The Moral Permissibility of Abortion

Many opponents of abortion have based their opinions and arguments against the moral permissibility of abortion on the single premise that every fetus is a person from the very moment of conception and every person has a right to life. In this view, because every person has a right to life, it is never moral to kill a person ; therefore, abortion is never morally permissible.

In speculation of this argument, Judith Jarvis Thompson wrote an article titled “A Defense of Abortion”, in which she constructs arguments in different cases, deeming abortion morally permissible when we allow the said premise that every fetus is a person from the moment of conception. Thompson’s arguments are best constructed with the use of analogical experiments, in order to prove to opposers that abortion cannot be, in all cases, morally impermissible when using logical reasoning. To begin with we accept that a fetus is a person from the moment of conception. Every person has a right to life so every fetus has a right to life.

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Because the fetus is a part of the mother’s body, the mother has the right to control what happens in and to her body however, a persons right to life is granted to be stronger than a persons right to self control. Thus, the fetus cannot be killed and abortion is impermissible. This sounds to readers like a concrete conclusion that which we can agree however, Thompson now puts us in an imagined situation where moral permissibility is not so clear and concise. Thompson’s first and most effective analogical experiment reads as; You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist.

A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help . They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own, The director of the hospital now tells you , “Look, we’re sorry the society of music lovers did this to you-we would never have permitted it if we had known.

But still, they did it, and the violinist now is plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it’s only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you. ” Is is morally incumbent on you to accede the situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? […]What if the director of the hospital says, “Tough luck, I agree, but you’ve now got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. …] Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a persons right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him. ” I imagine you would regard this as outrageous, which suggests that something is really wrong with that plausible-sounding argument I mentioned a moment ago. (Thompson 48-49) In short, keeping yourself plugged to this helpless person for nine months of your life would undoubtably be kind of you, but you are not morally required to do so.

Agreeing to put your own life aside to ensure a full recovery for this person is not your obligation. At this point most would argue that unplugging yourself and leaving the hospital would be morally permissible whereas remaining plugged would mean to go beyond moral expectation. It is absurd in this case that someone would be morally permitted to use your body against your will because their right to life is stronger than your right to self control and that you would lose that right by default. The right to life if not concrete and concise.

The right to life is in fact extremely problematic. This seems to be the ultimate mistake in the opposing argument that every fetus has a right to life. Thus, arises the question of “what it comes to” to hold the right to life. Thompson analyzes this question. In some views having a right to life includes having a right to be given at least the bare minimum one needs for continued life. But suppose that what in fact is the bare minimum a man needs for continued life is something he has no right at all to be given? …] to return to the story I told earlier, the fact that for continued life that violinist needs the continued use of your kidneys does not establish that he has a right to be given the continued use of your kidney. He certainly has no right against you that you should give him continued use of your kidneys. For nobody has any right to use your kidneys unless you give him such a right ; and nobody has the right against you that you should give him this right – if you do allow him to go on using your kidneys, this is a kindness on your part, and not something he can claim from you as his due. …] if you now start to unplug yourself [… ] there is nobody in the world who must try to prevent you, in order to see to it that he is given something he has a right to be given. (Thompson 55) With this, Thompson’s demonstrates to readers that our human rights often conflict in some situations and we are left to decide which right will supersede another. This brings the objection to opponents of abortion in their view that abortion is impermissible on the premise that every person has a right to life.

It stands that the permissibility of abortion requires more insight and consideration and cannot be reduced to a simple conclusion. I am not arguing that people do not have a right to life […] I am arguing only that having a right to life does not guarantee having either a right to be given the use of another persons body – even if one needs it for life itself . So the right to life will not serve the opponents of abortion in the very simple and clear way in which they seem to have thought it would. […] The right to life consists not in the right not to be killed, but rather in the right not to be killed unjustly. Thompson 56) Of course, as with any controversial issue, a proponent of the extreme view will find a dis-analogy between the hypothetical experiment of detaching yourself from the violinist and aborting a fetus. One way an extremist can respond to Thompson would be to focus on the point of a woman’s decisions. Mainly, one might say that a woman willfully chooses to engage in sexual intercourse with the knowledge that the act can result in pregnancy. Given this knowledge, the woman now has a moral obligation to respect the right to life of the fetus that is developing inside of her.

The issue stands now where you had no say in the matter of getting kidnapped and plugged to this helpless violinist, thus, you have no moral obligation to him but when a mother has willingly engaged in sexual intercourse knowing the chance of pregnancy , there lies a moral obligation to respect the life of the fetus. This argument would give the unborn person a right to its mother’s body only if her pregnancy resulted from a voluntary act, undertaken in full knowledge of the chance a pregnancy might result form it. Thompson 58) While this response does make a good argument for a dis-analogy between the experiment and a real abortion, it does not stand as a strong argument against all cases of abortion such as, when the pregnancy is the direct result of rape. The argument no longer provides justice to conclude that abortions are morally impermissible in every case when you can find no dis-analogy between being involuntarily plugged into the violinist for the duration of nine months and a woman who becomes pregnant as a result of a rape.

It would be irrational to then argue that abortion would be morally impermissible in all cases. The extreme-view holds that the right to life is always stronger than the right to self control but the violinist case experiment shows that this is not always so. The violinist’s right to life does not trump your right to unplug yourself and leave the hospital and in turn, let the violinist die. Therefore, it seems the right to life of a fetus extends only to cases when that fetus is not conceived as a result of rape.

The extreme view now becomes more of a modified view where the strength of a fetus’ right to life varies as well as the strength of a woman’s right to self control. They [those who oppose abortion] can say that persons have a right to life only if they didn’t come into existence because of rape; or they can say that all persons have a right to life, but that some have less of a right to life than others, in particular, than those who came into existence because of rape have less. …] Unborn persons whose 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 is not unjustly killing them. (Thompson 49, 58) That being said, it seems that a woman loses strength on her right to self control, when she has knowingly engaged in sexual intercourse and has become pregnant or a fetus loses it’s strength in it’s right to life when it is the result of rape.

In any case where one right loses strength, the other consequently gains. In the case of rape, it is not unjust killing to abort the fetus for the fetus has no right the use of it’s mother’s body. Considering that there are existing, observable conflicts between the rights of a fetus and the rights of a mother, Thompson argues that abortions, in fact, are morally permissible in certain cases. There are cases and cases and the details make a difference. […] The argument certainly does not establish that al abortion is unjust killing. Thompson 58,59) Finally, it is concluded in Thompson’s “A Defense of Abortion” with the use of analogical experiments that abortions are permissible in any case where pregnancy is a result of rape, the fetus puts the mother’s life in danger, and when all reasonable steps were taken to prevent pregnancy, using logical reasoning. Personally, I stand by Thompson’s argument due to it’s rationality and it’s ability to overcome the objections presented by any skeptics and proponents of the extreme-view.

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The Moral Permissibility of Abortion. (2016, Dec 25). Retrieved from