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People seeds

June 23, 2014

A defense of abortion by Judith Jarvis Thomson

In retelling the famous violinist story (click here) I forgot the second part of Judith Jarvis Thomson’s thought experiment – the move from justifying abortion after rape, to justifying it after failed contraception.

No-one would claim that a burglar had a right to stay in your house just because you opened a window to let in some air and he climbed in. Nor would it be OK if an innocent person blundered in. Thomson asks us to imagine a world like this;

“People-seeds drift about in the air like pollen, and if you open your windows, one may drift in and take root in your carpets and upholstery.  You don’t want children, so you fix up your windows with fine mesh screens, the very best you can buy.  As can happen, however, and on very, very rare occasions does happen, one of the screens is defective and a seed drifts in and takes root. Does the person-plant who now develops have a right to the use of your house? Surely not – despite the fact that you voluntarily opened your windows, you knowingly kept carpets and upholstered furniture, and you knew that screens were sometimes defective.”

Good eh? Here’s the article.   judith jarvis Thomson a defense of abortion

Jim Thornton



4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 29, 2014 8:34 pm

    I’m on page 7 and I’m finding it a bit tedious, does it get better…?!
    Re. the burglar analogy, I think this is very weak. There is little to compare between an act which involves some malicious agency and one that is a natural and predictable process. Similarly, it is not comparable to how women dress and their likelihood of being sexually assaulted (another controversial topic); it doesn’t matter if they go out naked, it still takes a malicious agent to assault them, despite the fact that we may think them unwise for doing so in the first place.
    Sperm is not malicious, and fertilisation is predictable and widely understood to be likely to occur *unless* reliable contraception is used… and even so, may still occur. Who are you blaming otherwise – fate? Chance? Destiny? God? It is not the baby’s fault it was conceived, and in fact to compare it to some marauding burglar is a (perhaps unintended) subconscious slur. Of all involved parties, the baby is the least guilty/responsible surely?

    Secondly, with regard to the second example (person-spores), again, it makes the assumption that the mother has done everything she possibly can to avoid pregnancy. This is not so (apart from cases of rape). You have taken on all sorts of huge assumptions, as if the mother has a right to sexual gratification without ensuing pregnancy. “Opening a window” because of “stuffiness” – yes, well, that may or may not be apt. Nevertheless, she is not harmed by *not* opening a window, it is her choice and for her pleasure. How to modify your analogy suitably I’m not sure; but she has chosen to live in a house in an area that suffers these “people seeds” when there are many other houses which are guaranteed never to suffer this problem.

    • July 2, 2014 8:41 pm

      Oh Tom! Not tedious – she’s one of my favourite moral philosphers. I love her understatements;

      “I am inclined to agree, however, that the prospects for “drawing a line” in the development of the fetus look dim.”

      Indeed so.

      And her analogies. The burglar is just a step towards “people seeds”, which are much more like failed contraception. If taking sexual pleasure commits you to bearing children from failed contraception, but opening a window to get fresh air doesn’t, then we need to at least check that the former intuition is well founded.

      And if all that’s too much, you must agree that the violinist should give pause to anyone who wants to say that rape is not adequate grounds for abortion.

    • Yousef Hasanzadah permalink
      May 3, 2017 2:21 am

      I really liked your comment Thomas, It is actually helping me understand an important flaw in her thought experiment. I will use this in my argument on my ethics final to actually argue against her even thought i am heavily in favor of the pro-choice side of the debate. And when you talk about the fact that she is guaranteed sexual gratification without ensuing pregnancy in the “people seeds” example, you are right to call it out. I look at it like a police officer on his/ her shift. They can wear a bullet proof vest, avoid walking up to the driver side window and instead use the passenger side, even avoid responding to dangerous calls if other officers are around, all in the effort to not be shot.. but at the end of the day whether sub conscious or not when you clock in to your shift you are accepting the fact that they have a probability to be shot and this can be related to sex. You can take every single precaution there is in the book but at the end of the day whether sub conscious or not you are accepting the fact that you could get pregnant and this can be seen as consent to having a child making the claim that you have the right to abort the child void, you gave consent, you are responsible for the outcome.

      And again i would totally support a woman’s freedom to do with her body what she want whether that be abort the child or not but its hard not to call out a flaw when you see it.


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