Can the Thomson Argument be Saved? The Ethics of Abortion, Part III Jeremy Williams

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To resume our discussion of the ethics of abortion where we left it yesterday, we have seen that, according to Judith Thomson (1971), terminating a pregnancy is analogous to refusing to donate the use of one’s body for purposes of saving a needy stranger. On this argument, just as one can permissibly refuse to save a stranger when the bodily efforts and harms to oneself are high, so a woman can also permissibly refuse to continue to gestate a fetus at high cost to herself – even, crucially, if the fetus has the full moral status of a person. As we have also seen, however, critics object that saving a stranger and supporting a fetus are not, in fact, as closely analogous as Thomson claims, such that we cannot read off the conditions under which a woman may permissibly terminate a pregnancy by consulting the conditions for permissible refusal to be a Good Samaritan to a stranger. Although Thomson’s analogy between saving a stranger and gestating a fetus has been claimed to fail on multiple fronts (for an impressively thorough survey of which, see Boonin, 2003, chapter 4), the most significant failures of analogy appear to be, to repeat, that whilst a person who refuses to act as a Good Samaritan to someone in life-threatening need is merely allowing a stranger to die, for whose neediness she is not responsible, abortion involves a woman killing her own child, having voluntarily performed  the act that caused the child to exist and require her aid. How damaging to Thomson’s argument are these disanalogies?

Each of these disanalogies (that abortion involves refusal to aid one’s child, that it involves refusal to meet a need in someone for which the woman is responsible [outside of rape cases], and that it involves killing) might be thought sufficient on its own to fatally undermine Thomson’s defence of abortion. Alternatively, one might think that her argument cannot bear the combined weight of the disanalogies when they are all pressed at the same time. Philosopher Jeff McMahan (2003), for instance, has argued that it is intuitively just too difficult to believe that a person could be entitled to withdraw aid from someone who (a) is her own child, (b) is in need of assistance as a result of an act which that person performed (sexual intercourse) in the knowledge of that parenthood, and fetal dependency, can be a result of it, and (c) will be killed by the procedure that ends its dependency.

Against this conclusion, someone might argue that, if each of the three disanalogies can be shown individually not to make a moral difference, they could not add up to a decisive objection either. It is perfectly possible to argue that each of the three disanalogies, taken in isolation, is morally insignificant. For instance, one can argue that the parent-child relation in the case of a woman and fetus is purely genetic, and that this bare genetic connection, when unaccompanied by, e.g., emotional ties, shared experiences, or explicitly-made commitments, cannot be the ground of a special obligation to make large sacrifices on the fetus’s behalf. One can also argue that, while the woman is indeed responsible, in one sense, for the neediness of the fetus, this fact lacks its usual significance, because without the woman’s input, the fetus would not exist at all, and thus, if she does not provide the needed aid, she will not have made the fetus any worse off (McMahan, 2003, pp. 364-72). Finally, one can argue that, if letting the fetus die would be permissible, because of the burdens involved in supporting it, and if, further, being killed as opposed to being allowed to die would not be worse for the fetus, but would be less costly for the woman, it is difficult to see why killing the fetus instead of letting it die would not also be permissible (Boonin, 2003, pp. 188-212). If, on grounds such as these, we think that the three identified disanalogies do not have any moral weight individually, we might conclude that their combined weight must also be also zero. Yet because that conclusion remains, as McMahan points out, highly counter-intuitive, many will wonder whether it can possibly be right.

Suppose that we decide that Thomson’s argument can indeed survive in spite of the foregoing failures of analogy between pregnancy and Good Samaritanism. Nonetheless, the argument seems limited in other respects – it is highly unclear that it can justify the sort of abortion regime that pro-choice advocates typically press for. For instance, the justification for abortion under Thomson’s argument rests, as we have seen, on a woman’s right to refuse to accept a significantly burdensome bodily imposition, rather than on a right to resist the burdensomeness of parenthood. By implication, then, if, in the case of some woman, the burdens of pregnancy are acceptably light (as Thomson allows that they might be), but the burdens of parenthood later on would be heavy (e.g. because the fetus has a serious genetic disability) then there is no Thomsonite case here for abortion. Indeed, on Thomsonite grounds, to refuse to aid the fetus to avoid having to look after the child later (or to avoid having to undergo the psychological trauma attendant on having to give the child up for adoption), when the burdens of pregnancy themselves do not exceed those that a Minimally Decent Samaritan can be asked to accept, seems morally on a par with, say, refusing to save one’s infant child from drowning in a paddling pool, in order to avoid looking after it. But this is difficult to accept – on the standard pro-choice view, the postnatal burdens of parenthood as just as important, in making the case for abortion, as the burdens of pregnancy themselves.

A further counter-intuitive implication of the Thomson argument, noted by McMahan (2006), pertains to the moral contrast between killing the fetus in order to extract it, and non-lethally injuring it in the course of doing so. Causing the death of a person is more difficult to justify than causing a person an injury, because it represents a greater deprivation. On that basis, it seems that, according to the Thomson defence of abortion, if a woman for whom pregnancy is very costly is able to expel the fetus by either killing it or injuring it, she ought to choose to do the latter – even if the injury would have a serious impairing effect throughout the child’s later life. This conclusion, however, is seriously counter-intuitive – from a common sense point of view, causing a prenatal injury that will have serious lifelong consequences for a person seems a more serious matter than causing the death of a fetus. That we think this suggests that we implicitly accept that fetuses are not, as pro-life advocates claim, and Thomson grants for the sake of argument, morally on a par with persons in all respects. More specifically, it suggests that we implicitly think that fetuses are harmed by death to a lesser extent than persons (and thus that the harm of death for a fetus can be of less moral significance than the harm of lifelong injury to a person).

To conclude this discussion, it is worth emphasising that, while Thomson’s critics include opponents of abortion, they are not limited to them. Rather, they also include pro-choice philosophers who believe that, insofar as Thomson’s argument for the right to choose an abortion is limited, it would be unwise for defenders of abortion choice to rely on it – or at least to rely on it exclusively. It would be unwise, that is, for them to grant to their opponents that fetuses are persons, before arguing for the permissibility of abortion on grounds of a woman’s right to refuse to provide bodily aid at high cost to themselves. Of course, even if pro-choice advocates avoid making the Thomson defence central to their argumentative strategy, they might find that it has a useful subsidiary role to play in some discursive contexts. The crucial point, however, is that they will not be able to utilise it in order to escape taking a stand on the moral status of the fetus, or directly arguing against the pro-life claim that fetuses have the same rights and value as postnatal persons. This conclusion will come as something of a disappointment to supporters of abortion rights who had indeed hoped that Thomson’s argument might allow them to circumvent that thorny issue altogether (though this is not, note, a claim that Thomson makes on behalf of the argument herself). The remainder of this blog series turns the spotlight on precisely that thorny issue.


David Boonin, A Defense of Abortion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

Jeff McMahan, The Ethics of Killing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002)

Jeff McMahan, ‘Paradoxes of Abortion and Prenatal Injury’, Ethics 116 (July 2006): 625–655.

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

Useful links:

The charitable perspective

Abortion & Human Rights

The Ontology of Abortion

A Defense of ‘A Defense of Abortion’ On the Responsibility Objection to Thomson’s Argument

Humans and Persons: A Reply to Tristram Englelhardt

Too Long in gestating

Was I ever a Fetus

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