Wednesday, December 20, 2006

A response to J.J. Thompson

A few weeks ago my "philosophy" teacher, Bob (his name has been changed for his protection), decided that he wanted start a fiery debate or at least spark some kind of life in a very bored, very uninterested class who apparently thought that Aristotle was just too hard. He therefore presented us with the issue of abortion. To give us an argument from the pro-choice side he gave us an article written by J.J. Thompson. Here is the main bulk of the argument to give you just a little taste of what I was up against as the only pro-life person in the room:

"... I propose, then, that we grant that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception. How does the argument go from here? Something like this, I take it. Every person has a right to life. So the fetus has a right to life. No doubt the mother has a right to decide what shall happen in and to her body; everyone would grant that. But surely a person's right to life is stronger and more stringent than the mother's right to decide what happens in and to her body, and so outweighs it. So the fetus may not be killed; an abortion may not be performed.
It sounds plausible. But now let me ask you to imagine this. 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 kidnaped 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 did this to you—we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist now 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.
Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says, "Tough luck, I agree, but you've now got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person's right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him." I imagine you would regard this as outrageous,
[2] which suggests that something really is wrong with that plausible-sounding argument I mentioned a moment ago."

Now at first glance this analogy seems quite compelling and unique. I mean, no one would say that you are morally obligated to stay hooked up to a random stranger for the rest of your life. So Ms. Thompson is asking us to "check our moral compasses" when thinking about the pro-choice side. It would of course be very nice if you stayed hooked up to a violinist, analogous to a fetus, which she grants is in fact a person, but you are not morally required to do so. Therefore a woman, "hooked up" to an unwanted human inside her body, is not morally obligated to stay "hooked up" to it. Killing, is after all, not wrong when you are defending your own right to life, so are the situations between an unwanted pregnancy and an unwanted violinist parallel? No, they are not.
There are very large differences between being hooked up to the violinist and pregnancy. Being artificially attached to a violinist is not the same as an unborn fetus (which Thompson grants is a person) being connected to a mother. Pregnancy is a natural state. Women become pregnant all the time, it's how we survive. Being artificially attached to a violinist is not natural and frankly you don't see it very often. Removing oneself from the violinist is very different than having an abortion. In the violinist case, when you disconnect, you are withholding treatment and as a result, allowing the violinist to die, but there is no direct killing. Abortion is quite different because abortion is an active removal of a life. Someone has to perform the abortion by removing a living fetus piece by piece from the mother or inserting a chemical that would burn the fetus alive and cause the mother to prematurely deliver a dead child. If Thompson grants that a fetus is a person and persons feel pain, she has to grant that a fetus feels pain. I think our opinion concerning the violinist would be very different if she asked us to cut him up into little pieces in order to escape. Her analogy fails because it does not take into account that removing oneself from a tube and removing a growing life from ones body are two very different methods therefore not analogous.
Thompson's analogy fails again by trying to appeal to our sympathy, or lack thereof, towards the violinist. In that analogy, the man you are hooked up to is a total stranger. According to Thompson you do not have a moral obligation to keep him alive and inconvenience yourself in such an extreme way. It is very different in the case of a pregnant woman. What if she woke up and found herself "hooked up" to her child in the same way she was hooked up to the violinist? Does not a mother have a moral obligation to her children despite inconvenience? According to Thompson's analogy it would be ridiculous for a mother to be obligated to inconvenience herself for the sake of her own child. It equates a woman's relationship to a stranger to a mother's relationship with her own child. Thompson questions us further and asks, what if we were connected to the violinist for the rest of our lives, paralleling that to a mother connected to unwanted children for the rest of her life. If this is true and a mother has no obligation to her child while in the womb, she has no obligation to children outside the womb. Therefore if it is permissable to unhook yourself from the stranger violinist then it is permissable to unhook yourself from you children if they are in fact equal. No one would say that it is permissable for a mother to neglect her children because they inconvenience her therefore Thompson's argument fails again.

"Bob's" response to my response to the article, from what I can read;
"This is very nice discussion of Thompson. I think she CAN respond to your worries but i believe you have drawn out some very nasty consequences of the view. On the other hand , consider that Thompson thinks that though it might not be obligatory to carry the pregnancy to term, it MIGHT be indecent not to do so. As she points out, why do we think that this is less serious a charge? Also remember that this presupposes that the fetus is a person. This isn't really true (at least i think thats what he wrote.) Also note that the simple right to life (something) doesn't work against her criticisms. You ceased to invoke a.... ( I can't read the rest)

Thank you Bob.... apparently Thompson can respond...but fails to address it in her argument.