A few questions regarding the Philosophers Thomson, Singer, Norcross, Begby, Reichberg, and Syse.

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JUDITH JARVIS THOMSON
A Defense of Abortion 1
Most opposition to abortion relies on the premise that the fetus is a
human being, a person, from the moment of conception. The premise
is argued for, but, as I think, not well. Take, for example, the most
common argument. We are asked to notice that the development of
a human being from conception through birth into childhood is continuous; then it is said that to draw a line, to choose a point in this
development and say “before this point the thing is not a person, after
this point it is a person” is to make an arbitrary choice, a choice for
which in the nature of things no good reason can be given. It is concluded that the fetus is, or anyway that we had better say it is, a person from the moment of conception. But this conclusion does not follow. Similar things might be said about the development of an acorn
into an oak tree, and it does not follow that acorns are oak trees, or
that we had better say they are. Arguments of this form are sometimes
called “slippery slope arguments”-the phrase is perhaps self-explanatory-and it is dismaying that opponents of abortion rely on them so
heavily and uncritically.
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. Indeed, it comes as a surprise when one first learns how early in its life it begins to acquire
human characteristics. By the tenth week, for example, it already has
I. I am very much indebted to James Thomson for discussion, criticism, and
many helpful suggestions.
Philosophy & Public Affairs
a face, arms and legs, fingers and toes; it has internal organs, and
brain activity is detectable. 2 On the other hand, I think that the premise is false, that the fetus is not a person from the moment of conception. A newly fertilized ovum, a newly implanted clump of cells, is
no more a person than an acorn is an oak tree. But I shall not discuss
any of this. For it seems to me to be of great interest to ask what
happens if, for the sake of argument, we allow the premise. 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 any time explaining the step from there to the impermissibility
of abortion. Perhaps they think the step too simple and obvious to
require much comment. Or perhaps instead they are simply being economical in argument. Many of those who defend abortion rely on the
premise that the fetus is not a person, but only a bit of tissue that
will become a person at birth; and why pay out more arguments than
you have to? Whatever the explanation, 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.
I propose, then, that we grant that the fetus is a person. from the
moment of conception. How does the argument go from here? Something like this, I take it. Every person has a right to life. So the fetus
has a right to life. No doubt the mother has a right to decide what
shall happen in and to her body; everyone would grant that. But surely
a person’s right to life is stronger and more stringent than the mother’s
right to decide what happens in and to her body, and so outweighs it.
So the fetus may not be killed; an abortion may not be performed.
It sounds plausible. 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
2. Daniel Callahan, Abortion: Law, Choice and Morality (New York, 1970 ),
p. 373. This book gives a fascinating survey of the available information on
abortion. The Jewish tradition is surveyed in David M. Feldman, Birth Control in
Jewish Law (New York, 1968), Part 5, the Catholic tradition in John T. Noonan,
Jr., “An Almost Absolute Value in History,” in The Morality of Abortion, ed. John
T. Noonan, Jr. (Cambridge, Mass., 1970).
49
A Defense of Abortion
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 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 be 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, which suggests that
something really is wrong with that plausible-sounding argument I
mentioned a moment ago.
In this case, of course, you were kidnapped; you didn’t volunteer
for the operation that plugged the violinist into your kidneys. Can
those who oppose abortion on the ground I mentioned make an exception for a pregnancy due to rape? Certainly. They can say that persons have a right to life only if they didn’t come into existence because
of rape; or they can say that all persons have a right to life, but that
some have less of a right to life than others, in particular, that those
who came into existence because of rape have less. But these statements have a rather unpleasant sound. Surely the question of whether
you have a right to life at all, or how much of it you have, shouldn’t
turn on the question of whether or not you are the product of a rape.
And in fact the people who oppose abortion on the ground I mentioned do not make this distinction, and hence do not make an exception in case of rape.
50
Philosophy & Public Affairs
Nor do they make an exception for a case in which the mother has
to spend the nine months of her pregnancy in bed. They would agree
that would be a great pity, and hard on the mother; but all the same,
all persons have a right to life, the fetus is a person, and so on. I suspect, in fact, that they would not make an exception for a case in
which, miraculously enough, the pregnancy went on for nine years,
or even the rest of the mother’s life.
Some won’t even make an exception for a case in which continuation of the pregnancy is likely to shorten the mother’s life; they regard
abortion as impermissible even to save the mother’s life. Such cases
are nowadays very rare, and many opponents of abortion do not accept
this extreme view. All the same, it is a good place to begin: a number
of points of interest come out in respect to it.
I. Let us call the view that abortion is impermissible even to save
the mother’s life “the extreme view.” I want to suggest first that it does
not issue from the argument I mentioned earlier without the addition
of some fairly powerful premises. Suppose a woman has become pregnant, and now learns that she has a cardiac condition such that she
will die if she carries the baby to term. What may be done for her?
