Abortion is one of the most controversial topics, and it raises a lot of heated debate. The supporters of free abortion (without having medical reasons) defend that women have the right to decide about their motherhood and their body. Anti-abortionists defend that the embryo or fetus is a human life and prioritize their right to be born before the right of women to decide about their bodies and their motherhood. The current essay will analyze two opposing articles, “A Defense of Abortion”, and “Why Abortion is Immoral” and compare and contrast the approach to the abortion issue.
“A Defense of Abortion” is an article on moral philosophy written by Judith Jarvis Thomson and published in 1971. In the article, Judith Jarvis Thomson argues that having an abortion is morally permissible even if the fetus is assumed to have a right to life. Thomson argues that even if the fetus has the right to life, that does not imply in any way that it has the right to everything necessary to stay alive (Thompson, 1971). Therefore, she states, although the fetus has the right to life, that does not mean that it has the right to use its mother's body for nine months (Thompson, 1971). The American philosopher maintains that even granting that a fetus is a person and, of course, with the right to life, it does not follow from this premise that such a right gives the fetus the prerogative to dispose of the mother's body.
Thomson explains her argument using a hypothetical situation in which one morning, you wake up connected to a person or, better still, to a personality of our society that will be connected to you for months or years and that without your help, you would die (Thompson, 1971). If you refused to live with that person and therefore asked to disconnect your body from his, this person would die. You would not die by your own death but you would be the cause of this death and as such, you would be punished by law (Thompson, 1971). From here, the questions and reflections follow. Would you feel morally bound to agree to this situation? Surely it would be very kind of you if you did, and it would show great kindness. But do you feel that society has the right to force you without options for this alternative? What if it were not nine months, but nine years or even more? What if society told you that it regrets the situation but now you have to stay connected to that person and otherwise if you decide to disconnect you would be punished by the law and go to jail? According to Thomson, this example marks the exact philosophy of pro-life: women have no right to their body, all people have the right to life, and this right of people is superior to the right of what happens in their body.
Thomson, therefore, argues that the life of the fetus should not be put in the first place, leaving that of the mother second, that the mother as a woman has the right to her own body and decides on "her body" what she thinks best (Thompson, 1971). Thomson also maintains that if the fetus has the right to life that does not mean that the mother is the one who should support it. For Thomson, aborting is not bad, since she takes it as an action in self-defense (Thompson, 1971). Thomson does not question whether the one who aborts is a moral person or not, she simply considers self-defense, that the life of the fetus should not be above that of the mother's life and that the mother as a woman has the right to do with her body as she sees fit.
Thomson clarifies that she is not saying there is a right to kill. The fetus needs to be in the mother's body to survive. But, imagine that the violinist, when disconnected, miraculously survives; we would, of course, have no right to kill him. We simply have the right to disconnect from him even if it costs him his life (Thompson, 1971). Finally, Thomson recalls that he has started from the assumption that a fetus is a person from the moment of conception. However, he points out, very early abortion is certainly not equivalent to killing a person.
Donald Bagley Marquis, in his article, “Why Abortion is Immoral” states that two camps have emerged, each of which sees a human person in the embryo or not (yet). Accordingly, the two camps manage to arrive at opposing moral assessments and now stubbornly insist on this (Marquis, 2007). Marquis takes a different approach and asks himself very fundamentally why it can be immoral to kill a living being at all. He answers this question by pointing out that it is wrong, for example, to kill himself (Marquis), as this will rob him of his future, which is something of value to him (Marquis, 2007). If the Marquis is right about this, it must consequently also be wrong to kill every other living being under otherwise similar conditions (principle of equality). Therefore, if the embryo can have a valuable future, it must be wrong to kill it.
Marquis provides an example that assuming a prenatal diagnosis reveals that a fetus is genetically predisposed to Tay-Sachs syndrome, an incurable disease that usually leads to death after several years of life (Marquis, 2007). Under these circumstances, we would not certify a "valuable future" for this embryo, which is why according to the Marquis it should be lawful to kill it. Marquis even admits this, just as he admits the "contraceptive objection": If the unlawfulness of abortion is based on the fact that we rob the aborted embryo of its valuable future, then this must also be true for the potentially valuable one's (Marquis, 2007). Therefore, just using condoms or the pill would be wrong. If abortion is murder, so is contraception. In this sense, establishing when the suppression of a group of cells is murder and when it is not a mere convention.
