Have you noticed how political debates over abortion often degenerate into egregious and intellectually unserious demagoguery?
This shouldn’t surprise — such debates often function as arenas for persuasion at any cost, which has the unfortunate consequence of making truth less important than rhetorical finesse. If maximal effectiveness, in this context, means getting people to buy into a particular viewpoint, then each presentation is in service to the pragmatic ideal of political success.
Despite academia’s recent tendency to intensify (or incubate) the vulgarities of broader culture, and despite the self-satisfaction of its cloistered, professional thinkers, there is great value to exploring what the academic version of the abortion debate has been like.
In what follows, I’ll run through two of the most prominent arguments in this debate. The first is Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion,” and the second is Don Marquis’s “Why Abortion Is Immoral.” I’ll explain why I think Thomson is wrong and Marquis is right.
Consider these scenarios she dreams up:
To help preserve the life of a comatose violinist, The Society of Music Lovers kidnaps you and connects your body to the violinist’s so that he can recover his health in nine months.
You are trapped in a tiny house with a growing child. Soon, you’ll be crushed to death, whereas the child will burst free from the house, damaged but alive.
You are terminally ill, though a magic cure exists: If Henry Fonda travels from California to where you live, and he caresses your face, you will live.
People-seeds, like pollen, float about in the air. If they enter your house and land on a special carpet, they become full-blown persons. You open the window, because you want a breeze, and you make sure to put up your screen protector, which is 99.9 percent effective in keeping out people-seeds. Yet one manages to get in.
You are a guest at a palace in the Middle East. The sultan’s chandelier intercepts a wolf’s howling cry and releases it as a mist that purifies the hearts of everyone in attendance at the ball.
I made the last one up. Here’s the point: Could you tell? The more important question is: Just what is Thomson up to?
Thomson has a viewpoint in her sights that she is trying to systematically take down. Her target is the claim that abortion is wrong. So she starts by devising a way to challenge the most extreme form of this claim, the claim that no abortion is ever justified.
Her thought experiment about the violinist is designed to be the strongest possible response to this most stringent form of anti-abortionism. The idea being: If you think abortion is always wrong, what about a case such as this, in which someone was violated (kidnapped) and as a result now has a person her body is responsible for keeping alive?
There is a very interesting development here. Notice the last sentence in the preceding paragraph. Did I mistakenly use the word “person”? Doesn’t the “pro-choice” camp recoil at designating the fetus as a person? In fact, for many people, doesn’t the entire issue hinge on whether we classify the life inside the womb as a person?
In other words, if the life inside is indeed a human person, then the “pro-life” side wins; if the life inside is not a person, then the “pro-choice” side wins. Isn’t that how it goes?
If there’s something philosophy revels in, it’s upending the assumptions thought to be rigidly fixed in a debate. Thomson is basically raising the hurdle that a “pro-lifer” needs to clear. Whereas before, all that the anti-abortion advocate had to do was show that the fetus is a person, now, in light of Thomson’s argument, even if the “pro-lifer” does this, that is no longer enough to secure a victory in the debate. Thomson argues that abortion is permissible even if the fetus is a person. I don’t think she is successful.
How, exactly, does she assume that the fetus is a person — the very thing opponents of abortion work so hard to establish? She does so by building into her thought experiments the personhood of the relevant characters. The violinist, for example, is obviously a person; in other words, no one would deny that an adult human being who skillfully plays an instrument is a person. Even in the examples after this one, as in the people-seeds scenario, the moment a person-seed lands on the carpet (i.e., fertilization), it’s a person.
By assuming the truth of the central claim that anti-abortion advocates typically make — that the fetus is a person — Thomson is attempting to strengthen the pro-abortion case.
In my judgment, the scenarios she constructs suffer from irreparable problems; in the most important places, they do not work as analogies.
The level of inconvenience caused by having a fully grown violinist attached to your body far exceeds the inconveniences of pregnancy.
To give one example: The level of inconvenience caused by having a fully grown violinist attached to your body far exceeds the inconveniences of pregnancy. You would have to cart around a hospital bed with an adult lying on it everywhere you went.
Why does this pose a problem for Thomson’s argument? Because if you agree with Thomson that it should be permissible for you to disconnect yourself from the violinist and effectively kill him, it’s possible your reason for saying so is that having a comatose adult connected to your body is too much of an inconvenience to endure for nine months. But that’s not applicable to the real-life situation of pregnancy.
Even weaker analogies plague her other scenarios. The people-seeds thought experiment obviously is intended to resemble a pregnancy that results from a consensual sexual encounter in which the partners used contraception. Recall my description:
People-seeds, like pollen, float about in the air. If they enter your house and land on a special carpet, they become full-blown persons. You open the window, because you want a breeze, and you make sure to put up your screen protector, which is 99.9 effective in keeping out people-seeds. Yet one manages to get in.
Are we really supposed to dispassionately weigh the importance of a person when that person is likened to pollen?
Are we really supposed to dispassionately weigh the importance of a person when that person is likened to pollen? Of course, it’s going to be easy to say, with Thomson, that it is permissible to eliminate a people-seed: Thomson strips the real-life being, which is the biological result of a biological process carrying the biological code of her parents, of her connection to the sexual partners who created her. A person becomes a foreign invader; a falling leaf from an outside tree; something alien and utterly unlike us. But that is nothing like a pregnancy.
