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Bioethics: Abortion II
I. Reminder: A ‘Simple’ Argument Against Abortion – The Right to Life
• General idea: foetuses are persons, persons have a right to life, therefore abortion is wrongful.
• More precisely;
o P1: Every person has a right to life.
o P2: Human foetuses are persons.
o C1: Therefore, human foetuses have a right to life.
o P3: If something has a right to life, it is seriously morally wrong to kill it.
o P4: Aborting a human foetus involves killing that foetus.
o C2: Therefore, the act of aborting a human foetus is seriously morally wrong.
• Last week, considered two important challenges;
o Tooley (1972): P2 is false, therefore the argument is unsound.
o Marquis (1989): the ‘personhood’ approach is misconceived. Better focus on the ethics of killing.
• This week – two more perspectives;
o Thomson (1971): challenges P3.
o Hursthouse (1991): challenges the relevance of P1 & P2.
II. Thomson on the Right to Life
• Thomson;
o Strategy: argue that P3 is false, even granting P1, P2, and C1 for the sake of argument.
• Key question: what does it mean to say that we have a right to life?
• Apparently obvious answer (c.f. P3): for X to have a right to life is for others to have a duty not to kill X.
o Thomson (1971, pp. 48-9): “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 id this to you – we would never have
permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is 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.””
o Question: may you permissibly unplug yourself before that time?
o Thomson: of course! You have a “…right to decide what happens in and to your body…”
(Thomson, 1971, p. 49).
o This has some crucially important implications!
 The violinist is an adult human being with a right to life.
 If P3 were true, it would be morally impermissible for you to unplug yourself. Doing so
would kill the violinist.
 Since it’s clearly not impermissible to do so, it can’t be the case that X’s right to life
necessarily implies the wrongness of killing X.
 So, the ‘simple’ argument fails, because P3 is false.
• Another obvious possibility: “…having a right to life includes having a right to be given at least the bare
minimum one needs for continued life” (Thomson, 1971, p. 55).
o Problem: there are cases where what X needs for continued life is something they have no right
to be given.
 Suppose I am in acute distress. I will die unless David Attenboroughcomes to my
bedside and reads me A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner.
o If this view is true, my right to life entails that David Attenborough has a duty to fly from
London to read to me. But this is surely absurd.
o The violinist case yields a similar conclusion (Thomson, 1971, p. 55): “…the fact that for
continued life that violinist needs the continued use of your kidneys does not establish that he
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has a right to be given the continued use of your kidneys. … Certainly he had no right against
the Society of Music Lovers that they should plug him into you in the first place. And if you now
start to unplug yourself … there is nobody in the world who must try to prevent you, in order to
see to it that he is given something he has a right to be given.”
• Another way to phrase the objections to both ‘obvious’ views (Thomson, 1971, pp. 56-7);
o To violate someone’s rights is to treat them unjustly.
o Intuitively, the person who unplugs themselves from the violinist does not act unjustly.
o Therefore, the violinist has no right against your killing them by refusing to continue providing
them with the resources necessary for them to continue living.
• Question: does that mean that persons’ rights to life never entail that it is impermissible to kill them?
o Answer: obviously not. Murder is clearly wrongful, and violates the victim’s right to life.
• Thomson (1971, p. 57): “…the right to life consists not in the right not to be killed, but rather in the
right not to be killed unjustly.”
• This, in turn, means that we need to make some important revisions to our ‘simple’ argument;
o P1: Every person has a right to life.
o P2: Human foetuses are persons.
o C1: Therefore, human foetuses have a right to life.
o P3: If some being has a right to life, it has a right against being killed ujustly. o P4: Aborting a human foetus involves killing that foetus unjustly.
o C2: Therefore, the act of aborting a human foetus violates the rights of that foetus. o P5: It is seriously morally wrong to violate a person’s rights. o C3: Therefore, the act of aborting a foetus is seriously morally wrong. • P4, however, makes matters much more difficult for opponents of abortion. They now need to show
that aborting a foetus involves unjust killing. Does it?
• Key question for Thomson: when does one person acquire a right to use the body of another person?
o Idea: foetus is dependent upon (i.e. makes use of) the mother to survive. Abortion will be unjust
– violate the foetus’ rights – only where the foetus has a right to continued use of the mother.
• Thomson considers two possible approaches.
• First: she considers the idea that others may have permission to make use of our bodies if and only if we
have given them that right by some voluntary act.
o Clearly, on this view, abortion will not constitute an act of unjust killing in cases of rape.
o But cases of consensual sex are much more complicated.
o A possible view: any unborn child conceived as a result of a consensual sex act has a right not to
be killed by the mother. Abortion, in all such cases, will constitute an act of unjust killing.
 Thomson (1971, p. 58): “

Type Of Service: Academic paper writing
Type Of assignment: Essay
Subject: Philosophy
Pages/words: 2/1000
Number of sources: N/A
Academic Level: Junior(College 3rd year)
Paper Format: MLA
Line Spacing: Single
Language style: AU English

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