On Judith Jarvis Thomson's "A defence of abortion"

Dagmar Wilhelm

This is a specially written essay by Dagmar Wilhelm  who lectures in philosophy at Keele University.

Part 1: A Defence of Abortion

The "famous violinist", "people seeds" and the chocolate example are three of a series of thought experiments in philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson’s article "A defence of abortion ".

As the title suggests the article aims to defend abortion – at least in some cases. Thomson’s approach here is relatively novel. Rather than engaging in the usual debate about the moral status of foetuses (are they the kind of beings that have rights?) she explicitly assumes - "for the sake of the argument" - that foetuses have a right to life but argues that this right to life does not necessarily extend to a right to the mother’s body.

The "famous violinist" helps Thomson to make this point. The scenario is very much like the famous soccer scenario, we are kidnapped and attached to a famous violinist with a fatal kidney problem, whose survival depends on his staying attached to our circulatory system. The violinist uncontroversially has a right to life (and this may or may not imply that no third party has a right to unplug the violinist) yet, Thomson hopes we would agree, he does not have a right to the use of our body and hence we have a right to unplug ourselves.

While "the famous violinist" is a powerful scenario and tends to elicit the desired response, it is quite limited in scope. It is plausible to assume that the audience feels they have the right to unplug themselves because they had been kidnapped and attached to this stranger without their consent. Translated to the ethics of abortion, Thomson manages at most to establish that pregnancies resulting from rape can be legitimately terminated.

"People seeds" are the thought experiment employed to consider pregnancies resulting from consensual sex. Here we are asked to imagine living in a world where people seeds fly around; if they get into your house they nest in carpets and upholstery. Because you know of these people seeds you have protective screens in front of your windows. In the heat you sometimes open these windows and very rarely people seeds find holes in the screens and end up in your house.

Thomson would assume that people would not consider themselves to be under any obligation to allow these people seeds use of their house for nine months or years (though it would be terribly nice of you to welcome them). So, by analogy, Thomson would hold that pregnancies resulting from consensual sexual acts (opening windows in the heat) with faulty contraceptives (holes in the screens) can also be legitimately terminated.

Having shown that at least in two cases the foetus’ right to life does not outweigh the woman’s right to control over her own body, the chocolate examples aims to show that we might still think that while the woman is under no moral obligation to do so she still ought to refrain from termination. In the (relevant variation of the) chocolate example the older of two brothers is given chocolate. This chocolate is given only to him, i.e. he is not told to share it with his brother. The younger brother demands some of the chocolate. Thomson wants to claim that the older boy is under no obligation to share the chocolate. More precisely: because the older boy was given the chocolate just for himself the younger boy does not have a right to the chocolate. If he does not have a right, withholding the chocolate is not a violation of a right and if it isn’t a violation of a right it is not unjust. If it is not unjust it isn’t morally wrong. If not sharing the chocolate is not morally wrong then the older boy cannot have a moral obligation to share. Yet, we would still think that he ought to share. This ought is much weaker than a moral obligation. It is desirable (or possibly admirable) that the older brother shares but it is beyond the call of duty. The distinction is familiar in everyday life: we might think that people sometimes ought to forgive each other but we have no right claim to forgiveness.

Part 2: Why Violinists, People Seeds and Chocolate?

Really Deep Thought

Most of the questions which preoccupy professional philosophers are only an elevated or technical version of the kind of question which any sentient human being asks himself or herself while burning the toast.
   --Tom Stoppard.

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