Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Two remarks on Thomson's violinist argument for abortion

Thomson's violinist argument for abortion is based on an analogy between pregnancy and being coerced to serve as the life-support system for a violinist. In the course of the argument, Thomson says that pregnancy is the only case in which society (remember she is writing before Roe vs. Wade) requires a member to undergo a sacrifice of the magnitude that pregnancy involves.

My first remark is that this is simply false. There are two counterexamples to this: the draft and taxes. In the case of war, some members of our society are drafted. Being drafted seems pretty clearly at least as great an imposition as being required to continue pregnancy. It typically involves one's life being put under the control of higher officers in respect of just about every small detail, whereas only a few pregnancies require quite as much modification of one's life (cases where bed-rest is required for the length of the pregnancy are similar in this respect, though even then one is free to decide what activities to engage in while in bed, such as reading, writing, listening to the radio, etc.) The danger to life from the draft can be, depending on the conflict, significantly greater than that from pregnancy. Moreover, in being drafted, one becomes put under the orders of a hierarchy that can, and sometimes does, order one to engage in actions that are highly likely to result in one's being severely wounded, captured and tortured, or killed. (I expect that if I were to have to choose on grounds of self interest, I'd choose pregnancy over serving in the U.S. army in WWII, though I need to go on second and third hand data in both cases.)

The case of taxes is less clear, but still not implausible. Let's suppose Jennifer pays out 25% of her income in taxes. The imposition involved here may not seem grave when put in financial terms. But if we consider that in effect about nine years worth of work is commandeered over a 35-year career, this seems greater. Moreover, I suspect many people would willingly undergo a pregnancy in exchange for a lifetime exemption from taxation, and this would not be irrational in regard to self-interest. If this is right, then the imposition of taxation is comparable to that of pregnancy.

So, yes, our society does impose significant sacrifices on some members for the sake of others. It would be difficult, moreover, to imagine a society that did not have a draft when in danger of being overrun by the enemy, or that did not have taxation.

A second thing I find interesting about Thomson's argument is that as far as I can tell, abortions on account of the imposition represented by pregnancy and childbirth as such are relatively rare. With the notable exception of cases where the pregnancy itself constitutes a risk to maternal health and cases where the pregnancy reveals a relationship that the woman believes she needs to keep secret, standard reasons for abortion have to do more with not wanting the child to be born than with not wanting to be pregnant. In other words, most of the problems that lead women to abortion are such that the problem would not be solved by sci-fi technology that instantaneously grows the child to full term and beams her out into her mother's lap. The problem isn't with the pregnancy, but with the having of a child. But Thomson's argument defends abortion on the grounds of the imposition that pregnancy and childbirth as such make on the woman.

Now supposing that Thomson is right that the imposition of pregnancy and childbirth is indeed a morally sufficient reason for having an abortion. Then we would expect the challenges of pregnancy and childbirth themselves to be among the major reasons women cite for having an abortion. But apart from the cases where the pregnancy endangers the mother's health, the challenges of pregnancy and childbirth do not seem to figure among the major reasons for abortion. Granted, this may be because women are afraid it would sound self-centered to cite this as a reason. But since women seem willing to report that having a child "would change life in a way [they do] not want" or that they want to "establish [a] career" first, there does not seem to be a total taboo against citing self-centered reasons.

Moreover, Thomson's argument, if it were sound (and I think it is not), would only establish that there is a right to expel the fetus from the womb, not that there is a right to kill the fetus. But to satisfy the typical reasons why women have abortion, a right to kill the fetus would be needed. And Thomson's argument gives us no reason to think there is such a right.


Mike Almeida said...

Alex, a few quick points. First, Thomson is explicit that her argument does not show that killing the fetus is permissible, if the fetus can be removed without killing it. Second, her argument is not in general based on the assumption that pregnant women are coerced life-support systems. A central part of her argument considers cases in which women do everything that could reasonably be expected of them--short of hiring a personal army--to prevent themselves from getting pregnant. These are different from the initial kidnapping case, in which we could reasonably say the woman is forced to support the violinist. Finally, all she concludes is that there is no argument against abortion based on the right to life. This is perfectly consistent with there being other moral bases for prohibiting abortion.

