Walk a Mile in Their Brain: Abortion

This is the first article in my series “Walk a Mile in Their Brain,” where I take an issue I have a strong opinion on and do my best to argue for the side I myself disagree with. This time we’ll be looking at abortion, and since I’m pro-choice, I’ll be arguing that abortion is morally wrong. I will confess, this is not the ideal topic for me to cover in this series, because I’ve always gone back and forth on abortion. Nevertheless, as of beginning this article, I think I’m firmly enough in the pro-choice camp that this is a good exercise, and I’ll do my best to pick a topic I’m more passionately on one side of for the next installment. Now, on to the argument.

Following Judith Jarvis Thomson, pro-choice philosophers often grant the ostensibly pro-life premise that fetuses, from the moment of conception, are persons and can feel pain, and attempt to show that, despite this, abortion is still permissible. First, I’ll argue that this fails: if fetuses are persons and can feel pain, abortion is morally wrong. Then I’ll take it a step further: I’ll flip the script, and attempt to show that, even if we grant the ostensibly pro-choice premise that fetuses are not persons and can’t feel pain until the third trimester or later, abortion is still wrong.

In her paper “A Defense of Abortion,” Thomson gives an argument for abortion that some readers may already be familiar with: the Famous Violinist thought experiment. It goes as follows:

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 did this to you–we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now 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 now you’ve 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 …

I grant that you are within your rights to unplug yourself from the violinist, because the violinist does not have a right to your body that would make it wrong for you to do so. Nevertheless, as Thomson admits later in the paper:

I have argued that you are not morally required to spend nine months in bed, sustaining the life of that violinist, but to say this is by no means to say that if, when you unplug yourself, there is a miracle and he survives, you then have a right to turn round and slit his throat. You may detach yourself even if this costs him his life; you have no right to be guaranteed his death, by some other means, if unplugging yourself does not kill him.

So, the mother is within her rights to “unplug herself” from her fetus. But the analog to unplugging herself in the case of the fetus is not abortion, but rather inducement or caesarean section. Abortion, as shown in these videos (trigger warning: graphic depiction of abortion), is often nothing like simply unplugging yourself from the violinist. It’s much more akin to asking one of the doctors to dismember the violinist, or crush him, or poison him. If you have no right to kill the violinist after unplugging him, it seems clear that you also don’t have a right to kill him by any other means than unplugging yourself from him. So, by analogy, a woman does not have a right to have any of the procedures depicted in those videos performed on her fetus, although she does have the right to have a premature inducement or c-section, even if it would kill the baby. But again, if the baby lives after that inducement or c-section, she does not have the right to kill it or have it killed; if it lives and she doesn’t want it, she should put it up for adoption. Furthermore, as this video shows, abortion is almost never “medically necessary,” and is often more dangerous to the woman’s health in the case of complications than  a simple inducement or c-section would be.

Now, all of this assumes that the baby is a person and can feel pain from birth, which is quite an advantageous assumption for me. Now I’ll grant the ostensibly pro-choice premise that Thomson ends her paper by reinforcing, that fetuses are actually not persons and can’t feel pain at least until the third trimester, and attempt to argue that, even if this is the case, abortion, even early-term abortion, is morally wrong.

Proponents of abortion commonly spend most of their time establishing that the fetus is not a person, and hardly any time explaining the step from there to the permissibility of abortion. Perhaps they think the step too simple and obvious to require much comment. Whatever the explanation, I suggest that the step they take is neither easy nor obvious, that it calls for closer examination than it is commonly given, and that when we do give it this closer examination we shall feel inclined to reject it.*

Once granted this premise, the pro-choice argument seems to go as follows:

1. By concession, the fetus is not a person and feels no pain.
2. If something is not a person and feels no pain, it has no right to life.
3. By 1 and 2, the fetus has no right to life.
4. If something has no right to life, it is okay to kill it.
5. Conclusion: by 3 and 4, it is okay to kill the fetus.

I am inclined to reject premise 2. The fact that something is not a person and feels no pain does not imply that it has no right to life. It is enough that something be a potential person, that is, that it might, at some point in the future, qualify as a person. A fetus, in the natural course of events, will develop into a being that is, by any definition, a person. Therefore, it is wrong to kill a fetus.

This isn’t such a strange concept as it first appears. Most people who care about climate change base at least part of their argument on the harms that our inaction now could cause to people who haven’t yet been born, or potentially even to people who haven’t yet been conceived. This indicates that these people have an intuition that future people’s lives have at least some value.


I don’t know a general, theory-neutral argument for why one ought to care about future people, but for the utilitarians out there, I’ll give the utilitarian argument.

On a simple utilitarian theory, the goal is to maximize the “utility” (happiness) of the greatest number of people. On this theory, time doesn’t play any particularly meaningful role. Utility is utility, no matter when it occurs. To see this, consider the following two possible worlds, each containing two people. World 1 contains two people, Jennifer and Janine. They are both born on the same day, die on the same day, live to be 100 years old, and experience pleasure level 50 for their entire lives. So, in W1, the total pleasure level is 100 x 50 x 2 = 10,000. W2 contains two different people, Annette and Bridgette. Annette lives for 100 years and experiences pleasure level 50 for her entire life. Bridgette is born on the same day that Annette dies, and she also lives to 100 years, experiencing pleasure level 50 for her entire life. So, in W2, the total pleasure level is 100 x 50 x 2 = 10,000. So, the fact that Jennifer and Janine lived simultaneously while Annette and Bridgette lived consecutively has no bearing on total utility. Therefore, time has no bearing on total utility, which means that the utility of potential people is just as meaningful as the utility of currently-existing people.**

So, people who don’t think that when someone lives has a bearing on how valuable their life is, which includes at a minimum most people who are concerned about climate change, and probably others as well, ought to seriously consider the possibility that the moral permissibility of abortion is less than obvious. Of course, even if abortion is morally wrong, it doesn’t immediately follow that it should be illegal. However, if abortion is morally wrong, it is also a very serious moral wrong involving harm to a person or potential person, and moral wrongs in that category do tend to be illegal.

*As should be clear to anyone who’s read the original, I’m parodying Thomson’s phrasing in “A Defense of Abortion.”

**Argument adapted from Huemer, Michael, In Defense of Repugnance, Mind Vol. 117, p. 899-933, 2008.


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