Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A "Person" or a "Life"?

While I'm on the subject of eugenics (previous post), I have a few more thoughts about abortion. (Many of the links at the bottom of the previous post lead to other posts I have written on the subject.) These few more thoughts are triggered by Judith Jarvis Thomson's article, "A Defense of Abortion" (Philosophy & Public Affairs, 1 (1971): 47-66), which is available online here (among other places).

"A Defense of Abortion" has been rattling around in the back of my mind since I first read it a few years ago. Thomson's case for abortion in rests on the analogy that she poses in the fourth paragraph of the article:
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, which suggests that something really is wrong with that plausible-sounding argument I mentioned a moment ago.
Glen Whitman has criticized, implicitly and effectively, Thomson's analogy and others of its kind. I will not repeat Whitman's criticisms here; read them for yourself at his post, "Every Abortion Analogy Fails."

I want to focus, instead, on another aspect of Thomson's verbal trickery. She begins "A Defense of Abortion" with this:
Most opposition to abortion relies on the premise that the fetus is a human being, a person, from the moment of conception.
In the second paragraph she writes:
I think that the premise is false, that the fetus is not a person from the moment of conception. A newly fertilized ovum, a newly implanted clump of cells, is no more a person than an acorn is an oak tree.
The trickery is this: Most (right-minded) opposition to abortion does not rely on the premise that the fetus is a "person"; it relies on the fact that the fetus is a human life. Thomson tries to evade that fact by appealing to our sense of a "person" as a walking, talking entity -- someone like you and me. "Conveniently" for Thomson, a newly fertilized ovum does not resemble such an entity. The lack of similarity therefore justifies (in Thomson's mind) the dismissal of the fetus as a non-person and, therefore, the taking of its life -- if that is the convenient thing to do.