2009 Proseminar Thompson notes

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Reading Notes

Judith Jarvis Thompson, "A Defense of Abortion"

  • begins assuming fetus is a person, though she denies that a clump of cells is a person. Wants to see where the arguments goes with that assumption.
  • step from showing its a person to concluding that it can't be aborted needs more attention. Most of the attention falls on showing it's a person.
P1. Fetus is a person.
Every person has a right to life.
Fetus has a rights to life.


Violinist Thought Experiment. 48

  • Point: You don't have an obligation to remain connected to the violinist.
  • "the extreme view" is that abortion is impermissible even to save the life of the mother.
  • additional premises needed for the extreme view:
  • 1. Direct killing of an innocent person is alway and absolutely impermissible
  • 2. Direct killing .... is murder, murder is always impermissible.
  • 3. Duty to refrain from direct killing is always stronger than duty to keep a person from dying.
  • But all of these additional premises are false.
  • If the mother performs abortion on herself to save her life, that can't be murder. 51-52.
  • Part of the problem in the abortion discussion is that we always decide what's permissible for a 3rd party to do, because we always assume the abortion is performed by a 3rd party.

Tiny House thought experiment. 52

  • Point: A 3rd party might say to you "There's no way to choose between you and the child", but that doesn't mean that you can't choose between you and the child.
  • Still, there are limits to self-defense.
  • Variation on the Tiny House thought experiment - include notion of maternal ownership of the "house". Then the 3rd party could help. Two people need a coat to keep from freezing, but one person owns it.
  • 55: meaning of "right to life"
  • any right to life that the violinist has doesn't entail a right to your kidneys. If "the touch of Henry Fonda's cool hand on my brow" were the only thing that could save my life, it wouldn't follow that I have a right to it.
  • often understood as "right not to be killed by anybody", but the purely negative formulation would leave you unable to act against the violinist and would essentially confer a positive right on him to your kidneys.
  • 56: the right to life doesn't guarantee having a right to the use of someone's body. So right to life will not serve opponents of abortion as they think.

Section 4

  • Another way to bring it out. To deny someone's rights is to treat them unjustly, but it's not unjust to deny the violinist use of your kidneys.
  • The right to life must be understood in terms of "unjust killing". So the violinst could have the right to life, but you do not kill him unjustly by unplugging him.
  • 57b [addresses the problem of voluntariness.]
  • by having intercourse, isn't the woman "inviting" the person in? partly responsible?
  • example of the burglar. You aren't partly responsible for the burglar coming in just because you open the window.

People seed thought experiment. 58

  • Point: As with the burglar, the people seed that slips through the screen doesn't acquire a right to your house.

Section 5.

  • From the other side....
  • It would be "morally indecent" to deny the violinist use of your kidneys for one hour.
  • [interesting. an anti-abortionist could argue that the same applies to "nine months"]
  • but this doesn't warrant claims of injustice or denial of rights if you don't.

Section 6.

  • from the pro-choice critic. Thomson's argument does not allow you to guarantee the death of the fetus. If unplugging him doesn't kill him, you have no interest in seeing him dead.
  • It think what Thompon is attempting to do in this article is to give a more moderate defense of abortion. Instead of attacking the notion that life begins at conception (which is irrefutable) or opting for the position pro-lifers have called "abortion on demand;" she is analyzing the moral status of the fetus and saying there are at least some instances in the developmental processes before birth where abortion can be morally justified, or perhaps, better put, not immoral.