In politics, religion and even ethics, abortion is a highly controversial topic. Judith Thomson and Don Marquis are no different, as both of these philosophers have their own opinions on abortion. Thomson presents a qualified argument in favor of abortion in some cases based on what we as humans are obligated to do to help others. Her argument survives the challenges that Marquis’s opinion against abortion presents. The morality of abortion is discussed by both of these famous philosophers.
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Judith Thomson provides a defense for abortion, in specific circumstances, through a series of bizarre thought experiments (Thomson, 1971). Thomson begins her argument by refuting the common arguments against abortion, which sets up her first peculiar thought experiment (Thomson, 1971). In the experiment, she asks the subject to imagine that they “wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist” (Thomson, 1971, p. 48). This violinist has a fatal kidney disease and you are the only person that can save him (Thomson, 1971). You must stay in bed with this violinist for a specific amount of time and after that amount of time you will be free to leave (Thomson, 1971). Thomson implants the idea that the violinist’s right to life is more salient than your right to decide what happens to your own body. The basis for Thomson’s argument becomes based on our duty to each other as humans. Thomson states that nowhere in this country, “is any man compelled by law to be even a Minimally Decent Samaritan to any person” whereas, “in most states in this country women are compelled by law to be not merely Minimally Decent Samaritans but Good Samaritans to unborn persons inside them” (Thomson, 1971, p. 63). A Good Samaritan is someone that is often heroic and goes out of their way to help people in heroic ways whereas being a minimally decent Samaritan just requires people to do the right thing without being heroic. This idea is the most persuasive she presents because it shows a clear inconsistency in the expectations of society. Thomson uses the brutal example of the death of Kitty Genovese to further establish her point (Thomson, 1971). In this case a woman named Kitty Genovese was attacked and stabbed to death. Although 38 people heard the encounter only one of them called the police while another yelled out the window to tell them to stop. A minimally decent Samaritan would have at least called the cops, showing that 37 of the people weren’t being minimally decent Samaritans in this case. However since there is no law against failing to be a minimally decent Samaritan, none of the 37 people were at fault. It is absurd that those people weren’t held up to the standard of being minimally decent but people against abortion hold that women must be good Samaritans to an unborn child inside of them. Another aspect of Thomson’s argument is focused on a characteristic of abortion that she only touches upon. Throughout her argument for the permissibility of abortion she assumes that a fetus is a human at the moment of conception even though she doesn’t agree with this idea as shown from this quotation from the beginning of essay, “A newly fertilized ovum, a newly implanted clump of cells, is no more a person than an acorn is an oak tree” (Thomson, 1971, p. 48). There is obviously no direct parallel between an oak tree and humans, but this raises an interesting question regarding when we must say that a fetus becomes a human. Through this idea and by discussing the double standard surround our responsibility to help each other, Thomson provides a compelling argument.
Philosopher Don Marquis wrote his piece “Why Abortion Is Immoral” after Judith Thomson’s essay and developed an argument challenging Thomson. Marquis addresses a central aspect of the abortion argument by talking about when life starts during pregnancy (Marquis, 1989). For the sake of his argument, he concludes that life is present at the moment of conception (Marquis, 1989). The main focus of Marquis’ argument is the idea that since a fetus is considered a person, the fetus has a “future-like-ours”, where the fetus will have plenty of experiences and happiness just like any other human being (Marquis, 1989). Since it is prima facie seriously morally wrong to a kill a human being, then because adults and fetuses both share this “future” it is also prima facie seriously morally wrong to kill fetuses (Marquis, 1989). This poses a rather large problem for Thomson’s argument. Her argument about our duty towards each other becomes irrelevant because if something is the only prima facie seriously morally wrong act then, in the view of a pluralist, it is your duty not to do that action. Thomson points out that, at the time her essay was written, the law required women to be good Samaritans to fetuses (Thomson, 1971). However, the only morally relevant fact in this case becomes that you have a prima facie duty not to kill humans, including fetuses. Thomson states that there are no laws requiring people to be minimally decent Samaritans, but that there should be because many people hold women to this standard in the case of abortion (Thomson, 1971). However, if we begin holding people to minimally decent standards, then according to Marquis’ argument it seems that women must carry their children to term. Plenty of people carry their baby the full term so since Thomson is asking for laws requiring people to be minimally decent people, then by her own logic abortion would be illegal.
While Don Marquis presents a strong argument challenging Judith Thomson’s argument, Thomson’s argument proves to be stronger than Marquis’. When we consider the idea that the zygote might not be a fetus at the time of conception, Marquis’ argument begins to fall apart. This collapse begins when Thomson uses the oak tree analogy. She states, “Similar things might be said about the development of an acorn into an oak tree, and it does not follow that acorns are oak trees, or that we had better say they are” (Thomson, 1971, p. 47). This obviously can’t be used as a direct parallel to a fetus, but it serves to prove her point. Thomson conveys a relevant idea to the argument of abortion that Marquis fails to discuss. Another way that Marquis’ argument fails is because he contradicts himself on the subject of contraception (Marquis, 1989). At the time of conception the “life” is just a cluster of various cells. One step removed from conception, is the failure of a sperm fertilizing an egg for various reasons including contraception. It then seems that the use of contraception would be prima facie wrong because it denies the sperm and the egg the possibility of fertilization, which would lead to a life of pleasurable experiences. Marquis is adamant that he doesn’t think contraception is wrong (Marquis, 1989) but this becomes seems to contradict his own reasoning. Another problem in Marquis’ “future-like-ours” argument is that Marquis is relying on the fetuses having fortunate lives (Marquis, 1989). However the question should be raised about children born into tremendously difficult lives. While many fetuses will have fine childhoods, there are many horrible cases of children living in extremely impoverished conditions. Because this is an idea that Marquis should have considered his argument suffers yet another blow.
Abortion is a topic with a multitude of views and opinions to discuss and both Thomson and Marquis many plenty of the possibilities. It is clear that, while Marquis has a rather intriguing argument, Thomson provides a much stronger argument for her view on abortion. Not only does she provide more valid or sensible evidence, her argument is also more applicable to real world situations. Rarely in everyday life are we forced to consider the future of a zygote but almost everyday we must consider how much we owe to one another. Both Judith Thomson and Don Marquis are enormously respected philosophers but in this situation Thomson manages to survive the opposition. All it took was a further examination of Marquis’ opinion, to discover the more stringent argument.
Marquis, D. (1989). Why abortion is immoral. In The Journal of Philosophy (4 ed., Vol. 86, pp. 183-202). Journal of Philosophy Inc.
Thomson, J. (1971). A defense of abortion. In Philosophy & Public Affairs (1 ed., Vol. 1, pp. 47-66). Princeton University Press.
Thomson, J. (1971). A defense of abortion. In J. Thomson (Ed.), Philosophy & Public Affairs (1 ed., Vol. 1, p. 48). Princeton University Press.
Thomson, J. (1971). A defense of abortion. In J. Thomson (Ed.), Philosophy & Public Affairs (1 ed., Vol. 1, p. 63). Princeton University Press.
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