Saving, Killing, and the Moral Status of Human Life: the Ethics of Abortion, Part I

Dr Jeremy Williams


In my blog posts this week, I will be discussing aspects of a topic that lies close to the heart of my own research interests in moral philosophy – namely, the ethics of abortion. This is a topic that never falls far from the political agenda, or the pages of newspapers. Indeed, simply summarising the legislative and judicial battles over abortion around the world that are either currently ongoing, or have taken place in the last year or so, would undoubtedly require more words than I have been given for this blog post. Abortion is also a topic of perennial controversy in philosophical circles (though here, given most philosophers’ liberal sympathies, the discussion perhaps takes place predominately between proponents of rival defences of abortion, rather than between defenders and opponents of abortion). As important and timely as the issue of abortion is, however, one might wonder what its relevance could be to a blog devoted to discussing questions pertaining to saving humans. After all, isn’t abortion most fundamentally a moral problem concerning the killing, rather than the saving, of humans?

To assume that abortion is about killing rather than saving would be too quick, however. In fact, abortion standardly involves both: it causes the death of the fetus, in the course of saving a woman from harms to her health, wellbeing, or prospects, many of which are very serious, and some of which are themselves life-threatening. In addition, and to make a more general philosophical point, the moral questions raised by killing and saving are intimately connected. In some cases, our beliefs about the ethics of killing may be undermined, and need to be revised or jettisoned, because they turn out to have unacceptable implications for the ethics of saving people from harm (or vice versa). Thus, to give a relevant example, it is sometimes argued that to claim, as opponents of abortion often do, that an embryo is a person who is harmed as much when killed as you or I, carries the implication that, in a choice between (a) saving the life of a single person, and (b) rescuing some larger number of embryos from destruction (when they could later be implanted into a woman and brought to term), it would be permissible, if not morally required, that we choose (b). That conclusion, however, would be unacceptable, and it is questionable that all but the most extremist pro-life supporter would contemplate endorsing it. This appears to put opponents of abortion under considerable pressure to revisit their view about the harm done in killing embryos.

My main aim in these blog posts is to introduce and examine some of the ways in which philosophers have sought to clarify, and to go beyond, the terms of the conventional debate on abortion, as played out between defenders of so-called ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ perspectives. Given the overarching theme of this blog, in doing so I will also try to draw out some of the connections between my chosen topic and ‘saving humans’. I begin, in the first part of the series, with a discussion of what is arguably the most celebrated philosophical contribution to the abortion debate – Judith Thomson’s article of 1971, ‘A Defense of Abortion’. As it happens, at the core of Thomson’s thesis is the claim that continuing and completing a pregnancy as an instance of making a life-saving sacrifice, for the sake of someone else (the fetus) – a sacrifice which, in at least some cases, is too high for the woman to be morally required to undergo it, much less forced to do so. Indeed, crucially, on Thomson’s view, the costs attendant on being pregnant and giving birth can be too high for a woman to be under a moral duty to undergo them for her fetus’s sake, even if the latter is not merely human but has, as pro-life advocates typically maintain, the same high moral status as a person like you or I, with all the moral rights that that involves, including a right to life. Thus, Thomson aims to challenge the assumption (commonly made, incidentally, both by defenders and critics of abortion alike) that whether and how far termination of pregnancy is permissible, and protected by a woman’s ‘right to choose’, turns entirely on whether the fetus has, or lacks, the status and rights of a person. Even if it does, Thomson contends, that does not suffice to make the pro-life case that abortion would be impermissible.

More than forty years after its original publication, Thomson’s case in favour of abortion still ignites lively philosophical debate. But oddly enough, as influential as it has been in the ethical literature, it has never (on my observation, at least) gained much traction in the popular debate over abortion. These blog posts seemed an ideal excuse to give Thomson’s argument an airing outside its traditional habitat of the philosophy seminar room.

Thomson begins her argument by setting out the familiar pro-life reasoning against abortion. That reasoning begins, to repeat, with the premise that the fetus has, from conception, the full moral status, and rights of a person. If fetuses have that status, and those rights, the reasoning continues, abortion must be morally wrong. For although a woman has a right to control what happens in and to her body, that right is not as important as, and thus is morally outweighed by, the fetus’s right to life. That reasoning, Thomson initially suggests, seems ‘plausible’. In response to it, however, she then introduces one of the most iconic thought experiments in contemporary ethics – the so-called ‘violinist example’. Its purpose is to show that, even if a person has a full right to life, and needs access to our body for survival itself, it does not follow that we are under a duty to provide such access. Since paraphrasing Thomson’s example would only deprive readers of her characteristically wry and acerbic written style, I reproduce her presentation of it in full:

[L]et me ask you to imagine this. 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 is now 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 it morally incumbent on you to accede to this 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 it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says. “Tough luck, I agree, but now you’ve got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person’s 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 really is wrong with that plausible-sounding [pro-life] argument I mentioned a moment ago (Thomson, 1971, pp. 48-9).

The violinist example is both arresting and deeply thought-provoking. The question, however, is whether it is sufficiently analogous to pregnancy that we are entitled to draw conclusions about the moral permissibility of abortion on the basis of it. I pick up that question in the next post in this series.

References: Judith Thomson, ‘A Defense of Abortion’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 1 (1971): 47-66

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