Selected “study questions” regarding abortion, through the lens of Judith Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion”


Trip McCrossin (contact information)


The following “study questions” are organized to follow the “arc of the argument” of Thomson’s essay, but are selected, and certainly not the only ones important to ask. To feel comfortable responding to them, however, should mean feeling comfortable in responding to others and engaging in general conversation about the essay in particular and the ethics of abortion more generally.


1. Thomson’s analysis is based in part on the idea that abortion may be more or less controversial depending on where we situate the pregnancy in question along different intersecting continua. A pregnancy may, on the one hand, affect relatively benignly the health of the potential mother, or relatively malignantly, in the extreme lethally so. It may, on the other hand, have occurred voluntarily, when “a woman voluntarily indulges in intercourse, knowing of the chance it will issue in pregnancy, and then she does become pregnant,” or involuntarily, as a result of rape. Implicit in Thomson’s account is a distinction within voluntary cases between pregnancies that are voluntary and “planned” and those that are voluntary, but “unplanned,” resulting from contraceptive neglect or failure. Implicit as well is the recognition that a pregnancy may be more or less “far along” in the typical nine-month period of gestation, in the sense that we might say that it is of relatively brief duration if it is in its first weeks, say, perhaps even its first few months, and of relatively long duration if it is in its last few months, certainly in its last weeks. In terms of these three continua, please describe what pregnancies are arguably (a) least controversially and (b) most controversially aborted, and (c) the usefulness of recognizing such polar opposites, assuming that there are cases in between.


2. The question of “when life begins” is conventionally thought to be relevant to the abortion debate because. Please describe (a) why this is. Please describe (b) Judith Thomson’s methodological perspective in response, contrasting this with (c) her own view of when life begins, and describing (d) why, we may speculate, she includes this information in her essay in addition. Please describe (e) the brief five-step argument against the justice of any abortion that Thomson suggests an anti-abortionist will offer in response to her methodological perspective, and which may well “soun[d] plausible” on its face.


3. Thomson offers her “famous unconscious violinist” story in response to the antiabortionist’s response to her methodological assumption. Please describe (a) this story, and (b) which premise in the antiabortionist’s supposed argument Thomson is responding to in particular in telling it.


4. Thomson’s “famous unconscious violinist” story is one among a series of hypothetical and historical stories that she invokes in crafting her defense of abortion. There are at least three distinct versions of the violinist story, for example, each put to a distinct, albeit related use, the story arising generally at four different important junctures at least in the course of the defense. Her stories include as well, of course, the little tiny house, Smith and Jones, Henry Fonda (Angelina, Denzel, etc.), the two brothers given a box of chocolates, the burglars, blunderers, and people seeds, and the Good Samaritan, Minimally Decent Samaritan, and Kitty Genovese stories. As these stories unfold, Thomson derives from them and relies on a series of principles, including in the introductory section a general one regarding the importance of avoiding slippery slopes, and at least one way in which to do so, in section four a principle regarding what a right to life does and does not guarantee, and what “natural” rights do generally, and in section eight a principle regarding an ostensible obligation we have to act a “good Samaritan” to at least some degree. Please describe generally how Thomson’s account is punctuated by the unfolding of these stories and principles, against the background of the overlapping continua above.


5. Returning to the famous unconscious violinist in particular, what “difficulty” she takes it ultimately to “point to,” in terms of (a) what related rights “having a right to life does not guarantee,” and (b) in terms more generally of it being a difficulty “not peculiar to the right to life,” but one which “reappears in connection with all other natural rights … something which an adequate account of rights must deal with.” In this more general sense, that is, to have a “natural” right to x is not to have an absolute right not to be denied x, but a right instead not to be denied it in a particular manner. What, in other words, is this manner?


6. “There is another way of bringing out the difficulty,” Thomson goes on to suggest, at the outset of section four of her essay, laying out a contrast that she returns to in section seven. She contrasts, that is, generally speaking, (a) the story of the “boy and his small brother … jointly given a box of chocolates” with, on the one hand, (b) that of the famous unconscious violinist, to whom we are attached for nine years now, and, on the other hand, (c) those of the burglars, blunderers, and people seeds. In terms of the three continua described in the first question above, which sorts of pregnancies is she meaning thus to contrast in (a), (b), and (c), and (d) in which one or ones does she mean thus to understand abortion as morally permissible, and why, and in which one or ones does she mean thus to question moral permissibility, and why?


