A Critique of Judith Jarvis Thomsons A Defense of Abortion
In A Defense of Abortion, Judith Jarvis Thomson presents a libertarian argument justifying abortion. The basic idea behind the argument is that the woman has more rights to make decisions concerning her body than the fetus, especially if it was unwelcomed, and it cannot be considered unjust. However, Thomson points out that it is difficult to come up with a clear Yes or No answer, and there are cases when an abortion should be allowed; therefore, abortion should be legal and permissible so that each person would decide for themselves. My paper aims to argue that Thomsons argument stands but the major premise about the fetus being a human being seems false. In section 1, I present the argument and various premises it is based on. Then, in section 2, I present the main criticism of the argument. Finally, in section 3, I refute Thomsons critics.
1. The Argument for Abortion
Thomson builds her argument on a hypothetical syllogism that the fetus is a human being (47). Only accepting this initial statement it is possible to build the defense of the permissibility of abortion. Otherwise it is not needed at all. The universal proof goes: (L1) all people have a right to their lives; (L2) the fetus is a person; (L3) thus, the fetus has a right to life (Korman). The controversy here is the fact that a mother or a woman who conceived the child intentionally or unintentionally also has the same rights to life and to her body too, which she and the fetus happen to share. However, the fetuss rights somehow outweigh the mothers rights.
First of all, Thomson argues that the fetus cannot have more rights for the mothers body than the mother herself. The mothers body belongs to her, and because of this, the mothers right outweighs the fetuss right, even though the fetus needs the body to sustain its life. In order to illustrate the premise that one should be in command of ones body better and decide what is going to happen to it, there is the violinist example.
For the sake of argument, Thomson compares the fetus to a violinist in a situation when the reader wakes up in the morning to find oneself chained up to an unconscious violinist who needs the readers kidney to stay alive. It is hardly unlikely that an average reader would agree to stay plugged to anybody even for the sake of their life without previously giving their consent. However, the common argument is that an individual should not be left to die when they can be saved. The violinist needs the readers kidney; therefore, the reader is morally obliged to save the violinist. The arguments form a chain, and, basically, it is the essence of the extreme view. Thus, the question is who should be left alive when both people have equal rights to life.
Thompson explains that as both in the case of pregnancy and the violinist with the kidney failure the source of life lies in anothers body, the bodys owner is not obliged to grant this right. Anyone indeed has a right to life, but it is not anyones obligation to grant it. It should be absolutely voluntarily. Thomsons argument is that the right to something and a right against somebody who did not grant that right are different things. She illustrates it with the violinist example: if he has the right to have his life saved and needs a kidney for it, it does not mean that the reader must give away their kidneys. Neither does it mean that the violinist has the right against the reader who did not give them their kidneys. The right can only be given voluntarily. Thus, Thomson argues that a right to life is not linked to a right to use someones body even if one needs it for life itself (Thomson 56).
2. The Argument Against Abortion.
Now I am going to recount the arguments against abortion. The pro-life view argues that life should be sustained in any case. Therefore, the fetuss right to life outweighs the womans right to her body. The most extreme view is that the fetus should be saved in any case, even if there is a risk of the mothers death or the pregnancy was caused rape. However, nowadays in the civilized countries, less and less people share the extreme view and argue that in case of the health risk or in certain extreme cases, such as pregnancy from rape or some unfavorable medical conditions, abortions are permissible. Therefore, I am not going to argue about it here.
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Another argument against abortion is that the woman is responsible for the fact of pregnancy and therefore must be accountable for the consequences in the form of pregnancy. However, in case of rigorous contraception and other means of preventing an unwelcome pregnancy, it is not completely justified to demand anyone to be responsible for something that was not meant to happen. If we continue this chain of arguments about ones responsibility, we will come to the conclusion that the ultimate decision may be to remove a uterus or something similar, which would efficiently eliminate any chance of accidental pregnancy (Thomson 59).
The ultimate pro-life argument is that the removal of the fetus to exercise the womans right to her body would inevitably entail the death of the fetus. Pro-life supporters equate abortion with murder. Such view must be grounded in the premise that any seed of life should find its fulfillment. However, if we continue to develop this argument we would come to some ridiculous conclusions. For example, if we remember that a sperm can also result in a new life, we might start to believe that during night pollutions life is killed. It is the most absurd example and not a really valid because sperm is not considered a human being while the fetus is.
The murder of the fetus is connected to morality. Pro-life supporters argue that it is simply immoral to end the fetuss life. In the end, it is related to the woman and it is her child, born or unborn. Thomson points out that certain objections can arise, such as the termination of pregnancy due to the personal and not medical reasons is unfair. Thomson suggests first to define what unjust and unfair is. While some things are unpleasant or cruel and others have negative definitions, they are not necessarily unjust (Thomson 60). Therefore, if this condition of justice, injustice, is observed, than the killing of the fetus is permissible.
3. A Response.
In this section I want to examine the initial premise. It seems to me that the core of the argument is whether the fetus is already a human being or not. It goes without saying that the fetus is alive. However, animals are also alive but they are not humans. People are different from any other beings and entities because they have conscience and consciousness. Therefore, medical evidence should confirm or rebut the premise of whether the fetus is already a human being or not yet.
There are many living beings around us. We kill bacteria and amoebas in great numbers, whether it is done intentionally or not. However, it is not considered a murder. First of all, because not all types of killing are murders; second, because they are not humans and they do not have consciousness. While abortion is an intentional killing, this life is not yet a fully developed person.
To finish the argument we need to define what person is. While the fetus in the uterus has rudiments of all vital organs, they are not fully developed and functioning. The major difference from other living beings is the development of human brain, which grants consciousness. There can be no consciousness if there is no functioning brain. Whereas the brain is at the stage of development in the uterus, it is not yet aware of itself; and therefore, the termination of pregnancy cannot be considered a murder.
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