The fetus, being a person, has a right to life, but as the mother is a
person too, so has she a right to life. Presumably they have an equal
right to life. How is it supposed to come out that an abortion may
not be performed? If mother and child have an equal right to life,
shouldn’t we perhaps flip a coin? Or should we add to the mother’s
right to life her right to decide what happens in and to her body,
which everybody seems to be ready to grant-the sum of her rights
now outweighing the fetus’ right to life?
The most familiar argument here is the following. We are told that
performing the abortion would be directly killings the child, whereas
doing nothing would not be killing the mother, but only letting her
die. Moreover, in killing the child, one would be killing an innocent
person, for the child has committed no crime, and is not aiming at
his mother’s death. And then there are a variety of ways in which this
3. The term “direct” in the arguments I refer to is a technical one. Roughly,
what is meant by “direct killing” is either killing as an end in itself, or killing
as a means to some end, for example, the end of saving someone else’s life. See
note 6, below, for an example of its use.
51
A Defense of Abortion
might be continued. ( 1) But as directly killing an innocent person is
always and absolutely impermissible, an abortion may not be performed. Or, ( 2) as directly killing an innocent person is murder, and
murder is always and absolutely impermissible, an abortion may not
be performed. 4 Or, (3) as one’s duty to refrain from directly killing an
innocent person is more stringent than one’s duty to keep a person
from dying, an abortion may not be performed. Or, ( 4) if one’s only
options are. directly killing an innocent person or letting a person die,
one must prefer letting the person die, and thus an abortion may not
be performed. 5
Some people seem to have thought that these are not further premises which must be added if the conclusion is to be reached, but that
they follow from the very fact that an innocent person has a right to
life. 6 But this seems to me to be a mistake, and perhaps the simplest
way to show this is to bring out that while we must certainly grant
that innocent persons have a right to life, the theses in ( 1) through
( 4) are all false. Take ( 2), for example. If directly killing an innocent person is murder, and thus is impermissible, then the mother’s
directly killing the innocent person inside her is murder, and thus is
4. Cf. Encyclical Letter of Pope Pius XI on Christian Marriage, St. Paul Editions (Boston, n.d. ), p. 32: “however much we may pity the mother whose health
and even life is gravely imperiled in the performance of the duty allotted to her
by nature, nevertheless what could ever be a sufficient reason for excusing in any
way the direct murder of the innocent? This is precisely what we are dealing
with here.” Noonan (The Morality of Abortion, p. 43) reads this as follows:
“What cause can ever avail to excuse in any way the direct killing of the innocent? For it is a question of that.”
5. The thesis in (4) is in an interesting way weaker than those in (1), (2),
and ( 3): they rule out abortion even in cases in which both mother and child
will die if the abortion is not performed. By contrast, one who held the view
expressed in ( 4) could consistently say that one needn’t prefer letting two persons die to killing one.
6. Cf. the following passage from Pius XII, Address to the Italian Catholic
Society of Midwives: “The baby in the maternal breast has the right to life immediately from God.-Hence there is no man, no human authority, no science, no
medical, eugenic, social, economic or moral ‘indication’ which can establish or
grant a valid juridical ground for a direct deliberate disposition of an innocent
human life, that is a disposition which looks to its destruction either as an end
or as a means to another end perhaps in itself not illicit.-The baby, still not
born, is a man in the same degree and for the same reason as the mother”
(quoted in Noonan, The Morality of Abortion, p. 45).
52
Philosophy & Public Affairs
impermissible. But it cannot seriously be thought to be murder if the
mother performs an abortion on herself to save her life. It cannot
seriously be said that she must refrain, that she must sit passively by
and wait for her death. Let us look again at the case of you and the
violinist. There you are, in bed with the violinist, and the director of
the hospital says to you, “It’s all most distressing, and I deeply sympathize, but you see this is putting an additional strain on your kidneys, and you’ll be dead within the month. But you have to stay where
you are all the same. Because unplugging you would be directly killing an innocent violinist, and that’s murder, and that’s impermissible.” If anything in the world is true, it is that you do not commit
murder, you do not do what is impermissible, if you reach around to
your back and unplug yourself from that violinist to save your life.
The main focus of attention in writings on abortion has been on
what a third party may or may not do in answer to a request from a
woman for an abortion. This is in a way understandable. Things being
as they are, there isn’t much a woman can safely do to abort herself.
