Judith Jarvis Thompson;s “A Defense of Abortion”

The standard argument against abortion rests on the claim that the fetus is a person and therefore has a right to life. Thomson shows why this standard argument against abortion is a somewhat inadequate account of the morality of abortion.

Her reconstruction of the argument against abortion:

1)   Every person has a right to life.

2)   The fetus is a person.

3)   So, the fetus has a right to life.

4)   So, Abortion infringes on the rights of the fetus and is impermissible.

But there is a suppressed premise needed to make the argument work because the mother also has a right to her own body (bodily integrity). As it stands the argument is invalid i.e. the conclusion does not actually follow from the premises.

1)    Every person has a right to life.

2)   The fetus is a person.

3)   So, the fetus has a right to life.

4)   The fetus’ right to life is stronger than the mother right to bodily integrity.

5)   So,  abortion is impermissible.

Thomson’s essay is examination of the crucial forth premise of the argument to determine under what circumstances it might be true that the mother right to bodily integrity is less stringent that the fetus’ right to life.

She comes to the conclusion that it is not always the case that the fetus’ right to life is stronger than the mother’s right to bodily integrity.

Main Argument: The right to life is not an absolute right. Therefore in some cases abortion is morally permissible.

“I am arguing only that that having a right to life does not guarantee having either a right to be given the use of or the right to the continued to use of another’s body – even if one needs it for life itself.”

Other Arguments: But, in some cases it seems like it is not morally permissible. And you don’t have a right to kill the child.

She assumes, for the sake of the argument, that the fetus is a person.

Probably the most interesting thing about the article is it forces us to think more explicitly about what we think morality demands that we do for other people i.e. How far do our moral obligations extend.

The extensive one’s obligation to others the less permissible abortion becomes and conversely the less extensive one’s obligations to others the more permissible abortion becomes.

One way of thinking about the essay is that she is arguing there is a contradiction between these two claims:

Women do not have a right to an abortion.

People do not have extensive and enforceable duties to aid other.

Thought experiment #1

You wake up in the hospital with a famous violinist attached to your kidneys, and he needs use of your kidneys for nine months.

1)   Every person has a right to life.

2)   The violinist is a person.

3)   Therefore, the violinist has a right to life.

4)   So, it is impermissible to unplug the violinist?

Does he have a right to life trumps your right to bodily integrity?


Exercise: Discuss with your partner what this example shows.


Is abortion permissible in the case of danger to the mother life?

The extreme View

The child’s right to life trumps even the right to life of the mother.

1)   But as directly killing an innocent person is always and absolutely impermissible, an abortion may not be performed

2)   As directly killing an innocent person is murder and murder is always and absolutely impermissible, and abortion may not be performed

3)   As one’s duty 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.

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.


Thought experiment #2

You are hooked up to the violinist and are told that you will die within a month but that you are not permitted unplug the violinist.

Does the violinist’s right to life trump your right to life?


Exercise: Discuss with your partner what this modified version of violinist thought experiment shows.


Thought experiment #3

We cannot simply read off what a person may do from what a third party may do?

You are trapped in a house with a rapidly growing child, if you do not kill the child it will kill you.

“Just because a third party does not have an obligation or a right to kill the child it does not mean that you don’t have a right to defend yourself.”

“But, I’m not claiming that a person always has a right to do whatever they need to do to save their life. I think there are drastic limits to the right of self-defense”

“a woman surely can defend her life against the threat to it posed by the unborn child, even if doing so involves its death.”

Question: When does a person have a right to do whatever they need to do to save their life?


Thought experiment #4

“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 is my body!”


Exercise: What does this thought experiment show? How is the case of Jones and Smith analogous and dis-analogous to the case of pregnancy?


Thought experiment #5

“If I am sick unto death, and the only thing that will save my life is the touch of Henry Fonda’s cool hand on my fevered brow, than all the same, I have no right to be given the touch of Henry Fonda’s cool hand on my fevered brow.”


Maybe the right to life doesn’t include the right to be given anything but only the right not to be killed by anyone?


“The right to life consists not in the right not to be killed, but rather in the right not to be killed unjustly.”

i.e. you do not unjustly kill the violinist by unplugging him

“it 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?”

A mother who has been raped has not given the unborn person the right to use her body.

“Indeed in what pregnancy could it be supposed that the mother has given the unborn person such a right?”

