Pro-choice, even assuming the fetus is fully human

June 12, 2007 | By | 34 Replies More

In this 1971 article, Judith Jarvis Thomson suggests that we’ve spent way too much time and emphasis on the issue of whether a developing fetus is fully human.   She doesn’t concede this point (she argues that acorns are not oak trees).  Yet she prefers to bring the conversation to what to do assuming that the fetus is fully human.

I found Thompson’s discussion unusual in that most abortion arguments (pro and con) focus on the status of the fetus.  Thompson assumes that the fetus is human, yet she argues for an approach that

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.

What is Thompson’s approach?  It is a detailed approach filled with vivid examples that creatively and powerfully illustrate her points.  Hers is also an approach entirely lacking in vitriol.  

One of her examples especially caught my eye, in that it quite similar to a pro-choice argument presented at this site by Grumpypilgrim.

Here is one of the illustrations from Judith Thompson’s fetus is fully human pro-choice argument:

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. The director of the hospital now tells you, “Look, we’re sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you–we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it’s only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.” Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says. “Tough luck. I agree. but now you’ve got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person’s right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him.”

If you found this example intriguing, there is a lot more for you here

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Category: Health, Reproductive Rights, Sex

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (34)

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  1. Ben says:

    I wonder if the situation isn't so different in countries where birth control is either not available or scorned by society. 7 children per woman is not uncommon in parts of southeast asia and africa.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by

    and a simple google search on infanticide in animals (how did it come to this?)…

    http://www.ratbehavior.org/infanticide.htm

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    There's a new movie out on the topic of abortion, entitled "Lake of Fire." For a fascinating review of the movie by Andrew O'Hehir of Salon.com, see here.

  3. Ben says:

    Sarah Silverman accidentally joins an extremist pro-life group…

    http://sarahsilverman.comedycentral.com/videos.jh

  4. Anthony says:

    pretty witty arguements, but i feel as if the whole abortion debate has been drawn out into situations that only alude to abortion, and in doing so they miss cruical points. Then each story is strung toegther, trying to fully explain the situation of the woman, or the feuts, or the abortion. Basically it comes off as very emotive, disconnected and self rightous. for example shes uses the violinst story as an example of the right to chose her own life, but leaves out the fact that a choice as to sex was already made. anyway i try to stay away from these "tales" as they seldom fully explain the situation. Adding other side sotries to oens such as this only make things worse, its as if your creating your own parallel universe where these very different events somehow play a role in each others plots. Before we can even touch the issue of abortion we have to understand sex. whenever you have sex, you are agreeing to the posibility of a baby, and this is true even when birth control is present and i feel this should be stressed in sex educateion as no artificial birth control is 100% effective. If both parties have consented to sex then the resultant life that is made, by purpose or accident (bc failure), should not be considered for abortion. I feel that we are just teaching our children how to cover up their tracks, rather than face the fact that no matter how much protection you have, you can have a baby. of course, there is nothing wrong with bc, people will have sex regardless of what you tell them and if they dont want a child bc is an excellent choice. We just have to stress the possibility of a child, perhaps more emphasis on the costs and care needed for a baby rather then how to unroll a condom on a penis. Now, if this consent is broken, say in rape, then the sex was not intended and the consequences should not be left upon the woman. simple as that. with the crazy laws in this country im sure this is more than possible. Minors should be allowed abortion, as they are not even legally able to consent to such agreements. This doesnt requrie the woman to have a contract everytime she has sex, I have faith in a court and jury and their ability to see through lies and i think that if you want an abortion, you should at least put it before some sort of trial, considering the life in question to be ended. So in ending, people need to understand the nature of sex more. they need to know that regardless of what kind of barrier or pill they use, you can still have a child and thats a big deal.

  5. —whenever you have sex, you are agreeing to the posibility of a baby, and this is true even when birth control is present and i feel this should be stressed in sex educateion as no artificial birth control is 100% effective.—-

    This is true and irrelevant. The purpose of sex is not exclusively or even primarily procreation, and this formulation ignores one very basic fact which is THE contributing factor to most of the horror stories surrounding unwanted pregnancy—MEN DON'T GET PREGNANT. And they don't have to stay with the woman if they really don't want to AND NEVER DID HAVE TO. Which means that, despite what you so rightly point out, the right to choose has always been a man's privilege.

    —-If both parties have consented to sex then the resultant life that is made, by purpose or accident (bc failure), should not be considered for abortion.—-

    That is simply not your place to say because it is not your body at issue in someone else's pregnancy. Period.

    (Besides, I detect the glimmer of the classic fence-sitter in that 'consented to sex' phrase, which is the exception in cases of rape or incest. This sidesteps a critical principle of the pro-life position—what makes it the fetus's fault how it got that? What this does, basically, is concede that people can "understand" certain kinds of unfairness and horror, but not others.)

