Thomson’s “Defense of Abortion” at Forty

In 1971, philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson published “A Defense of Abortion.” It is perhaps the most famous and widely republished article in contemporary moral philosophy.

In this article, Thomson introduces us to her famous violinist analogy. You are asked to imagine that you have been kidnapped and rendered unconscious by a vigilante gang of classical music aficionados who have surgically connected you to an unconscious violinist for whom you are alone anatomically suited to be his organic dialysis machine until he fully recovers nine months later. You awake and are told that the violinist will die if you unplug yourself from him.

Thomson argues that even though the violinist has a right to life, you nevertheless have a right to unplug yourself from him. This allows her to make the point that even if X has a right to life, that right by itself does not entitle him to coerce Y to provide bodily aid and sustenance to X, even if such assistance is necessary to keep X alive. So to apply this to abortion, even if the fetus is a human person, it does not follow that abortion is always wrong, since no one, including a fetus, has a right to use another’s body against her will.

Although there are many critiques of this argument (I’ve published a few of them myself), there is a new one that I’d like to suggest: Thomson is not really granting the pro-life view of personhood.

Consider another analogy that Thomson employs, one that likens the unplanned arrival of unborn progeny in one’s life to “people-seeds [that] drift about in the air like pollen, and if you open your windows, one may drift in and take root in your carpets or upholstery.” Despite your best efforts to prevent the embedding of people seeds in your home, occasionally one takes root, resulting in a developing person-plant. Thomson, of course, believes that you are not morally required to allow the person-plant to reside in your home. You may uproot it without violating its rights.

But suppose that the people-seeds found their way into your home because you sowed them there, even though you had no intention of becoming a pod-parent. In this possible world, seed-sowing, as it is called, is a deeply emotional and pleasurable activity engaged in by two people who are attracted to each other. Being adept at the nuances of anthro-horticulture, they employ the requisite seed-icide provided to them by their local Planned Planthood, because they know and understand that the activity of seed-sowing exists for the purpose of sowing-seeds, even though people engage in it because of the pleasant and desirable sensations and emotions that accompany that activity.

        Suppose people-seeds found their way into your home . . .

But a generative act remains a generative act even if those participating in it desire only its accompanying effects and do not explicitly intend that the act achieve its intrinsic purpose. In this revised version of the people-seed scenario, it seems that you are indeed responsible for the people-seeds that result from your seed-sowing.

Thomson depicts sex as an act not unlike the opening of your home’s screened-window for fresh air from an environment in which people-seeds drift freely and may accidentally embed themselves in your carpet and upholstery. Her pro-life critics, however, see sex as an act not unlike seed-sowing, a generative activity, initiated by human volition, intrinsically ordered to the production of people-seeds.

In the seed-drifting world, one has no special responsibility to the seeds and to the people-plants they generate. The acquisition of people-seeds is not the intelligible point of opening up a window, just as getting hit by a meteor is not the intelligible point of leaving your home in the morning. The connections between the acts and the events are accidental.

On the other hand, in the seed-sowing world, an essential property of a sowed seed is the generation of a mature version of itself as a plant-person. Consequently, Thomson’s seed-drifting world seems plausible to her because she rejects a philosophy of the human person that is embraced by virtually all prolifers: our sexual powers are ordered toward the generation of children whose progenitors are required to care for them.

What Thomson is granting, then, is a view of personhood consistent with the pro-life position only insofar as it is aligned with a minimalist understanding of autonomy and choice. That view isolates the individual from other persons – generationally, contemporaneously, and institutionally – except as those relationships arise from the individual’s explicit choice. But that is not the pro-life view of personhood.

The pro-life view is that human beings are persons-in-community and have certain obligations, responsibilities, and entitlements as members of their community that arise from their roles as mother, father, child, sibling, citizen, neighbor, etc. These roles are informed by institutions and ways of life that arose over time to account for, among other things, one’s proper relationship to others, which depends on a person’s degree of development (i.e., whether or not one is a child or an adult), the geographical proximity of those with whom one shares a common life, and what we owe those who cannot care for themselves due to age or infirmity. This also includes one’s responsibility for protecting and nurturing vulnerable and defenseless human beings who come into being as a result of one engaging in generative acts that have the intrinsic purpose of bringing such beings into existence.

Because of these institutions and ways of life – that have existed for generations and do not require one’s consent in order to have normative force – we often find ourselves in a network of relationships in which we are called upon to love those who sometimes can offer us very little in exchange for the good we provide to them. If Thomson had assumed that view of personhood for the sake of argument, her case would have collapsed.

Francis J. Beckwith

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).