Judith Jarvis Thomson on abortion

I thought I would post a few of Thomson’s most compelling arguments from her article “A Defense of Abortion” here (we are covering this in Social Ethics) for possible discussion:

Thomson takes a moderate view on abortion, arguing that is permissible in some cases but impermissible in others.  She begins by, surprisingly, granting the pro-life view that personhood begins at conception.  Most pro-lifers think that once you grant that point, the matter is settled.  But Thomson tries to show that it is not, that the right to life just means you have the right to not be unjustly killed.

She relies heavily on analogies, and I will present two here:

Analogy 1: Imagine you are asleep, and while you are asleep you are hooked up to a famous violinist who can only be kept alive (for whatever reason) if he is hooked up to you.  Obviously you did not consent to the violinist using your body, but disconnecting yourself from him would lead to his death.  Thomson points out that, in this case, while it would be really really nice of you to remain hooked up to the violinist, no one would demand that you remain hooked up.  In other words, it would be morally permissible to disconnect yourself from him.

Thomson is banking that most of us would agree on this, and uses this example to show that abortion – even if the unborn has a right to life – would be morally permissible in cases where the person did not consent to the unborn using their body to live (say, rape).

Analogy 2:  IF it is the case that the morality of abortion hinges on whether or not the woman has consented to the unborn using her body (example 1 is supposed to show this), then what about this? – Imagine you own a home and install a top of the line alarm system to protect yourself from burglars.  No alarm system is 100%, but say yours 99.8% effective.  You dutifully arm the system every time you leave the home, lock the doors, etc.  Of course, a burglar might still enter your home.  But no one, Thomson suggests, would think that you have consented to the burglar being in your home just because you left your house unattended.  After all, what more precautions could you have reasonably taken?

What does this have to do with abortion?  Thomson argues that this analogy shows that abortion is also morally permissible in cases of failed contraception.  The pill is (or can be if taken properly) 99.8% effective.  By almost any measure that is a “reasonable precaution” and provides evidence of a refusal of consent for the “burglar” (sperm) to invade your “home” (egg).

Author: Kleiner

Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.

16 thoughts on “Judith Jarvis Thomson on abortion”

  1. Ah, Yes, Judith Jarvis Thomson and her famous, uber-anthologized, work on abortion. Well, a couple of things spring to mind:

    Has Thomson considered that maybe, just maybe, a moral relationship exists between human beings that is more fundamental than one that is contractual? Morality begins when people are generous and loving, when they exercise their duties to be decent, rather than their rights not to be inconvenienced. Thomson’s mindset is always legalistic. She completely misses the point that personal love and generosity are primary and that law, rights, and obligations are secondary. It is folly to try to settle a matter of life and death, which is what abortion involves, by ignoring the ethical primacy of love and generosity, while looking to legalistic terms for guidance.

    Thomson views the right to life as something conferred by other human beings: the unborn have no right to life because the pregnant woman has not invited that life in, so to speak. Human beings do not have a right to life simply by virtue of being humans, in Thomson’s eyes; they must in addition be wanted. The right to life that Thomson accords the unborn presupposes someone else’s power. In the case of the mother, it is the power she exercises when she approves the unborn’s continued existence. The unborn and their right to life, for her, are passive to her power. This is chilling. Rather, the right to life of unborn human beings is not dependent on someone elses’ power or permission or approval. It is anchored in their humanity. Just as something is loved because it is good, and not good because it is loved, a right exists prior to its being recognized and is not dependent on recognition. For example, a woman is worthwhile not because a man approves her or pays attention to her; when a man responds to her it is because she is good. Being precedes approval; goodness precedes love.

    Finally, I am disturbed by Thomson’s facile deconstruction of motherhood and reduction of all human beings to islands of self-serving individuality. In order to rationalize the death of the unborn, she seems compelled to rationalize the death of the person. It is as if she is saying that we need the death of the authentic person in order to justify the death of the unborn.