    I do agree that people need to understand the nature of sex more—it needs to be torn away from the traditional procreative sanctification we have used for centuries to make something that is a profound and personal experience acceptable to a community that doesn't want to deal with the pleasure side of it. You might want to go back in the archives and read my post called, appropriately enough, SEX.

    In order, however, for any kind of true equality between men and women to exist, the ability and right to walk away from a situation must be made the same across the board—pregnancy traps women by several orders of magnitude more than it does men. Men can leave. Women should be able to as well. After all, I don't see any Shelters for Abused Men springing up.

  6. Anthony says:

    –This is true and irrelevant. The purpose of sex is not exclusively or even primarily procreation–

    From a biological viewpoint, the main purpose of sex is to procreate, any feelings associated with it are connected to the drive to reproduce. Anything else we surmise is a creation of man, which is potentially fallible i.e. when you say sex is a "profound and personal" experience is (sadly) not shared by all.

    –THE contributing factor to most of the horror stories surrounding unwanted pregnancy—MEN DON’T GET PREGNANT. And they don’t have to stay with the woman if they really don’t want to AND NEVER DID HAVE TO. Which means that, despite what you so rightly point out, the right to choose has always been a man’s privilege.–

    I would say that the contributing factor to most of the horror stories surrounding sex would be more linked to the unprotected or random sex the couple had that resulted in the conception. I'm sure the woman in this situation has some contempt for the man, but remember too she had sex and no one forced her into it (if it was completely consensual sex). But what else can the woman ask for. the sexes are not equal. they never had been nor will they ever. she should know that shes the one who gets the baby, not the man. and thats why i think we should stress more on the consequences of sex than the preparation for it in education. Now don't go saying the man can walk away from the situation, he is required by law to provide some sort of finanical support. And maybe instead of offering abortion to the many many many ways to prevent a pregnancy, perhaps we should make the man pay more, or at the very least feel the burden of pregnancy.

    –This sidesteps a critical principle of the pro-life position—what makes it the fetus’s fault how it got that? What this does, basically, is concede that people can “understand” certain kinds of unfairness and horror, but not others.)–

    sorting your arguments into pro and anti life? i don't think mine is as cut and dry, though i didnt think so. i believe abortion will be around forever, as it will always be needed in some cases, but the point im making is to use it responsibly and within law. allowing every girl that gets knocked up to terminate a fetus just doesn't sit well with me, and it should neither with you. the most we can hope for is for women and men to act responsibly. but to answer this, well, they had consentual sex, a child was conceived, they prob did or did not use birth control, they said to themselves "i understand" because they knew what they were getting themselves into because they knew what sex meant and what it entitled, and not which day they had to take their birth control. there should be no horror or unfairness present. i really feel that society has to break its chains and put the emphasis on sex that nature does. a 2 day lesson in health class and a few lectures by people who lived in an entirely different era will not do. sex is a huge part of life, and some good deal of time should be taken to explain to the young or misguided the purpose of it.

    –That is simply not your place to say because it is not your body at issue in someone else’s pregnancy. Period.–

    Ah, the big one. things aren't as black and white as that. nothing is. people abuse their bodies constantly, and their is nothing you or i can do about it, its the land of the law, it is our freedom and they have every right to exercise it. people have the right to refuse life saving medicine, but are required vaccines if they ever wish to go to school. people have every right to fill their bodies with toxins, to poison themselves either by drugs or alcohol, but courts order the purification of their bodies if they are brought before them. We aren't even allowed to take our own lives, and if we should fail in suicide we are put under arrest and into psychological evaluation. so ask yourself. is it really your choice in what you do with your body? people can be drafted into the military and be killed, and if they don't don the uniform they are imprisoned. is that not a violation of "my body, my choice"? obviously, there are exclusions. but nothing can be said until the status of the fetus can be determined. and even then, as in the violinist story, the woman still has the choice. but unlike the violinist story, which randomly chose the woman no reason or action on her own part, the child was brought into the womb by an action and until there is some law that equates action and consequence, you going to be losing a lot of violinists merely because the woman didn't intend to, despite the choice she had made.

    –In order, however, for any kind of true equality between men and women to exist, the ability and right to walk away from a situation must be made the same across the board—pregnancy traps women by several orders of magnitude more than it does men. Men can leave. Women should be able to as well. After all, I don’t see any Shelters for Abused Men springing up.–

    1) the sexes are separate but equal, we cannot offer equality for biological differences.

    2)perhaps "walking away" is the wrong way to look at it, and maybe "facing the music" is what you should be thinking of.

