"Most opposition to abortion relies on the premise that the fetus is a human being, a person, from the moment of conception.... The prospects for "drawing a line" in the development of the fetus look dim. I am inclined to think also that we shall probably have to agree that the fetus has already become a human person well before birth.... How, precisely, are we supposed to get from there to the conclusion that abortion is morally impermissible? Opponents of abortion commonly spend most of their time establishing that the fetus is a person, and hardly anytime explaining the step from there to the impermissibility of abortion.... I suggest that the step they take is neither easy nor obvious, that it calls for closer examination than it is commonly given, and that when we do give it this closer examination we shall feel inclined to reject it."
Thus begins one of the most disgusting defenses of abortion ever written. Judith Jarvis Thomson sets out to establish that abortion is justified not because it's not the killing of a innocent life, but rather that it is a justified killing of a human life in her highly published article, "A Defense of Abortion."
Well, I have been sitting on responding to this moral argument for a while now and it's high time that I actually write up a response. While I understand that Thomson was arguing from the perspective of an atheist, as a Christian, I cannot truly discuss an issue of morality such as this without appealing to the one true standard for morality - God. Thus, I write this post more to Christians who would support abortion. Thankfully, these are rare at the moment. I do hope that that will continue.
Fetus or Baby?
Although definitely not the focus of Thomson's point, she does point out that she does not believe an unborn baby to be strictly speaking a human being. She argues against the case simply that because this "fetus" will become a human being at some point, doesn't mean that it is a human being now. She presents the argument of an acorn. Just because an acorn will one day become an oak tree does not make the acorn an oak tree.
This indeed is an admirable refutation of an argument for why a fetus is actually human. Thankfully, I have never actually used that argument! While I could spend time defending this argument, I find it much more valuable to just look at the Lord's word in Jeremiah 1:5
"Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations."
To prove that a fetus is truly human and has these rights, I need not do anything more than appealing to those words and the final authority on this world. It is thus unnecessary for me to mention that Thomson herself admits,
"I am inclined to agree, however, that the prospects for "drawing a line" in the development of the fetus look dim. I am inclined to think also that we shall probably have to agree that the fetus has already become a human person well before birth."
The Violinist AnalogyThe crown and jewel of Thomson's argument to defend abortion seems to be her use of the violinist analogy. Since most of the rest of her arguments are built upon this one, it is important that we properly understand her point. She writes,
"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 medical 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 is now 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.'"
I think the very nature of this analogy is abominable. She tries to simply separate the act of abortion from the consequences by saying that we are just unplugging someone from access to our own body (obviously not mine, I'm male).
But let's just take some time to point out the obvious difference between the violinist mentioned here, and the unborn baby at risk of abortion. In the first place, there was a conscious move of the violinist or those representing the violinist to put you in this position. They committed violence to cause this to happen. Those representing his interests caused violence.
But in no situation does a baby or anyone representing a baby consciously commit violence to put you in pregnancy. Yes, there can be rape, which is a violent act, but the rapist is no more a representative of the child than Barney is. It would be unjust indeed to kill the baby for the act of the father.
Rape is a horrible act of violence, but that does not condone another act of violence against the unborn baby. Unlike in the analogy of the violinist, the violence was not made on behalf of that child.
Second, the use of the organs for the violinist is an unnatural process. It is one that requires being plugged into a machine to do it for you. When a baby is conceived, however, it is the specific purpose of those organs. As Matthew Lu, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of St. Thomas, writes,
"We may begin by noticing that although it might be possible for one person’s kidneys to 'extract poisons' from another person’s blood, there is no sense in which that is a normal part of the operation of those organs.... However, there is a clear and obvious sense in which a woman’s reproductive organs are for the gestation and protection of a child.... A related difference between the two cases is revealed when we reflect on Thomson’s description of the act of 'unplugging.' It is precisely because the violinist case involves the extrinsic use of the victim’s kidneys in a non-natural way that the intuitive notion of 'unplugging' applies.... Consider how this differs from pregnancy. While it is true that pregnancy is impermanent, the end of pregnancy is built into the nature of the process itself.... In other words, the embedding of the early embryo into the uterine lining is not a 'plugging in'—there is no equivalent external agent that does the plugging... In the violinist case, the restoration is both conceptually and imaginatively clear—just pull the plug."
If we really want to examine these two points, we must acknowledge that the violinist's actions are against the proper function of the body, while the "actions" of the baby are within the natural functions of the body and it is abortion that violates that standard.
Right to My Body
The meat of the rest of Thomson's argument goes hand and hand with the meat of almost every pro-abortion argument since this article was first posted. It's my body; thus, I have a right to do with it whatever it is that I desire, even if that means death to a child.
As Christians, we can already tell that this argument fails to hold much water. It is not strictly speaking our body at all. It is the Lord's. Indeed, the Bible goes to great lengths to show us this in I Corinthians 6:19-20
"What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's."
I guess this means I won't be mentioning that ownership doesn't give full liberty anyway (for instance, I own this pan, but I have no right to use it to kill you).
Rights vs. ObligationsThomson's final argument presents the case that simply because I have an obligation to help you, it does not follow that you have a right to my help. Thomson specifically uses an analogy of a boy who is given chocolates and refuses to share with his brother. In Thomson's view, the boy has an obligation to share his chocolate, but his brother does not actually have a right to them.
She thus wants to distinguish between the obligation of a parent to protecting a child and the right of that child to that protection. I actually follow her logic here to a degree. This only raises the question then, what is the obligation of a parent in relation to an unborn child?
It seems very fitting that Thomson follows up the argument of the distinction of rights and obligations with the story of the Good Samaritan, as the Good Samaritan actually provides a solid obligation for Christians to not commit abortion.
"We have in fact to distinguish between the two kinds of Samaritan: the Good Samaritan and what we call the Minimally Decent Samaritan.... The Good Samaritan went out of his way, at some cost to himself, to help one in need of it. We are not told what the options were, that is, whether or not the priest and the Levite could have helped by doing less than the Good Samaritan did, but assuming they could have, then the fact that they did nothing at all shows they were not even Minimally Decent Samaritans, not because they were not Samaritans, but because they were not even minimally decent."
Thomson then goes on a very odd distinction of different levels of Samaritans that I don't find quite worthy of discussing here. The point I would simply like to make is that we should not desire to just be minimally decent Samaritans here. We might even want to be what Thomson calls, "Splendid Samaritans." Jesus did clearly tell us to,
"Go and do thou likewise."
So we are called to help people at cost to ourselves. I don't want to ever be accused of doing too little when it comes to serving others, especially the defenseless unborn children in the womb.
There is another obligation that most people would accept - that parents have an obligation to protect their young children from danger when they are too young to protect themselves. Sometimes this means staying up late at night and forfeiting certain functions of their body (namely, sleep) to protect the baby.
Why then do we not expect the same obligation before the child is born? As Doris Gordon, National Coordinator for Libertarians for Life, wrote,
"Most abortion-choicers accept, in principle at least, the obligation of parents to protect immature children. Not many would say that leaving one's infant unattended in hazardous situations is a matter of the parent's choice. When their children get very sick in the middle of the night and need help, most abortion choicers don't go back to sleep saying, 'So what if my kid might die? I have the right to control my own body, don't I?' What difference does it make for a woman's rights whether her kid is in the crib or in her womb? It's her self-same body after, as well as before, birth. And it's her self-same child."