So the question asked is what a third party may do, and what the
mother may do, if it is mentioned at all, is deduced, almost as an afterthought, from what it is concluded that third parties may do. But it
seems to me that to treat the matter in this way is to refuse to grant
to the mother that very status of person which is so firmly insisted on
for the fetus. For we cannot simply read off what a person may do
from what a third party may do. Suppose you find yourself trapped
in a tiny house with a growing child. I mean a very tiny house, and a
rapidly growing child-you are already up against the wall of the
house and in a few minutes you’ll be crushed to death. The child on
the other hand won’t be crushed to death; if nothing is done to stop
him from growing he’ll be hurt, but in the end he’ll simply burst open
the house and walk out a free man. Now I could well understand it
if a bystander were to say, “There’s nothing we can do for you. We
cannot choose between your life and his, we cannot be the ones to
decide who is to live, we cannot intervene.” But it cannot be concluded
that you too can do nothing, that you cannot attack it to save your
life. However innocent the child may be, you do not have to wait passively while it crushes you to death. Perhaps a pregnant woman is
vaguely felt to have the status of house, to which we don’t allow the
53
A Defense of Abortion
right of self-defense. But if the woman houses the child, it should be
remembered that she is a person who houses it.
I should perhaps stop to say explicitly that I am not claiming that
people have a right to do anything whatever to save their lives. I think,
rather, that there are drastic limits to the right of self-defense. If
someone threatens you with death unless you torture someone else
to death, I think you have not the right, even to save your life, to do
so. But the case under consideration here is very different. In our case
there are only two people involved, one whose life is threatened, and
one who threatens it. Both are innocent: the one who is threatened is
not threatened because of any fault, the one who threatens does not
threaten because of any fault. For this reason we may feel that we
bystanders cannot intervene. But the person threatened can.
In sum, a woman surely can defend her life against the threat to
it posed by the unborn child, even if doing so involves its death. And
this shows not merely that the theses in (I) through ( 4) are false; it
shows also that the extreme view of abortion is false, and so we need
not canvass any other possible ways of arriving at it from the argument I mentioned at the outset.
2. The extreme view could of course be weakened to say that while
abortion is permissible to save the mother’s life, it may not be performed by a third party, but only by the mother herself. But this cannot be right either. For what we have to keep in mind is that the
mother and the unborn child are not like two tenants in a small house
which has, by an unfortunate mistake, been rented to both: the
mother owns the house. The fact that she does adds to the offensiveness of deducing that the mother can do nothing from the supposition
that third parties can do nothing. But it does more than this: it casts
a bright light on the supposition that third parties can do nothing.
Certainly it lets us see that a third party who says “I cannot choose
between you” is fooling himself if he thinks this is impartiality. If
Jones has found and fastened on a certain coat, which he needs to
keep him from freezing, but which Smith also needs to keep him from
freezing, then it is not impartiality that says “I cannot choose between
you” when Smith owns the coat. Women have said again and again
“This body is my body!” and they have reason to feel angry, reason to
feel that it has been like shouting into the wind. Smith, after all, is
54
Philosophy & Public Affairs
hardly likely to bless us if we say to him, “Of course it’s your coat,
anybody would grant that it is. But no one may choose between you
and Jones who is to have it.”
We should really ask what it is that says “no one may choose” in
the face of the fact that the body that houses the child is the mother’s
body. It may be simply a failure to appreciate this fact. But it may be
something more interesting, namely the sense that one has a right to
refuse to lay hands on people, even where it would be just and fair to
do so, even where justice seems to require that somebody do so. Thus
justice might call for somebody to get Smith’s coat back from Jones,
and yet you have a right to refuse to be the one to lay hands on Jones,
a right to refuse to do physical violence to him. This, I think, must be
granted. But then what should be said is not “no one may choose,”
but only “I cannot choose,” and indeed not even this, but “I will not
act,” leaving it open that somebody else can or should, and in particular that anyone in a position of authority, with the job of securing
people’s rights, both can and should. So this is no difficulty. I have
not been arguing that any given third party must accede to the mother’s request that he perform an abortion to save her life, but only that
he may.
I suppose that in some views of human life the mother’s body is only
on loan to her, the loan not being one which gives her any prior claim
to it. One who held this view might well think it impartiality to say
“I cannot choose.” But I shall simply ignore this possibility. My own
view is that if a human being has any just, prior claim to anything at
all, he has a just, prior claim to his own body. And perhaps this
needn’t be argued for here anyway, since, as I mentioned, the arguments against abortion we are looking at do grant that the woman
has a right to decide what happens in and to her body.
But although they do grant it, I have tried to show that they do not
take seriously what is done in granting it. I suggest the same thing
will reappear even more clearly when we turn away from cases in
which the mother’s life is at stake, and attend, as I propose we now
do, to the vastly more common cases in which a woman wants an
abortion for some less weighty reason than preserving her own life.
3. Where the mother’s life is not at stake, the argument I mentioned at the outset seems to have a much stronger pull. “Everyone
55
A Defense of Abortion
has a right to life, so the unborn person has a right to life.” And isn’t
the child’s right to life weightier than anything other than the mother’s own right to life, which she might put forward as ground for an

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