“unborn persons who existence is due to rape have no right to the use of their mothers bodies and thus that aborting them is not depriving them of anything they have a right to and hence not unjust killing.

if a person engages in intercourse voluntarily “then her aborting it would be more like the boy’s taking away the chocolates and less like your unplugging yourself from the violinist – doing so would be depriving it of what it does have a right to, and thus would be doing it an injustice.”

Thought experiment #6

If I open my window and a burglar climbs in does that mean he is allowed to stay because I am partly responsible for him being in my house having full knowledge that a burglar might get in if I opened the window?

What if I installed bars on my windows but a burglar got in because of a defect in the bars?

Thought experiment #7 – The Grand Finale

“Imagine there are people seeds that drift about in the air like pollen and if you open your window one may drift in and take root in your carpet or upholstery. You don’t want children, so you fix up your windows with fine mesh screens, the very best you can buy. As can happen, however, on very very rare occasions does happen, one of the screens is defective; a seed drifts in and takes root. Does the person-plant who now develops have a right to the use of your house? Surely not-despite the fact that you voluntarily opened your windows, you knowingly kept carpets and upholstered furniture and you know that screens were sometimes defective.  Someone may argue that you are responsible for its rooting, that it does have a right to your house because after all you could have lived out your life with bare floors and furniture, or with sealed windows and doors. But this won’t do – for by the same token anyone can avoid a pregnancy due to rape by having a hysterectomy, or anyway by never leaving home without a (reliable!) army”


“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”

“While I do argue that abortion is not impermissible, I do not argue that it is always permissible. There may well be cases in which carrying the child to term requires only Minimally Decent Samaritanism of the mother, and this is a standard we must not fall below. I am inclined to think it a merit of my account precisely that it does not give a general yes or a general no. It allows for a supports our sense that, for example, a sick and desperately frightened fourteen-year-old schoolgirl, pregnant due to rape, may of course choose abortion, and that any law which rules this out is an insane law. And it also allows for and supports our sense that in other cases resort to abortion is even positively indecent. It would be indecent in the woman to request an abortion, and indecent in a doctor to perform it, if she is in her seventh month, and wants the abortion just to avoid the nuisance of postponing a trip abroad”

“A very early abortion is surely not the killing of a person, so is not dealt with by anything I have said here.”


Thomson argues, quite persuasively, that the right to life does not guarantee the use of another’s body against their will

There are other relevant factors in determining what rights a person has in a given circumstance

None of her arguments apply to pregnancy in which sex was voluntary and no effort was made to prevent pregnancy

She argues that abortion in permissible in three types of cases:

Rape (violinist experiment)

Threat to mothers life (modified violinist experiment, growing baby and small house example, smith and jones experiment)

Cases where attempts were made to prevent the pregnancy (burgular and people seeds experiment)

At the end of her paper she says we must not fall below the standard of minimally decent samaritanism (MDS). However she never really says what that standard is

She doesn’t think anyone has an obligation to save anyone else’s life (remember the Henry Fonda example)

How does this example square with her claim that we must not fall below MDS?



Don Marquis – Why Abortion is Immoral

“All this suggests that a necessary condition of resolving the abortion controversy is a more theoretical account of the wrongness of killing. After all, if we merely believe, but do not understand, why killing adult human beings such as ourselves is wrong, how could we conceivably show that abortion is either immoral or permissible?”

The controversial premise in the standard abortion debate is that a fetus is a person. Thomson grants this for the sake of the argument. However Marquis attempts to make his argument against abortion without relying on the controversial premise. He attempts to make his argument without relying on any conception of rights. However as we will see this causes problems for him.

Start from what we know: It is wrong to kill us.

Why? 3 possibilities

Exhausting the logical possibilities Marquis considers whether abortion is wrong because of what it does to the killer, what it does to other people, or what it does to the victim

1)   It is wrong because of what it does to the killer. It brutalizes him.

“But the brutalization consists of being inured (Accustom someone to something) to the performance of an act that is hideously immoral; hence the brutalization does not explain the immorality.”

2)   It is wrong because of what it does to other people.

Cant be because of the loss other people would experience because it is still wrong to kill a hermit or someone whom nobody will miss.

3)   It is wrong because of what it does to me.

The loss of one’s life is the greatest loss one can suffer. The loss of one’s life deprives one of all the experiences, activities, projects, and enjoyments that would otherwise have constituted one’s future. Therefore killing is wrong, primarily because the killing inflicts one of the greatest possible losses on the victim.”

