Probably the most significant article written in defense of abortion is Judith Jarvis Thompson’s famous “A Defense of Abortion” (Philosophy and Public Affairs 1, no. 1 [Fall 1971]: 57–66), written back in 1971 and reprinted many times since. Thompson’s most common method of argumentation is by analogy, and she applies this technique very effectively. Her most famous analogy is the “unplugging the violinist” analogy found in this article. 350 words
- While Thompson does not think the unborn is a person, she is willing to grant it for argument’s sake. Even if the unborn is a person, she still believes abortion is justifiable in at least some cases, especially when a woman becomes pregnant against her will (either through force, like rape, or just unintentionally, like through failure of birth control to work). Her “unplugging the violinist” analogy is designed to make her case. Do you think the analogy works? Why or why not? Is it analogous in relevant respects to a woman becoming pregnant against her will? If you do not think it works, where are the places it is disanalogous? (Note: In order to make her point, Thompson employs a number of scenarios that might first strike you as strange and unrealistic (like kidnapped violinists and people seed-pods). At first, you might react by dismissing these; however, try to understand the point behind the illustrations and not get caught up on their unlikelihood. At times, philosophers purposely use unrealistic scenarios to distance you from the real situation and to help you see important salient points they are making.)
- In section 4 of the article, Thompson discusses the argument from pro-lifers that, if a woman engages in sexual intercourse voluntarily but becomes pregnant against her will (either by not being careful or a failure of contraceptives), she is still responsible to carry the child to term, as she loses her right “to not have a child” by taking the risk of voluntarily having sex. This is sometimes referred to as the “if you play, then you pay” argument. Thompson argues that even in these cases a woman has not given her right away just because she voluntarily participated in sexual activity, and she uses the “burglar” and “people-seeds” analogies to argue her point. Do you think her argument succeeds? Why or why not? If not, in what ways are her analogies disanalogous?
- In section 7 of the article, Thompson raises the question of the special relationship between the fetus and the mother and asks if that relationship should play a part in maintaining an obligation to not have an abortion. One obviously recognizes that parents have an obligation to care for their children and not harm them. According to Thompson, when does that obligation begin? Do you think she argues this beginning point well? Do you think parenthood marks an important difference between pregnancy and the violinist illustration? Why or why not?
- Thompson does not believe all abortions are justifiable. In her mind, when is it not justifiable? Do you think she is being consistent here? Why or why not?