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Abortion Ethics 5

February 21, 2012

Women’s rights and famous violinists

Perhaps the whole debate about the status of the fetus is misguided. Perhaps abortion is permitted even if the fetus is as much a person as you and me.  After all we don’t force women to give a kidney, or even a pint of blood to save an adult life.  Why should we force them to carry a pregnancy?  But perhaps that’s not a fair analogy.

The philosopher, Judith Jarvis Thomson, came up with a better one. Her thought experiment is an analogy with abortion for rape, but not limited to that.

A famous violinist, i. e. not just a person who valued his own life but someone whose life was also valued by many others, develops a fatal kidney disease, which can only be treated by connection to the circulation of another person for nine months.  He has a rare blood group and it is difficult to find somone with the right group who is also willing to be connected.  A Society of Music Lovers hear about the problem, search for a suitable person and find you. Rather than asking if you would agree to be connected, they kidnap you and connect you to the violinist’s circulation.  The next day you wake up and the clinic director explains what has happened.  You demand to be disconnected, but the director says his hands are tied.  He can’t disconnect you without killing the violinist, an undisputed person with his own right not to be unjustly killed.

Should you stay connected? Obvously it would be kind of you to do so.  But must you?

Judith Jarvis Thomson says that if after due consideration you decided that you couldn’t cope with nine months connection, you should be allowed to disconnect.  If so we should also permit abortion for rape victims, whatever our belief about the personhood of the fetus.

OK you say.  I’m convinced about abortion for rape, but what about abortion for a woman whose contraception has failed?  Jarvis Thomson’s thought experiment can be adapted to that easily. Imagine it was well known that the Music Lovers were on the hunt for a suitable victim in your town.  The police warned people to not travel home alone.  And imagine that you decided to cross the local park to take the pleasure of exercise, or of viewing the sunset, and the Music Lovers jumped out of the bushes, abducted and connected you. Would it make any sense for the clinic director to say, “I would have disconnected you, but I can’t because you brought this on yourself by your feckless behaviour”?  Surely not.  By analogy taking sexual pleasure does not commit you to bearing the pregnancies that occasionally result, whatever the personhood of the fetus.

Next, a quite different way of looking at abortion.

Jim Thornton

Judith Jarvis Thomson: A Defense of Abortion Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 1, no. 1 (Fall 1971). Available on the web here

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 14, 2013 6:26 pm

    Greetings! Very helpful advice in this particular article!
    It’s the little changes that will make the biggest changes. Thanks for sharing!


  1. People seeds |

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