Marquis counters the contraceptive objection by saying that to kill injustice is first and foremost an injustice that is done to the killed individual; at the time of conception, there is no individual to whom an injustice can be done (Marquis, 2007). According to this view, injustice can only be done to an existing individual, and this is why people believe that killing a person is wrong, but not using contraception.
The first similarity between Thomson's reasoning and that of Marquis is that they pose the problem in terms of a conflict of rights. But the most important similarity lies in the fact that, in both cases, the conflict is resolved in favor of women's rights; a right that in both arguments is strongly linked to the exercise of autonomy. However, the similarities end there. The differences between the authors are many and they are explained below.
From Thomson’s article, it seems that she defends a moral relativism and a subjectivist theory around values. Everyone has their values and there are no better or superior values than others. Whoever wants to have a child then she can keep the child, whoever does not want it, she can terminate the pregnancy. In principle, human beings are not responsible for any human being except, and by the desire of our own will, take responsibility for them. Thomson believes a woman should not be responsible for another human being unless she decides expressly or implicitly.
In short, Thomson's position distinguishes between moral obligation and the moral gravity of an event. Although abortion seems terrible to us, this should not lead to the moral obligation to maintain a pregnancy, since we may need to abort due to the onerous aspects of pregnancy and childbirth (there are many imaginable situations). Besides, having a baby (and also being pregnant) is something too serious to constitute something that is done out of obligation or social punishment. Only the pregnant woman has the right to assess whether she is willing to undertake this heroic process.
On the other hand, Marquis argues that the trouble with killing (in general) is the fact that the victim is deprived of the enjoyment of an afterlife. In principle the idea is convincing. When an elderly person dies, it is common to hear someone around them say: "He lived a good life" or "He lived his life." When a young man dies, however, it is inevitable to think that he had his whole life ahead of him and that he could not enjoy it. Marquis is correct in identifying one of the things we consider bad about death: the fact that it deprives us of a valuable future, of a life to live.
One objection to Thomson analysis consists of the following: the analogy of rape and the obligatory connection, as well as the unconsciousness of the violinist with the fetus, do not seem to have the relationship that is required for one to speak of analogy with the property. Forcing and raping, as well as the unconscious person and the fetus, are different relationships. Regarding Marquis's argument, he dismisses the fact that his position is a variety of speciesism. But it is more difficult for him to counter that objection which implies arguments based on the potentiality of the fetus. Assuming that the illegality of killing a fetus, is actually that we are robbing it of a precious future, would not that also be the case if someone decided not to have a child at all? Or what if we decide to have only two children and not three? Would it be an immoral offense if two sexually mature young people just sit together and do not fall on each other and father a child with a potentially valuable future? From this point of view, abortion, as well as reliable contraception and abstinence, are all equally effective in preventing the existence of a being with a valuable future.
Philosophical debates about abortion often focus on the controversy about whether the zygote, embryo, or fetus is a person. The debate focuses on determining at what point in development we become people. When it is concluded that we are dealing with a person, it is determined that he has the right to life. It is obvious that, from there, there is no possible agreement between the defenders of the decriminalization of abortion and its detractors, since both move in tautological positions and, therefore, argumentatively unassailable. Therefore, it is about finding the right balance point in the criminalization and decriminalization of abortion.
Marquis, D. (2007). An argument that abortion is wrong. Ethical theory: An anthology, 439-50. https://web.csulb.edu/~cwallis/382/readings/160/marquis.html
Thompson, J. J. (1971). A defense of abortion. Philosophy and public affairs, 1(1), 47-66. https://eclass.uoa.gr/modules/document/file.php/PPP475/Thomson%20Judith%20Jarvis%2C%20A%20defense%20of%20abortion.pdf.
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