Alexander R Pruss said...


1. Yes, Thomson is explicit that the argument does not show that killing the fetus is permissible if it can be removed. I wanted to point out, however, that therefore it shows rather less than is needed to justify most abortions. (Though Thomson herself now thinks intentions are irrelevant to the assessment of rightness/wrongness, so she won't agree with this assessment.)

2. The parts of her argument about doing what can be reasonably expected to prevent pregnancy seem implausible. To do something which has pregnancy as its natural outcome and then basically to claim one is not responsible for that outcome is problematic. Anyway, this part of the argument, too, is based on the idea of imposition. She talks of the house that is too small for the woman and child, and all that, and if memory serves it may be in this part of the paper that she makes her remark about such imposition being made in no other case. Take the weird people-seed case. Imagine that people-seeds float around, and even after one has closed all openings, some manage to take root. But suppose that the people seeded are (a) microscopic, (b) cannot live outside the house, and (c) are no inconvenience at all (you don't see them, they don't cause allergies, etc.) Under those circumstances there is, I think, no plausibility in thinking that one has the right to expel them to their death.

Thomson's argument (by the way, I fixed my spelling; embarrassing!) thus requires that there be a significant imposition, and in order to yield the claim that abortion should be legal, and not just that it is morally permissible, it requires that it be an imposition so great that the state would not be justified in imposing it. If I'm right, the imposition in pregnancy isn't greater than that of the draft, hence it is an imposition that the state, for good reason, can make. And, if the fetus is a person (which she assumes for the sake of argument), then the state does have good reason to make that imposition.

Consider the analogy with the draft. Let's say that I'm a young American man in 1941 who had done all he can to avert America's being attacked. I've written letters to the Emperor and the Fuehrer, I have prayed and fasted, I have voted for candidates likely to act diplomatically to avert war, etc. But despite all that, Pearl Harbor happens. The fact that I've done all that was reasonably possible to avert the war does not give me any right to dodge the draft (unless I am a conscientious objector--but that's a different matter).

Mike Almeida said...

The parts of her argument about doing what can be reasonably expected to prevent pregnancy seem implausible. To do something which has pregnancy as its natural outcome and then basically to claim one is not responsible for that outcome is problematic.

Recall that part of her argument (I think, right after the people-seed example) concerning what one must do to prevent becoming pregnant. One of the things you might have to do, since you can foresee that you might become pregnant by rape, is hire your own police force to protect you when you leave your home. Otherwise, you're acting in a way (as you do when opening the windows for fresh air) that you know might lead to pregnancy. So the inviting pregnancy or consenting to pregnancy issue is much more subtle than people think. Acting in ways that you know might get you pregnant does not nicely divide cases of consent/invitation from cases of non-consent. Setting this aside, your larger point is well-taken.

European observer said...

‘Moreover, Thomson's argument, if it were sound (and I think it is not), would only establish that there is a right to expel the fetus from the womb, not that there is a right to kill the fetus.’

I think you’re right as to the extent of what Thompson’s argument establishes if sound, which I think it is. I presume that removing a foetus intact involves an increased cost to the woman, who undergoes a procedure more invasive than would otherwise be necessary. This could be justified on the grounds of punishment or deterrence, but I doubt that e.g. the medical profession would go along with that any more than with amputating the hands of convicted thieves. Of course, if the technology became available to bring a foetus expelled at any stage of gestation to term, would society be willing to bear the associated costs where the woman who has had an abortion has no legal responsibility thereafter for the foetus?

Another interesting question is whether a man would or could (to allow for rape or incest cases) forego having sex in order to avoid being drafted in the army, if there was a law that whoever had been party to a sexual act would have his name entered in a lottery from which the names of recruits would be drawn.

Finally, I know of no country where working mums get the sort of tax-breaks you envisage, even over child-care costs, while there are several countries where women get drafted for military service. Many mums drop out of work for considerable lengths of time anyway, so tax breaks seem like a dubious incentive. I think when it comes to having babies, women, like most humans most of the time, behave irrationally.