Judith Jarvis Thomson: "A Defense of Abortion"
I. Thomson's Project
Thomson grants for the sake of argument
the premise that a human embryo is a person.
She challenges the idea that one can argue effectively
from this premise to the conclusion that all abortion is morally
She claims that the Basic Argument (my term, not hers)
cannot justify the notion that all abortion is morally impermissible.
Argument (from 48)
fetus is a person and every
person has a right to life.
fetus has a right to life.
The mother has
a right to decide what happens in and to her body.
But the fetus's
right to life outweighs the mothers right to decide
what happens in and to her body.
fetus may not be killed; an abortion may not be
She suggests the following:
Sometimes abortion is
at least in (some?) cases where an abortion is necessary to save the
life of the mother (50-53),
and (some?) cases where pregnancy stems from rape (65).
II. Proposed Argument for Extreme View (abortion impermissible even to
save mother's life)
The Basic Argument does not justify the Extreme View.
Another argument in support of the Extreme View:
In killing the fetus, one would
be directly killing an innocent person.
Directly killing an innocent person is murder.
Murder is morally impermissible.
Therefore, killing the fetus is morally impermissible.
Thomson claims this other argument also fails.
III. What the Right to Life Is Not
It does not include a right to be given at least the bare
minimum of what one needs for continued life (55-56). (If it did,
then there would be a very short argument to prohibiting abortion
except perhaps in cases where the fetus's life threatened the mother's
Fonda Thought Experiment (55)
It does not amount to the right not to be killed by
anyone. (Again, if it did, then there would be a very short argument to
prohibiting abortion except perhaps in cases where the fetus's life
threatened the mother's life.)
IV. What the Right to Life Is and What This Might Imply About
"[T]he right to life consists not in the right not be
killed, but rather in the right not to be killed unjustly" (57).
If this is what the right to life amounts to, then
abortions are morally permissible in (some) cases in which the fetus
threatens the mother's life, in (some) cases in which the mother's
pregnancy has resulted from rape, and, it seems, in some cases in which
the mother has conscientiously used contraception, but this
contraception has failed.
People Seeds Thought
Returning to the Basic Argument, it is clear that Thomson rejects the following premise: The fetus's right to life outweighs the mothers right to decide what happens in and to her body.