In my study of abortion I have chosen two prominent philosophical arguments- one that argues for abortion, and one that argues against.
The first paper was written by John T. Noonan Jr., titled “An Almost Absolute Value in History.” He argues that a fetus is a person and his thesis is that if you are conceived by human parents, you are human. He tests the thesis by analyzing the major arguments against fetal personhood. Without fail, each argument collapses.
Noonan covers what he calls “the most popular” argument first: viability. Here’s how it goes. A fetus is not a person until it is viable; that is until it is no longer dependent upon its mother to survive.
Noonan shows how viability cannot be the criteria for personhood because as medicine progresses, the age that a fetus becomes viable gets lower and lower. Also, Noonan says, “there is considerable elasticity to the idea of viability. Mere length of life is not an exact measure.” Each fetus progresses at different rates. Even the racial group to which the fetus belongs affects when it is viable. According to Noonan, “If viability is the norm, the standard would vary with race and with many individual circumstances.”
However, the most important argument against using a viability test for personhood is based on what viability really means- that the fetus is dependent upon the mother for survival.
“Dependence is not ended by viability. The fetus is still absolutely dependent on someone’s care in order to continue existence; indeed a child of one or three or even five years of age is absolutely dependent on another’s care for existence; uncared for, the older fetus or the younger child will die as surely as the early fetus detached from the mother. The unsubstantial lessening in dependence at viability does not seem to signify any special acquisition of humanity.”Therefore the “easy” argument of viability does not work. Viability cannot be the standard for the permissibility of abortion. The other common arguments are experience, the sentiments and sensations of parents, and social visibility. As Noonan puts it, “by force of the argument from the consequences,” these personhood distinctions are rejected.
I would like to try and briefly summarize Noonan’s coverage of the social visibility argument. I think it very instructive of the dangerous ground on which pro-abortionists tread as they try to rationalize abortion by denying the fetus personhood.
The argument goes like this: Since the fetus is not perceived socially by others, it is not human. It is not a member of society, and “excluded from the society of men, the fetus is excluded from the humanity of men.” What is the problem with this argument? In Noonan’s words,
“If humanity depends on social recognition, individuals or whole groups may be dehumanized by being denied any status in their society….the failure of society to recognize the prisoner, the alien, the heterodox as human has led to the destruction of human beings…Any attempt to limit humanity to exclude some groups runs the risk of furnishing authority and precedent for excluding other groups in the name of the consciousness or perception of the controlling group in the society.”
After reading Noonan’s arguments, the difficulty pro-abortionists face becomes obvious. By withholding personhood from a fetus, they inadvertently deny personhood to groups that are without a doubt human. Indeed, this dilemma has forced the hand of many abortion apologists, making them deny personhood to the elderly, the handicapped, and the newly born.
One apologist chose another route. This route allowed her to avoid the pitfalls of redefining personhood. In “A Defense of Abortion” Judith Jarvis Thomson allows for a fetus to be a person, even at the moment of conception. Not because she believes it- she obviously does not. No, she does it so that she can argue that it doesn’t matter. She challenges the traditional pro-life argument that since a fetus is a human, abortion is murder and therefore unallowable under any circumstance by using the following thought experiment:
“…..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 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, ad can safely be unplugged from you.”
This is a quite famous thought experiment, and Thomson is given much credit for abortion’s legalization. Most people would agree that the violinist has no valid claim to be “plugged” into you. Therefore, no crime is committed by unplugging him, even were it to result in his death. Now, astute readers will immediately point out that the violinist was forcibly plugged into you, which is certainly not the case in all pregnancies. Thomson of course knows this, and concedes that this example works best in the case of pregnancy due to rape. But this is just the beginning of her attack on the traditional “abortion is murder” argument. Thomson is arguing against the so called “extreme view” held by many pro-lifers. That is that abortion is murder in every case, even those pregnancies due to rape. This is Thomson’s “foot in the door” maneuver; she believes that proving the extreme view is unreasonable will open the floodgates in her favor.
As Thomson parries every conceivable attack on her violinist argument, she delineates three distinct definitions of “right to life”:
1. Right to be given at least the bare minimum one needs for continued life.
2. Right not to be killed by anybody
3. Right not to be killed unjustly.
Thomson fairly handily deflates the first two proposed definitions, and seems to rest her case on the third. Just what constitutes an “unjust killing?” By force of her violinist example, she makes it plain that rape victim abortions do not qualify as unjust. She then jumps on that crack in the pro-life armor by saying,
“this argument would give the unborn person a right to its mother’s body only if her pregnancy resulted from a voluntary act, undertaken in full knowledge of the chance of a pregnancy might result from it.”
To this point in her paper , I find myself warily nodding my head in agreement, a little unsettled by the rationalizations in Thomson’s arguments, and a little unsure of the relevance of some her thought experiments, but overall everything seems quite rational.
However, until now Thomson is playing coy. She has attacked the weakest links in the pro-life “extreme view” argument: Rape and the mother’s own life at risk. But those two very rare circumstances are not the end of her argument. Rather, they are merely a means to an end.
Thomson’s view of abortion is heavily influenced by her perspective of procreation and conception. The flaw in her reasoning is revealed in the following paragraph, written just after Thomson makes her point about unjust killing:
“I suppose we may take it as a datum that in a case of pregnancy due to rape the mother has 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.”
Hmmm….In what pregnancy? That’s a very good question. In fact, it may well be that Ms. Thomson has stumbled upon the key to the abortion controversy. Interestingly, though she may not have realized it, Thomson has already answered.
Recall that after settling on “the right not to be killed unjustly” as the only acceptable definition for a “right to life,” Thomson explained that unjust killing in the case of abortion occurs if the pregnancy “resulted from a voluntary act, undertaken in full knowledge of the chance a pregnancy might result from it. That would label as “unjust” every abortion for pregnancies not the result of rape, because certainly consensual sex is a voluntary act. But Thomson is not satisfied with her victory over the “extreme view.” She now attempts to show that an “unwanted” pregnancy is grounds for an abortion-that it is not unjust killing to obtain one- because the mother has not expressly given the baby permission to be there. However, she fails to show how killing a person goes from unjust to just simply because the mother of the person doesn’t want her. Thomson argues that if every precaution is taken to prevent conception, but that a baby is formed anyway, it is no longer unjust to kill her. But Thomson’s’ earlier definition still applies. It is still a “voluntary act undertaken in full knowledge of the chance a pregnancy might result from it.”
Thomson’s efforts to bridge the gap between “voluntary” and “unwanted” fall far short. She variously compares the person created, a person brought into very existence by her mother and father, to “people pollen” and burglars circumventing the very best home-security systems. But the fact that the pregnancy may not have been “voluntary” does not negate the fact that the act of conception irrevocably is.
So what are we left with then? A study of two highly influential scholars on opposite sides of the abortion debate has shown the great difficulty facing all who attempt to deny a fetus personhood. For in so doing living, breathing humans are denied their humanity as well. One scholar tried to show that abortion is acceptable despite granting the fetus full personhood, but only partially succeeded. It is clear, then, that abortion amounts to killing a living human being. With very rare exceptions, these killings are unjust, and therefore should be illegal.