Why the Debate Over Abortion Seems Intractable

Symmetries that emerge from the analysis of the major arguments on either side of the abortion debate may explain why the abortion debate seems intractable. Consider the following standard anti-abortion argument: Fetuses are both human and alive. Humans have the right to life. Therefore, fetuses have the right to life. Of course, women have the right to control their own bodies, but the right to life overrides the right of a woman to control her own body. Therefore, abortion is wrong.

Thomson’s View

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Judith Thomson  has argued that even if one grants (for the sake of ar- gument only) that fetuses have the right to life, this argument fails. Thomson invites you to imagine that you have been connected while sleeping, bloodstream to bloodstream, to a famous violinist. The violinist, who suffers from a rare blood disease, will die if disconnected. Thomson argues that you surely have the right to disconnect yourself. She appeals to our intuition that having to lie in bed with a violinist for an indefinite period is too much for morality to demand. She supports this claim by noting that the body being used is your body, not the violinist’s body. She distinguishes the right to life, which the violinist clearly has, from the right to use someone else’s body when necessary to preserve one’s life, which it is not at all obvious the vio- linist has. Because the case of pregnancy is like the case of the violinist, one is no more morally obligated to remain attached to a fetus than to remain at- tached to the violinist.

It is widely conceded that one can generate from Thomson’s vivid case the conclusion that abortion is morally permissible when a pregnancy is due to rape. But this is hardly a gen- eral right to abortion. Do Thomson’s more general theses generate a more general right to an abortion? Thomson draws our attention to the fact that in a pregnancy, although a fetus uses a woman’s body as a life-support system, a pregnant woman does not use a fetus’s body as a life-support system. However, an opponent of abortion might draw our attention to the fact that in an abortion the life that is lost is the fetus’s, not the woman’s. This sym- metry seems to leave us with a stand-off.

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