Table of Contents
1. Judith Jarvis Thomson’s Position
1.1 Abortion as Self-Defense
1.2 The Right to Your Own Body
1.3 The Good vs. the Minimally Decent Samaritan
2. Problems with Thomson’s Position
2.1 The Moral Status of the Fetus and the Obligation to Provide Care
2.2 Bodily Autonomy and Thomson’s Terminology
One of the main issues that the second wave feminists addressed was the right of women to decide if and when they want to have children. Women in the sixties and seventies protested for their reproductive rights and demanded the legal access to abortion with slogans like “my body, my choice”. Although many countries liberalized their laws concerning abortion, the debate about the moral permissibility still remains one of the most heated debates across different societies.
Judith Jarvis Thomson’s essay “A Defense of Abortion” was published in 1971 and has had a great impact on the philosophical debate on abortion and its moral permissibility. Moral philosophers who are pro- or anti-choice alike have argued about the argumentative strategy that is best to support one’s claims concerning abortion. Thomson’s essay has been critiqued for various different reasons and this papers goal is to work out how Thomson’s position could be rethought after over forty years of its first publishing. My main thesis is virtually the same as Thomson’s: abortion is not always impermissible. However, I disagree with her methodology and I argue that the details of different cases and the societal context they happen in ought to decide whether abortion is morally permissible or not. My critique is especially aimed at Thomson’s strategy to assume – for the sake of the argument – that the fetus is a person, her conception of bodily autonomy and her terminology.
In the first part of the paper I summarize Thomson’s position while focusing on the most important aspects for the following critique. In the second part, I mainly use the theories of Gina Schouten and Rosalind Hursthouse to criticize some of Thomson’s assumptions. Gina Schouten has argued (from a feminist perspective) for considering that there is a societal moral obligation for caring and protecting the most vulnerable which means that depending on the moral status of fetus’, there is an obligation to care for them. Another interesting critique can be made by questioning of the role that (bodily) autonomy plays in bioethics and how Thomson uses it to justify abortion. Rosalind Hursthouse has attacked Thomson’s violinist example for being too different from an actual pregnancy and found her terminology too imprecise.
1. Judith Jarvis Thomson’s Position
Judith Jarvis Thomson starts her piece by pointing out the premise that most theories who are against the permissibility of abortion are based on: the unborn child is a person from the moment of conception and to kill persons is wrong, therefore abortion is always impermissible. Conservative views on abortion stress the continuity in the development of a human being and that it is not possible to draw a line at one point where the cells become a person. Therefore, in this line of argument, the fetus must be considered as a person from the moment of conception. Thomson critiques this view by employing the analogy of an acorn turning into oak tree: nobody would say that an acorn is the exact same thing as the tree. Although it is true that drawing a line in the development of a human being is very difficult, this does not mean that it isn’t possible to argue for the permissibility of abortion. Proceeding from that thought, Thomson starts her argumentation by taking on the premise of her opponents and acting as though it were true. This is a strategically important point since this way she opens another way of thinking about the topic that does not divide people into two camps that have unbridgeable differences in their premises. Instead of trying to prove that a fetus is not a person, her plan is to prove why it is possible to argue for the permissibility of abortions even if fetus’ are granted the status of personhood. Following Thomson’s argument, whether the fetus is a person or not is not the defining moment of the argument. More important than the question of personhood is the question why granting the fetus personhood should necessarily lead to the conclusion that abortion is impermissible.
In her effort to explain why the right to life cannot easily trump the right to decide what happens to one’s own body, Thomson introduces her famous violinist thought experiment.
You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist's circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own.
She wants you (the reader) to imagine that the doctor in this scenario would explain to you that because the violinist would die, if they unplugged you and because his right to life stands above all, you will have to wait for nine months until they can safely unplug you. Thomson then asks what this situation would be like if it were for example nine years or for the rest of your life. Should you be obligated to keep the violinist alive? The thought of being obligated to stay in this situation wouldn’t satisfy a lot of people because it seems to be unfair. Therefore, Thomson concludes that there must be something wrong with the assumption that the right to life is more important than any other right. Proceeding from the thought experiment, Thompson thinks about objections against her position, mainly focusing on the thought of abortion as self-defense and the argument of bodily autonomy.
