person. Thus if you consider yourself a moral person, as all liberals do, then you should be pro-life (the "you" is editorial), given *your own argument*.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, your argument doesn't work very well due to the methods of abortion that are available.

It is possible to just remove the fetus from the womb and let it die naturally (hysterotomy).

Clayton Littlejohn said...

My argument will be found unsatisfactory on two counts by many of those who want to regard abortion as morally permissible. First, while I do argue that abortion is not impermissible, I do not argue that it is always permissible. There may well be cases in which carrying the child to term requires only Minimally Decent Samaritanism of the mother, and this is a standard we must not fall below. I am inclined to think it a merit of my account precisely that it does not give a general yes or a general no. It allows for and supports our sense that, for example, a sick and desperately frightened fourteen-year-old schoolgirl, pregnant due to rape, may of course choose abortion, and that any law which rules this out is an insane law. And it also allows for and supports our sense that in other cases resort to abortion is even positively indecent. It would be indecent in the woman to request an abortion, and indecent in a doctor to perform it, if she is in her seventh month, and wants the abortion just to avoid the nuisance of postponing a trip abroad. The very fact that the arguments I have been drawing attention to treat all cases of abortion, or even all cases of abortion in which the mother's life is not at stake, as morally on a par ought to have made them suspect at the outset.

It's often the case that those who find the arguments unpersuasive do so because they never bothered to read them carefully in the first place.

Gordon Knight said...


You may be right, but we should recognize that the same line of reasoning leads to the conclusion that whenever we buy beer and pizza, we also are doing something wrong. The resources expended could be used to save another's life (e.g Oxfam).

I think Thomson captures adequately our ordinary moral intutions about the right to life . Whether those intuitions are really justified is another question.