Sources & Extracts
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Here are some excerpts from "A Defense of Abortion"
by Judith Jarvis Thomson. Her article is widely reprinted and
may be the most famous piece of work by a professional moral philosopher
written on the subject of abortion. She writes as follows:
I propose, then, that we grant that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception. . . .
But now let me ask you to imagine this. You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist's circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, "Look, we're sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you --we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist now is plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it's only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you." Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says, "Tough luck, I agree, but you've now got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person's right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him." I imagine you would regard this as outrageous. . . .
[Later in her article, Thomson discusses more aspects of the fetus'
right to life.]
. . . [I]t is by no means enough to show that the fetus is a person, and to remind us that all persons have a right to life --we need to be shown also that killing the fetus violates its right to life, i.e., that abortion is unjust killing. And is it?
I suppose we may take it as a datum that in the case of pregnancy due to rape the mother had not given the unborn person a right to the use of her body for food and shelter. Indeed, in what pregnancy could it be supposed that the mother has given the unborn person such a right? It is not as if there were unborn persons drifting about the world, to whom a woman who wants a child says "I invite you in."
But it might be argued that there are other ways one can have acquired a right to the use of another person's body. . . . Suppose a woman voluntarily indulges in intercourse, knowing of the chance it will issue in pregnancy, and then she does become pregnant; is she not in part responsible for the presence, in fact the very existence, of the unborn person inside her? . . . But doesn't her partial responsibility for its being there itself give it a right to the use of her body? . . . [We should notice] that it is not at all plain that this argument really does go even as far as it purports to. For there are cases and cases, and the details make a difference. . . .
It seems to me that the argument we are looking at can establish at most that there are some cases in which the unborn person has a right to the use of its mother's body, and therefore some cases in which abortion is unjust killing. . . . But I think we should sidestep this issue and leave it open, for at any rate the argument certainly does not establish that all abortion is unjust killing. . . .
Except in such cases as the unborn person has a right to demand it --and we were leaving open the possibility that there may be such cases-- nobody is morally required to make large sacrifices, of health, of all other interests and concerns, of all other duties and commitments, for nine years, or even nine months, in order to keep another person alive.
Reference: From "A Defense of Abortion" by Judith Jarvis Thomson. This article first appeared in Philosophy & Public Affairs in the fall of 1971. It is included in the anthologies edited by Baird, Cohen, and Feinberg. Text in brackets added.