Friday, March 18, 2011

What's Good for the Goose...[Scott]

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.


  1. Thanks for the summary, Scott. I just started the "Does life begin at conception?" chapter and am really enjoying the book, and I am especially looking forward to teh chapter on "Can we kill a person?" God love you.

  2. Scott, a note on your last paragraph. I like that you (or Kaczor, really) flip the hypothetical example the other way: since we’re having a conversation about the pregnant woman’s moral right to “unplug” from the fetus at the cost of its life, let’s also consider the fetus’s moral right to “unplug” from the mother at the cost of her life.

    Musings first: You write: “Suppose the fetus had an agent . . .” to help in the detaching process. I can’t help but think: haven’t a lot of women consciously, willingly given up their lives to give birth to a child (or children) they wanted? In these cases, the woman herself is the helpful agent.

    Also, sometimes the fetus does detach on its own, without the woman’s wishing for it (or even being aware of it), in ways that can bring about her death. This is a spontaneous or non-induced abortion, a.k.a. a miscarriage, and can kill her if the “detaching” is incomplete and leads to an infection. In this case too, the fetus needs no other agent.

    But your counter-example presumably needs the fetus to end up alive. And sometimes what happens is a premature birth (which also does not require a separate agent for the fetus)—but then this also doesn’t work in your scenario because it doesn’t always kill the mother.

    And in neither of these last two cases would any of us say that the fetus made a choice, whether to abort itself or to be born prematurely.

    It’s with this question of the fetus making a choice that I think your counter-example falters. Though I think I agree with you that Thomson’s parasitical violinist is not the most apt of hypothetical scenarios (see my comments to your February 20th, 2011 post “My Body, My Choice?”), your suggestion here of a fetus’s moral right to act for its own benefit to the detriment of another goes beyond hypothesizing into unreality. For while it is hypothetically possible for a violinist to be hooked up to me in such a way as to be using my kidney etc (although the existence of dialysis techniques makes it an extremely unlikely hypothesis), it is not hypothetically possible for a fetus to make any kind of choice. It is an unreal hypothesis.

    Nor is it meaningful to imagine an agent carrying out the wishes of something that does not make choices.

    The moral right to choose—along with moral constraint on choice—is for those who can actually choose. That is, a fetus, not being able to make choices, does not have a moral “right” to make choices. (I feel like the following sentence of yours is trying to deal with this fact, but I’m not sure: “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.” What do you mean by “power”?)

    I’m not trying to say that we who are able to make choices have no moral obligation toward a fetus—only that our discussion of morality should focus on those who are in fact the moral actors. That is, this particular sword does cut only one way.


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