  2. Ryan, my understanding is that Thomson is examining the claim that the unborn has a RIGHT to life. Once someone starts using “rights” language, they are entering an arena of something like contractual obligation: if I have a right to X, then all fellow citizens, regardless of their relation to me, are bound to respect that right. Now if Thomson had said that that is the ONLY way to view the relationship between fetus and carrier, she would be a justifiable target of your criticisms; likewise if she had claimed her argument is meant as a reply to a wide cluster of arguments against abortion. But she doesn’t make those claims.


  3. Interesting way of looking at it in terms of the “right” to life by what is essentially a parasitic relationship that poses dangers to the woman’s life. I’d absolutely say the right of a fully developed human being outweighs the supposed rights of a zygote. Additionally, Thomson isn’t suggesting abortion as a form of birth control, but as a valid, justifiable option for the times birth control fails or women are impregnated forcefully.

    As far as deconstructing motherhood, motherhood is far too romanticized. Motherhood is put on a pedestal and women who reject becoming mothers, whether through abortion of an unwanted fetus or through the decision to birth control or sterilization, are considered cold or denying their natural selves. Some women do not want to be mothers for various reasons. they may not want to pass on genetically inherited diseases or deformities. Some may not want the immense drain on emotions, physical energy and time that is a part of having and raising a child for the rest of her life. Others may simply enjoy their freedom.

    Ryan, I realize that here you may offer the option of giving the child up for adoption. I’d like to offer my point of a view as one of those children who was given up for adoption and put into a good family – I am fully aware my 17-year-old mother could have aborted me and I fully support her right, as a woman, to have made that choice. At the time, I was not a conscious, thinking human being, or even a person in the sense that I could not survive without a drain on her direct bodily resources and strength. As a 17 year-old it had to be immensely difficult for her to be pregnant in an community hostile to unwed mothers (northern Utah) and difficult for her to attempt to continue high school during the course of this. She had every right to abort me and continue with her life, but she didn’t and respect both her ability to make the decision and the fact she didn’t.

    Pregnancy isn’t some wonderful, amazing thing where women get a stomach and just have the pain of labor. It’s incredibly tiring, internal organs are pushed out of the way as the uterus and fetus grows, the mother’s body is stretched to incredibly uncomfortable and often painful limits, hormones completely change, causing nausea and difficulty with some foods, diets are restricted, doctor visits are incredibly costly (for those with no insurance) and her food intake is rigorously decided by what will harm or help the fetus. To force a woman to go through that after her earnest attempts to not remain pregnant is cruel and putting the needs of something that can’t even form a thought of any kind before a fully grown human. THAT is where the human kindness is pushed to the side.


  4. My main problem with Thompson’s analogies (and the article in general) is its disturbingly callous attitude towards human life, in the sense that mere INCONVENIENCE seems to be all it takes to justify ending a life (in her view). Frankly put that’s not just heartless, it’s pure insanity!

    First off, I don’t think any discussion on abortion is complete without at least mentioning abstinence. The article itself and most of the comments here seem to me to treat sex as an absolute given, focusing on what is ethical AFTER the fact. This is unfair and extremely misleading. Granted, I realize abstinence isn’t sexy (no pun intended), but there are people who actually do it—so you can’t tell me it isn’t even an option.

    As such, I think it’s disingenuous to rattle off all the difficulties of pregnancy and act like a victim, when if you think about it, all of that was self-inflicted (except for cases of rape, which are legitimate exceptions). Nobody gets pregnant without choosing (on some level—again, except for rape victims) having sex, so I think Thompson’s security system example is misleading: you didn’t just leave the house–you INVITED the criminals in, while somehow hoping they wouldn’t steal anything.

