Dealing with Judith Jarvis Thompson


The other day I came across this post and found it quite interesting. What was more interesting was one of the comments given by someone with the handle of “Operation Counterstrike”:

Yes, abortion is homicide. But abortion on demand is JUSTIFIABLE homicide.

If something is inside your body, then you’re entitled to have it killed. No exceptions. Even if it’s an “innocent” person. If you were inside my body, then I’d be entitled to kill you, and if I were inside your body, you’d be entitled to kill me. In fact if ALL the people in the WHOLE HUMPING WORLD, including the innocent ones, the pregnant ones, and the unborn ones, were inside your body, then you’d be entitled to holocaust them. That’s part of the meaning of the word “your” in the phrase “your body”.

This is really a sophomoric version of Judith Jarvis Thompson’s “body ownership” argument. Though he approaches the argument in a childish and immature manner, it is a real argument. I offered up the following as a response:

OperationCounterstrike is using a sophomoric version of Judith Jarvis Thompson’s body-ownership argument. In all reality, that OC offers up is a bastardized, anti-intellectual version of the argument (thus not really qualifying as the argument itself), but once polished he does bring up a popular argument used in academic circles.

What OC fails to realize is that the argument doesn’t work. No matter how much evidence is presented, he simply won’t budge on this issue (go look at some of his Amazon postings). So I offer this comment as help to others:

On the logical level, this argument falls under the fallacy of special pleading. Certainly I don’t have a right to do what I want with my body when it comes to second-hand smoking or similar activities. The argument presupposes that I have an autonomous right to my body to begin with (this is never substantiated in the argument, but merely assumed) and also presupposes that this alleged right trumps another’s right to identity. This argument, however, never plays out well in courts or ethical examples. In fact, OC’s argument would be the only place such an argument would be “acceptable,” meaning that the argument is more likely special pleading than anything else.

Where the argument also falls under special pleading is that it ignores the mental strain raising children can bring. The argument goes that if an organism, even another human person, is reliant upon you for survival and is connected to you, then you have the right to terminate that organism. But the mental stress that children can cause a parent – causing some parents to kill their children – is very much a physical strain caused by the reliance of the child on the parent. Thus, if the mother is justified in killing the fetus due to physical reliance, then she is just as justified in killing the six-year-old because the child is still physically reliant upon the parent, just in a different manner than when the child was a fetus.

Moving on, Thompson uses the analogy that you’ve awakened to find a world-famous violinist is attached to you and relying on you for his life. He will have to be this way for 9 months. Do you have the ethical right to remove him from yourself knowing that such an action would allow him to die? Trust me, this is an argument OC will bring up (if he already hasn’t, I haven’t read all the comments).

The inherent problem with such an analogy is that it assumes we must all volunteer for something in order to be ethically accountable for that something. For instance, the argument assumes that because I did not volunteer to have the violinist attached to me, I am not ethically obligated to allow the violinist to live. Likewise, because not all mothers volunteer to become pregnant, they are not ethically obligated to continue the pregnancy. However, this is quite an assumption that lacks quite a bit of ground.

Such an idea of volunteerism isn’t even supported in the US law. If a man gets a woman pregnant without the intention of impregnating her, he is still liable to pay child support, regardless of his intention. He certainly didn’t volunteer to be a father, yet he is still held accountable for his actions. We see similar cases in manslaughter charges, statutory rape laws, and many other aspects of the law. In almost every case of grievous errors, a person is held accountable regardless of the person’s intentions.

Thus, as recognized by the legal code and as understood by most ethicists, just because a woman did not volunteer to become pregnant does not mean she is suddenly free from any and all ethical obligations to that child.

Let us also not forget that there is an assumed ethical obligation of parents to their children. So much so that if such an ethical obligation is violated, the Government can and often does get involved. The parent has the ethical obligation to provide for the child and care for the child while keeping the child from harm. Failure to do so will not only invite scorn from the community, but can bring down the heavy-hand of the law as well. This obligation seems to exist whether someone had a child intentionally or simply became pregnant and never went through with an abortion.

Considering the above (that not all ethical obligations are voluntary and parents have ethical obligations to their children), it can actually be said that a fetus does have a right to use her mother’s body. Unlike the violinist (and this is where Thompson’s analogy breaks down) the fetus is partaking on a natural course of development and, though it may not be comfortable for the mother, this is how all humans enter the world. The violinist, alternatively, is relying upon an unnatural environment to stay alive.

To further this point, once the violinist is done with his 9 month treatment, you no longer have an ethical obligation for his well-being. However, a fetus, once outside the womb, is still reliant upon the mother. The mother still has an ethical obligation to that child (unless she has given that obligation to someone else, but even this is done in the interest of the child’s welfare). She must use her body to take care of the child one outside of the womb, just in a different way than before. Though the child is no longer inside her body, the child is still dependent upon the mother’s body (simply in a different manner), thus ruining the idea that the mother’s body is still autonomous.

There is no reason to really accept this argument. For one, it is logically invalid and subject to problems before we even examine the facts. Secondly, it’s arbitrary in that when applied to similar situations, a different ethical code is used. Finally, the only way to respond to any of what I said is to say, “Well the baby is in the womb!” and making birth the threshold; but this is circular. It uses the standard that is under attack as validation. It is akin to someone saying, “The Bible is true because it says it is.” In this case, someone is saying, “Birth is the threshold because it is.” There’s no real reason for it.

One more note on the analogy – seeing as how I have no ethical obligation to the violinist, I could withhold treatment. In fact, there are times where withholding treatment is the ethical thing to do. Abortion, however, is the act of killing and has nothing to do with withholding treatment. It is active instead of passive.