    3)perhaps the choice of sex should be held "several more magnitudes" higher in women than in men.

    4)heh. very true about the shelters. but remember that women have not had a very commanding presence in the some 10,000 year history of man.

    okay that was long. i was hoping somebody would answer me as this thread ended last year lol.

  7. —well, they had consentual sex, a child was conceived, they prob did or did not use birth control, they said to themselves “i understand” because they knew what they were getting themselves into because they knew what sex meant and what it entitled—-

    To make this claim is to misunderstand the problem in the first place. Clearly many if not most (especially in the teen years) do NOT understand. If they did, as has been shown to be the case in instances where comprehensive education AND access to full clinical services are in place, teens would delay sex till later. If they DID understand, the unwanted pregnancy rate would be much lower. They do NOT understand because to date efforts to put in place the kind of programs that have been shown to be effective have been thwarted on the local and regional level by pro-life zealots who seem to think ignorance is effective as a countermeasure.

    Since this demonstrates that the issue, for them, is less moral than panic-ridden fear—-only fear denies the utility of knowledge—then the more absolutist stance you seem to take cannot obtain, as the playing field is political, not moral.

    You did contradict yourself, though—in an early paragraph you claim men and women are not equal and never can be, then later say the sexes are separate but equal…except biologically. Well, we deny the precedence of biology in many other instances pertaining to matters of civic equality, I see no reason this should be any different.

    Just to be clear, I think abortion ought to be available as a last ditch solution to a problem which ought to have been handled better earlier. But the bipolar attitude this society has toward sex makes this a difficult thing to realize. Abortion is wasteful and except in certain instances avoidable–and I do not mean through abstinence. True, birth control is not 100% effective, but NO birth control is 100% ineffective.

    Finally, I base my personal choice-making on what I would want to have as options were I a woman—and the idea that I would not have final say whether or not, if or when to reproduce is absolutely abhorent to me. In that sense, the violinist example is apt—sex notwithstanding, the woman invited the man in, she did not say he could leave behind any relatives.

  8. Anthony says:

    –Clearly many if not most (especially in the teen years) do NOT understand.–

    if you look at the act of sex as a contract, then minors cannot legally make such a decision and cant consent to it, so they have a way out. I'm sure the government can spread some money into schools for better sex education, and the results of which could minimalize the use of Planned Parenthood, which would see their money back. maybe these zealots could use a course in human biology.

    Being separate but equal is a throwback to the civil rights movement and the decision made that facilities can never be separate and equal, an oxymoron. men and women can never be equal, theres always going to be special needs for each sex. when i said "biologically" this was only to provide an example. i dont think this was a contradicition.

    –Well, we deny the precedence of biology in many other instances pertaining to matters of civic equality, I see no reason this should be any different.–

    I dont see any reproductive centers for men springing up. but biologically men dont require as much reproductive care as women.

    –the woman invited the man in, she did not say he could leave behind any relatives.–

    to marry the woman is to marry the village.

    personally i wouldnt have an abortion, mainly because i cant, but if i was a woman i certainly wouldnt wait a few months before getting one, if i had to.

  9. Mike says:

    Thomson grossly misunderstand the sexual responsibility argument.

    She misses the difference between causing body use and CAUSING THE NEED for body use. They cannot be more different.

    I do not see child support laws mentioned anywhere. If Thomson is correct in denying that engaging in sex can result in moral responsibilities (according to her, this includes the obligation to allow property use) toward resulting children, child support laws (which impose significant financial burdens even on men who did nothing beyond having sex to "accept" responsibility) would be utterly indefensible.

    Parental obligation is in no way based on any type of consent. It is based on bringing the child into its needy existence. While the obligation can be transferred, the natural obligation initially falls with the parents.

    Richard Posner noted in The Problems of Jurisprudence that it is true that we do not force people to donate kidneys to strangers or even family members, however, the potential donor is rarely responsible for the condition he/she is being asked to remedy.

    Given that the need to live in the uterus is absolutely universal to all children, this is just not true in the case of woman who has become conceived through voluntary intercourse (in fact, until 1850 or so, all children needed to be breastfed).

    Thomson's argument even fails in rape cases. Imagine the following scenario that is more analogous to pregnancy.

    Harry and Henry are conjoined twins and each have all the organs of a normal person. However, Henry's liver is not currently strong enough for independent living. Fortunately, Doctor's have found a way to improve Henry's liver so that he can live separately in nine months.

    But, Harry demands to be separated now even though Henry will die.

    I doubt many would defend the choice to kill Henry. It would seem quite proper for the state to protect Henry by disallowing the separation.

    The naturalness of the connection is what separates killing from allowing death.

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