    But even if I accepted the analogy as it was, I would still disagree with the conclusion that: “no one, Thomson suggests, would think that you have consented to the burglar being in your home just because you left your house unattended.” It’s not a question of “consent,” but a matter of RISK–burglars don’t have your “consent” even if you DON’T have a security system. All the security system changes is how much RISK of being robbed you’re willing to accept. Whenever you leave the house, even with a 99.8% effective security system, you still know you’re accepting a 0.2% risk of being robbed. In that sense having sex, even with 99.8% effective birth control, implies a willingness to accept a 0.2% chance of getting pregnant. If that were REALLY an unacceptable amount of risk for someone, then they simply WOULDN’T HAVE SEX in the first place. I’m sorry, but any responsible person knows that you just can’t have it both ways: at some point we all have to accept the fact that there are no guarantees in life. We all have to make hard choices sometimes, but taking the easy way out isn’t acceptable JUST BECAUSE it’s easy. In fact, sometimes the exact opposite is true: usually the more difficult option is the morally correct one—otherwise, what’s the point of having morals if they never lead you to a choice that you wouldn’t just come to naturally?

    To be clear I’m not trying to say that everyone should be abstinent, merely that those who don’t need to stop whining and accept responsibility for their own actions. Obviously it’s still their decision (thanks to Roe v. Wade, which, in my opinion, was bad law), but that’s not the same as a moral justification. If I wanted to, I could CHOOSE to go shoot someone in the face, but the mere fact that it was my decision or that it was the easier option for me isn’t any more a viable moral defense than it is a sufficient criminal defense. In fact the opposite is true: the freedom to make choices is precisely what makes us accountable for them. So when women complain about how “it’s MY body that’s at stake here,” my response to that is “exactly, which was equally true when you CHOSE to have sex in the first place.” If harsh consequences were all it took to absolve personal responsibility, then that would justify extremely reckless behavior, and society would basically fall apart.

    I’ll grant that there are certain obvious exceptions here: rape, incest, or when the mother’s life is in jeopardy. What I’m focusing is the typical elective abortion where the mother simply doesn’t want to change her lifestyle. As far as that goes I would pose this question to those who would defend the latter instance: “wouldn’t you feel at least a LITTLE guilt or sorrow for doing that? You wouldn’t feel bad about it AT ALL?” And then on the flip-side: “though it would obviously be hard, wouldn’t you feel like you made the right choice in the end if you went ahead and had the baby? Do women who stick it out end up regretting their decision when all is said and done?” I doubt even the staunchest pro-choice advocate could answer those questions without any pause; because all their arguments seem like little more than excuses or justifications, and nobody ever really FEELS GOOD about making them, at least in the deontological sense, because it’s not the choice itself they’re focusing on—it’s all the side-effects, as it were.

    I also have a problem with Thompson’s first analogy (being hooked up to the violinist) for a myriad of reasons. “Obviously you did not consent to the violinist using your body”: that’s only true in the case of rape, since in every other case you had to consent to have sex. If anything it’s the other way around: you snuck up on the violinist in his sleep and made the connection—you brought this on yourself (by having sex).

    “No one would demand that you remain hooked up”: what the heck…? What about the freaking violinist!?! Why wouldn’t HE care that you’re choosing to end his life for sheer CONVENIENCE? Wouldn’t he “demand that you remain hooked up” if it were up to him? To those who would say it doesn’t matter because we can’t know if the fetus objects—or even know if it really is a person—I would respond that you can’t know if it doesn’t or wouldn’t, so in a way it’s basically like deciding whether to pull the plug on a person with a coma: just because you don’t know what he or she wants doesn’t mean you ignore the matter entirely.

    The other problem with the analogy is (I believe) an implicit one: the scenario implies a PERMANENT dependency on the connection. In the scenario there’s no potential end in sight where the violinist might eventually be able survive upon disconnection. That’s OBVIOUSLY unfair because pregnancies only last 9 months!

    Now when we take all these considerations into account we end up with an ENTIRELY different analogy: one person sneaks up on a violinist in his sleep and somehow creates a connection that is directly linked to the violinists’ survival. But the connection is not a permanent one, in fact it only need last 9 months before it will automatically be severed without killing the violinist. Then, at some point before the deadline, the “host” grows impatient—let’s say he got really sick of violin music—and severs the connection, either without consulting the violinists’ wishes or simply ignoring them, thereby KILLING HIM. Now if Thompson had considered this analogy, I doubt she would have concluded that “it would be morally permissible to disconnect yourself from him,” or even that “no one would demand that you remain hooked up.” On the contrary, you would end up being convicted of murder in the accurate scenario, assuming all the facts were clear.

