My flight to SFO went quick in part because I chose to tune out the overcrowded coach section and focus exclusively on Christopher Kaczor’s The Ethics of Abortion.
Get the book. His chapter refuting the bodily rights arguments of Judith Jarvis Thomson and David Boonin is great. True, he covers many points we’ve addressed elsewhere on this site (see here and here), but he also adds some new takes on the issue.
Briefly, Thomson argues that even if the unborn is human, innocent, and has a right to life, he does not have the right to use the mother’s body to sustain his own life against her will. She may withhold support if she chooses. Abortion is the justified withholding of support. In addition to her famous violinist analogy where she likens unwanted pregnancy to being forcibly hooked up to a musician that needs your kidney to survive, she describes the fetus as an intruder, though an innocent one. The mother may justly remove the intruder if she wants to withhold supporting him.
Of course, for Thomson’s argument to work, the relationship between the mother and the intruder must parallel the mother’s relationship to her own child. Right away there are problems. First, there can be no intruder until two parents create him. Second, abortion is much more than withholding support—it’s actively killing another human through dismemberment or poisoning. Indeed, per Thomson, I not only have the right to remove an innocent intruder from my yard; I can cut him up and throw his body parts in the garbage! As abortion-choice advocate and philosopher Mary Anne Warren points out, “mere ownership does not give me the right to kill innocent people whom I find on my property.”
Nor is pregnancy parallel to being forcibly hooked up to a violinist. In Thomson’s analogy, the violinist has an underlying pathology and needs your kidney to survive. If you unplug him, he eventually dies from his illness, not because you actively killed him. You might even argue that although his death was foreseen, you did not intend it by withholding your support. Indeed, as Kaczor points out, a general in a just war may foresee that some of his troops will be killed in battle, but he does not intend their deaths. Conversely, with elective abortion, the death of the unborn human is not only foreseen; it’s intended. He dies not from an underlying pathology, but from an intentional act of dismemberment. Moreover, other than the case of rape, waking up and finding yourself forcibly hooked up to a violinist is not like pregnancy where both father and mother voluntarily engaged in an act biologically ordered to the creation of offspring.
Kaczor adds a point I hadn’t considered, namely, that Thomson is inconsistent. That is, while it’s true that you did not choose to be hooked up to the violinist, it’s equally true that he didn’t choose to be hooked up to you. If you may unplug yourself by directly killing him, then he should be free to unplug by directly killing you. True, the fetus lacks the power to detach, but the question here is not power but the moral right to detach at the cost of the mother’s life. Suppose the fetus had an agent to help him do this the same way a mother has an agent to perform the abortion. Is the fetus morally justified detaching even though it kills his mother? In short, if the violinist may not unplug himself causing your death, then you should not unplug and cause his.
I guess you could say the sword cuts both ways.