7. There is “room for yet another argument here,” Thomson goes on to suggest, at the outset of section 5 of her essay, which leads her to offer her “emended violinist story.” Please (a) describe this story. In such circumstances, (b) does she believe we ought or ought not to assist them, and why? Even while Thomson does not commit herself explicitly to such an inference, (c) what may we reasonably infer that we retain nevertheless, and (d) do we do so in some or all circumstances, and (e) on what basis?


8. In section seven of her essay, Thomson introduces the idea that we may usefully recognize among us not only Good Samaritans, but also “Minimally Decent Samaritans.” On this basis, Thomson identifies a “gross injustice in the … state of the law” during the period leading up to the appearance of her essay appeared. She goes on to suggest at least two responses to such an injustice. Please (a) describe what she takes Minimally Decent Samaritanism to be, (b) what she takes the “gross injustice” in question to be, and (c) what to strategic alternatives are thus imposed on the anti-abortionist’s efforts to outlaw abortion in part of in whole? (d) Does such injustice persist in the twenty-first century, and if so does it in an abated or unabated manner, and why?


9. At the intersection of the narrative of section four and seven, on the one hand, and the narrative of sections five and six on the other hand, Thomson concludes section four with a qualification, which is that it “seems … that the argument we are looking at [regarding the implications of the blunderers, burglars, and people seeds stories] can establish at most that there are some cases in which the unborn person has a right to the use of its mother’s body, and therefore some cases in which abortion is unjust killing,” leaving “room for much discussion and argument as to precisely which, if any.” She goes on to “sidestep this issue and leave it open, for at any rate the argument certainly does not establish that all abortion is unjust killing.” Left open here, in other words, would appear to be at least the issue of whether abortion may be a just form of killing in pregnancies that are, generally speaking, voluntary-planned and benign, leaving aside the question of duration, though it’s easy enough to see that the justice here becomes only more controversial as duration increases. Thomson returns to this theme in section eight of her essay, which concludes it, in which she recognizes that her argument “will be found unsatisfactory … by many of those who want to regard abortion as morally permissible … [for] while I do argue that abortion is not impermissible, I do not argue that it is always permissible.” By this, we may reasonably take her to mean that she is literally not arguing “that it is always permissible,” one way or another that is, in at least some cases of voluntary-planned and benign pregnancies in particular. She goes on to clarify why she does not in two ways. She asserts, on the one hand, that “[t]here may well be cases in which carrying the child to term requires only Minimally Decent Samaritanism of the mother, and this is a standard we must not fall below.” She asserts more, on the other hand, tipping her hat to the spectrum of ostensibly uncontroversial and controversial cases referred to in the first of our questions here, the following general quasi-methodological point that it is in her opinion “a merit of [her] account precisely that it does not give a general yes of a general no … [but] allows for and supports our sense that, for example, a sick and desperately frightened fourteen-year-old schoolgirl, pregnant due to rape, may of course choose abortion, and that any law which rules this out is an insane law … [a]nd … also allows for and supports out sense that in other cases resort to abortion is even positively indecent … [as i]t would be indecent [for a] woman to request an abortion, and indecent in a doctor to perform it, if she is in her seventh month, and wants the abortion to avoid the nuisance of postponing a trip abroad.” If we find it not unreasonable that Thomson envisions “[conceivable] cases in which carrying the child to term requires only Minimally Decent Samaritanism of the mother,” on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the principle that “Minimally Decent Samaritanism … is a standard we must not fall below,” but, finally, want to “sidestep” the issue of the permissibility of abortion in cases of pregnancies that are voluntary-planned and benign in as few cases as possible, how might we proceed, on the basis of the resources that Thomson offers us in sections three through seven, and in what circumstances in particular can voluntary-planned and benign pregnancies be considered justly aborted? (b) If in doing so, we identify some that nevertheless “require only Minimally Decent Samaritanism,” how may we reconcile this with the principle that “Minimally Decent Samaritanism … is a standard we must not fall below” (emphasis added), in light of the way in which Thomson described above the “seventh month … abortion to avoid the nuisance of postponing a trip abroad” case?