    To be fair, one might say we took the analogy too far here, since the question of life before birth is an open one, so it would seem unfair to equate it with murder. But let’s remember the lead-in: “she begins by, surprisingly, granting the pro-life view that personhood begins at conception.” Thus, in both analogies, Thompson is operating under the assumption that the fetus is a person in every sense of the word, so the issue was scrapped from the beginning, because she’s trying to appeal to those who believe life begins at conception.

    I’m sure Thompson’s article has other analogies, but if I had to guess I’d say they will probably have similar problems because of her shockingly callous attitude towards human life. Sure, she grants that abortion deals with actual life, but she fails to adequately or even realistically value it in her analogies, and that makes her argument WORSE than the typical pro-choice argument. She acts like these are simply matters of CONVENIENCE and PREFERENCE, but life and death matters are never that easy. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at how easily she imagines one person pulling someone else’s cord just because they’re an inconvenience! What’s more, she acts like the person wouldn’t even feel an ounce of guilt about it, and frankly it’s just disturbing. Though I guess that would be true for a cold-blooded killer like Jeffrey Dahmer doing that (he was horny and hungry, after all…), but not a normal person with even an ounce of compassion. Most normal people would SPARE NO PAINS to keep the other person alive, whatever the sacrifice, even at the cost of their own lives in some cases. In any case, nobody feels great about themselves after ending someone else’s life, whatever the reason…or at least they shouldn’t.


  5. I’m not sure how many times the basic point needs to be reiterated, but here goes again. Right to lifers claim the fetus has a right to life, and that when someone has a right to life, all concerned parties must do everything within their power to make sure the person lives.

    It doesn’t take much to show that this view is absurd, and Thomson’s violinist example does the trick. No one is obligated to keep the violinist alive, though everyone agrees it would be a nice thing to do. No one has a right to life, understood in the above way. If they did, we would be VERY active preventing malaria, starvation, highway accidents, etc.

    There are PLENTY of other arguments one might give against abortions, but claiming that the fetus has a right to life which all agents must respect isn’t one of them. I’d recommend not using Thomson’s argument as an open podium for launching reckless mishmashes of frenzied hatred toward babykillers. Chill a bit.


  6. Oops, I’m sorry, Jeff; that ended up harsher than I should have intended. Still, I think my basic point is right: that Thomson’s article criticizes a very specific argument against abortion, and shouldn’t be taken as a perfectly general defense of abortion.


  7. As a poli-sci guy, whenever I see these frantic attempts to show those that have abortions or those that are pro-choice as “baby killers”, murderers, etc I always walk away baffled and confused. This motto of “right to life” begins to play over and over again, then these people lobby for the federal government to outlaw abortions, to save the lives of these “innocent babies”.

    Then in nearly the same breath these very same people shout down the government for attempting to institute a universal healthcare program, or welfare, or foreign aid to governments attempting to eradicate malaria, aids, polio, etc.

    Although, this may not be the proper forum to ask this question, I feel obligated to ask anyway. Where are you right to life people, when it comes to rights of life for those that are not a fetus? Please dont tell me I already have the choice for healthcare, better job, etc, you dont believe in choice?

    Ok, thanks for the soap-box moment. Much love!!


  8. It would be nice to have a society that didn’t make it so difficult to have and raise children in. In a number of European countries they have maternity leave for both the father and the mother. That, combined with the shorter working hours makes those European countries much more family friendly.

    But I think even here we can come to a happy litigious medium concerning the abortion debate. I’ll agree we put every woman who has an abortion because of an unwanted pregnancy on trial if, in return, we put God on trial for every unwanted miscarriage and stillbirth. Agreed?


  9. @ Huenemann: I think Thomson’s argument establishes clearly that the state should not prohibit abortion, at least in this case. I intuitively agree that the person hooked to the violinist has no obligation to support the violinist.

    I don’t think, however, that Thomson’s case establishes that it is morally OK to unhook yourself from the violinist (I don’t know whether you take it this far, either). The thought of unhooking myself from a violinist who is depending on me for life makes me extremely queasy. In fact, I think that letting the violinist make use of your body is always the right thing to do, though I can understand those who would choose to unhook themselves.