“When I am killed I am deprived both of what I now value which would have been part of my future personal life, but also what I would come to value. Therefore when I die I am deprived of all the value of my future. Inflicting this loss on me is ultimately what makes killing me wrong. This being the case, it would seem that what makes killing any adult human being prima facie seriously wrong is the loss of his or her future.”

Two considerations in support of his view

1)   we consider killing the worst crime i.e. the worst thing you could do to someone

2)   people that are dying of terminal illness believe the loss of their future is a bad thing

Other Considerations in his Favor (according to Marquis)

My argument supports not killing intelligent life in any form

It is indeterminate with regard to animal rights i.e. some animals may have the same right to life as humans and some might have no right to life

It doesn’t entail that euthanasia is wrong as some anti-abortion arguments do

I think this might be a strong point, but I would be surprised if this account is the only account that does this

It does imply that it is wrong to kill children and infants

“Abortion, like ordinary killing, could be justified only by the most compelling reasons. . . .Presumably abortion could be justified in some circumstances, only if the loss consequent on failing to abort would be at least as great

Marquis’ Basic Argument:

1)   It is morally wrong to deny anyone a future of value.

2)   In most cases abortion denies the fetus a future of value.

3)   So, in most cases abortion is morally wrong.

The “most cases” refer to the fact that in some cases Marquis’ account would actually obligated us to perform an abortion. This would be the case in situations where the fetus does not posses a future of value.

Exercise: Discuss what these cases might be.


  • What about the loss of the mother’s future? How do we weigh that against the future of the child?
  • How do decide at what point a life is valuable, valuable enough to on balance to justify its continued existence? What about a child with a heart condition that we know will only live to be 2? 5? 10?
  • Do we have permission as to when to terminate a life?
  • Do we have an obligation to terminate a life under certain circumstances in which a future will have a negative value?

Notice that these are the types of questions a utilitarian would have to answer.

The problem with Marquis’ argument is that in attempting to avoid all talk of persons and rights he ends up relying on a utilitarian account of right and wrong. These are general problems that utilitarianism faces when it obligates us to do things that we don’t think we should be obligated to do. In this case, produce children.

Is contraception immoral?

“The ethics of killing in this essay would entail that contraception is wrong only if something were denied a human future of value by contraception. Nothing at all is denied such a future by contraception. . . .There is no actual combination at all.  Is the subject of the loss to be merely a possible combination? Which one? The immorality of contraception is not entailed by the loss of a future like ours argument simply because there is no non-arbitrarily identifiable subject of the loss in the case of contraception.”

Marquis claims that only actual subjects, not merely possible subjects, of a future of value count in the moral calculations.

Here it looks like Marquis is retreating to a conception of rights away from his earlier utilitarian claims because he is saying only actually existing combinations have a future of value, which is not very different from saying that only existing persons have a right to their future, not merely possible persons.

He seems to be making a kind of utilitarian claim about already existing beings i.e. that we have an obligation to maximize the happiness of already existing beings, but that is not how utitlitarianism works. If we have some duty to maximize consequences then it applies to all the beings that will exist in the future.

1. (Assertion/Premise) If contraception is wrong then it takes away anyone’s future of value. (If P then Q)

2. (Assertion/Premise) Only actual beings have futures of value.

3.  (From 2) So, contraception does not take away anyone’s future of value. (Not-Q)

4.  (From 1 and 3) So, contraception is not wrong. (Not-P)

Premise 1 could be derived from standard utilitarian principles. However, premise 2 is the problematic one for Marquis is it seems obviously un-utitliarian.

Summary of Marquis’ argument

Marquis, like Thomson is looking to sidestep the impasse in the abortion discussion by finding a way around the disagreement regarding the personhood of the fetus. To do this he relies on a the fact the fetuses have a future of value and the claim that just like it is wrong to deprive an adult human being of their future of value it is also wrong to deprive a fetus of its future of value. On the surface his approach is not committed  on any of the three normative ethical theories (utilitarianism, contractarianism, contractualism) that we have covered. One obvious problem with this approach is that it seems to prove too much. It seems show that in addition to abortion being wrong, contraception is also wrong, because in some cases contraception denies a possible person a future of value. However, Marquis thinks that only actual persons, ie. already existing persons or entities that will become persons, have futures of value.

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