1.1 Abortion as self defense
In the case that a pregnant person’s life is in danger because of pregnancy, there is a conflict between the right to life of the pregnant person and that of the fetus. The extremely conservative view on abortion would say that in order to solve this conflict, one has to acknowledge the difference between killing and letting die. To perform an abortion would be to directly kill the fetus but to do nothing would only be letting the pregnant person die. Furthermore, the fetus is an innocent being because it did not intend to harm the pregnant person and it did not choose to be in the situation. Thomson’s response to this is that even if the child is innocent and does not intentionally harm the pregnant person, it is permissible for her to perform an abortion herself. The reason being that it is self-defense, because it cannot be expected of the pregnant person to just endure her suffering and die. She is not directly killing the fetus if she is saving herself and the fetus dies in the process of that. Likewise, in the violinist example it would be justifiable if you unplugged yourself, because you would be defending yourself and not directly trying to kill the violinist. Thomson grants that you cannot justify anything with the claim of self-defense, but in this case the pregnant person and the fetus are both innocent because they did not enter the situation with the purpose of killing the other. If this critique is granted validity and it is morally permissible for the pregnant person to save herself by aborting the fetus, then another problem arises: the third party problem.
1.2 The right to your own body
Thomson advocates for the fact that the pregnant person owns her body. She draws a comparison to a situation where two people are freezing and one of them owns a coat. It would not be impartial to say that it is impossible to choose who should get the coat. Thomson emphasizes that justice requires that the person who owns the coat also gets the coat. The pregnant person who owns her body therefore has the right to decide what happens to her body. “My own view is that if a human being has any just, prior claim to anything at all, he has a just, prior claim to his own body.” The bodily autonomy of the pregnant person is one of the central aspects of Thomson’s argument, which she sees as a fundamental right of people that often gets lost in arguments against abortion. Especially in cases where the pregnant person’s life is not in danger, the bodily autonomy gets dismissed fairly quickly. The fetus’ right to life seems to trump anything (other than the pregnant person’s right to life) immediately. Thomson’s critique of these arguments is that the right to life is problematic in itself and does not suffice as an argument against the permissibility of abortion. It has to be questioned what the right to life includes. Does it include other people providing the bare minimum of what is necessary for you to survive? And what happens if that one thing is something you have no right to be given? “I am arguing only that having a right to life does not guarantee having either a right to be given the use of or a right to be allowed continued use of another person's body-even if one needs it for life itself.” If you are a kind person and consent to giving someone the right to use your body to survive that is very nice of you but you are not morally obligated to do it.
Thomson argues that there are cases of people getting killed unjustly which is morally wrong but in the violinist case you could unplug yourself and it still wouldn’t be killing the violinist unjustly. The right to life consist of the right not to be killed unjustly and by unplugging yourself you do kill the violinist but not unjustly. You never gave him the right to use your body and killing him is not the main goal of your actions but saving yourself is. The question then is: Is abortion unjust killing?
 I want to mention that abortion is a very central debate in women’s liberation movements but not only women can get pregnant. The issue is just as important for people who do not conform to the binary system. For this reason, I will refrain from using terms like mother and will rather speak of pregnant persons.
 Thomson, Judith Jarvis. "A Defense of Abortion."Philosophy & Public Affairs 1, no. 1 (1971): 47.
 Thomson, Judith Jarvis. "A Defense of Abortion.": 48.
 Thomson, Judith Jarvis. "A Defense of Abortion." Philosophy & Public Affairs 1, no. 1 (1971): 48.
 Thomson, Judith Jarvis. "A Defense of Abortion.": 49.
 Thomson, Judith Jarvis. "A Defense of Abortion.": 50.
 Thomson, Judith Jarvis. "A Defense of Abortion.": 53.
 Thomson, Judith Jarvis. "A Defense of Abortion.": 54.
 Thomson, Judith Jarvis. "A Defense of Abortion.": 55.
 Thomson, Judith Jarvis. "A Defense of Abortion.": 56.
 Thomson, Judith Jarvis. "A Defense of Abortion.": 57.