    It seems to me that this case is an example of what happens when we think in legalistic terms (rights) instead of moral terms (what is right). Natural rights muddy the waters, and we end up with both sides of the debate dreaming up all sorts of contradictory rights without any explanation of the derivation of those rights. After we make a legalistic argument, we get a legalistic answer (this is very valuable, of course, for our political lives). For our moral lives, however, we need a different kind of argument. Our question shouldn’t be what can I do (by right), but what should I do (for right).


  10. @ source: It didn’t sound very risky to me but I’m not risk averse. If we’re going to bring the details surrounding a very difficult pregnancy to light in a public forum I figure we may as well do it in both contexts. And since God is being brought into the courtroom in both cases, may as well do it as explicitly as possible so everyone gets a fair hearing. But when/if God doesn’t show up on the witness stand, will the court hold him in contempt?


  11. This argument fails to recognize the differences between normal and natural means of maintaining your life, and artificial and extraordinary means. It also fails to recognize that while parents have an obligation to provide their children with norman and natural means of preservation, they have no obligation to provide their children (or anyone else, for that matter) with artificial and extraordinary means of preservation.

    Imagine that there was a baby with a blood condition, and it needed a blood transfusion. Its mother was the only person whose blood type matched; the baby either got a blood donation from her, or died. Strictly speaking, she would be under no obligation to give it one.

    But suppose a woman gave birth to a baby in an environment in which there was no replacement available for her breast milk; the baby either breastfed, or starved to death. After all, people do not have the right to artificially obtain bodily fluids from others for their own survival. Would the baby have a right to breastfeed?

    If the mother were to refuse to allow the baby to breastfeed, she would be committing infanticide – maternal infanticide. The situation of pregnancy is similar to this. Therefore, abortion is no different from infanticide. The bottom line is, people do have a right to use each other bodies as a means of their own survival if it’s a part of the natural mother/child relationship (and no replacements are available, e.g. artificial wombs, wet nurses, or formula).

    This is a part of one of my blog posts: http://thefutureofconservatism.wordpress.com/2009/09/08/the_natural_rights_objection/


  12. @ Doug: As a “poli-sci guy” I’m sure you know that it is impossible to group people based on one cause. Just b/c someone is pro-life does not mean they must support a certain set of issues. Particularly in America where the political sphere is much polarized, being on one side means you can’t be on the other. For example, someone can agree with the moral values upheld by the republican party but most definitely agree with the fiscal ideas of the democrats and vice versa. They wouldn’t be the first to cross party lines; and this doesn’t mean they can’t be pro-life AND support universal health care, foreign aid etc.


  13. My problem w/ Jarvis is how detached from the fetus she makes the woman seem. Her examples are excellent regarding rape and when the mother’s life is in danger, but not at all for consensual sex. Her tone leans toward how unfortunates it is that women can get pregnant in the first place. And just b/c their body is scientifically programmed to respond this way to sex doesn’t make them responsible (which I personally do not agree with.) In her window example she talks about a mesh screen in which a “people-seed” accidentally floats in…If people-seeds were the only form of creating human beings I think there would be a whole different level of appreciation rather than “look that thing flew in here.” Maybe I’m reading too much into it? I just think she focuses a lot on the extreme cases like rape etc which are so much easier to argue for. The majority of women who get abortions have neither been raped, or are in life-threatening situations, and I don’t think properly defended the majority who do.


  14. Well, what I get from Jarvis idea is that “what particular situation were a woman is impregnated (rape, contraception failure, incest) and her “right” for abortion “. Jarvis consider/agreed that life and personhood begins in conception. But then still abortion is acceptable because of malice and unwanted. So whats the point of accepting the thought of it and yet following uncertain decision (abortion)? I’m confused of her, honestly.
    what could possibly a more rational and natural to follow what is consciously right ? why make confuse? is it excuses,scapegoat,fear, “right”?
    I think there is more than “rights” in Man.


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