Thomson believed her readers would agree with her. But I see no reason to.
Don Marquis argues for the contrary conclusion: Abortion is immoral.
What’s interesting is that Marquis follows Thomson in assuming his opponents’ central claim. Just as Thomson tries to strengthen her position by assuming that the fetus is a person, Marquis tries to strengthen the anti-abortion position by assuming that the fetus is not a person. In other words, Marquis thinks abortion is seriously immoral even if the being inside the womb lacks personhood.
Here’s his argument:
1) What makes killing someone wrong is that doing so deprives her of a future of value.
2) When a fetus is killed, it suffers the same kind of loss.
3) Abortion is immoral just as killing an adult or a child is immoral.
As Marquis puts it:
When I am killed . . . I am deprived of all the value of my future. Inflicting this loss on me is ultimately what makes killing me wrong. This being the case, it would seem that what makes killing any adult human being prima facie seriously wrong is the loss of his or her future. . . .
The future of a standard fetus includes a set of experiences, projects, activities, and such that are identical with the futures of adult human beings and are identical with the futures of young children. Since the reason that is sufficient to explain why it is wrong to kill human beings after the time of birth is a reason that also applies to fetuses, it follows that abortion is prima facie seriously morally wrong.
Notice that Marquis’s argument doesn’t rely on the fetus’s being a person. Marquis is essentially shoving the question of personhood aside and looking strictly at what it is that makes killing someone wrong.
If it turned out that what made killing someone wrong crucially relied on personhood, then Marquis wouldn’t have an argument against abortion. But what he identifies as the reason that killing is wrong — a future of value — is a feature that adults, children, and fetuses share. If the reason that makes killing someone from the first two groups wrong is that it deprives them of a future of value, then the same reason provides an argument against abortion, because the fetus, like the child and the adult, has a future of value.
(Interestingly, Marquis’s argument does not provide grounds for seeing euthanasia as wrong, given that in many cases the candidate for euthanasia does not have a future of value.)
It’s important to note that the argument is not claiming that abortion is wrong because it deprives a fetus of life. The idea here isn’t that it’s the destruction of life that makes abortion wrong. Bacteria are alive, yet they are missing the capacity to have a future like ours — that is the crucial feature. We don’t prosecute people for mowing the lawn, despite all the plant life that their John Deers are destroying; we make a distinction between taking a machete to a beanstalk and taking a machete to a human throat. If a being doesn’t have a future like ours — an ongoing life in pursuit of hobbies, interests, relationships, thoughts, experiences, etc. — then it is not protected by the principle Marquis is operating with.
Notice, also, that Marquis is not vulnerable to the familiar “pro-choice” lament that he is relying on the notion of a being’s potential. When an adult is killed, no one comforts the killer by saying, “Don’t worry about it — your victim only possessed a future of value in a potential sense.” No one would accept this reasoning. That’s because, as Marquis notes, we see this future of value as something an adult possesses in the present. That’s precisely why we’re so scandalized when someone is killed ; they are robbed of something , indeed, they are robbed of the most precious thing they possess: their future of value.
Marquis isn’t saying that a fetus potentially has a future of value, but that a fetus presently has a future of value. Having a potential future of value means I could go on to have a future of value or I could go on to not have a future of value. But that’s not what Marquis is saying. Marquis is saying the fetus presently has a future of value. A remarkable psychological fact about us is that we find our way to value — not, necessarily, in an objective sense, as though we always pursue the things we should from God’s vantage point; rather, we pursue the things we subjectively find ourselves interested in.
A fetus will go on to fill up his or her life with value. This is what we think adults go on to do.
Marquis is making the utterly uncontroversial psychological claim that a fetus will go on to fill up his or her life with value. This is what we think adults go on to do — whether they collect stamps, or follow the NBA, or spend time with their family, or travel the world, etc., the point is that they find their way to what they value. It is no different with fetuses.
The future of a standard fetus includes a set of experiences, projects, activities, and such which are identical with the futures of adult human beings and are identical with the futures of young children.
All this to say: A fetus doesn’t possess this future of value potentially any more than an adult possesses his or her future of value potentially. Maybe what we value goes on to change, but even if there’s a change, the valuing remains, just based on different things.
A fetus doesn’t merely potentially have a future of value, just like an adult doesn’t merely potentially have a future of value. It’s a safe assumption that adults who aren’t seriously unwell (in terms of health) will go on to derive value in life. Same goes for fetuses.
Marquis has made the case that the same thing that makes killing an adult wrong is what makes killing a fetus wrong. If any of us are killed, we are deprived of a future of value. Killing a fetus is the same, Marquis thinks. From a unified theory about the wrongness of killing comes the result that the same thing that makes killing an adult wrong is what makes killing a fetus wrong.
He’s in essence saying: “See that activity that you and I and everyone else thinks is so very wrong? Abortion is like that.”
If he’s right, it would mean abortion is seriously immoral.
– Berny Belvedere is the editor in chief of Arc Digital.