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A Defence of Abortion

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Explain and assess Thompson's claim that a successful defence of abortion need not assume anything about the moral status of the foetus

In society today, abortion has become common for a number of reasons: women have a greater legal and social status, foetal abnormalities can be detected and sex is now seen as an act associated more with pleasure rather than procreation. Abortion is commonplace in many countries, with approximately 26 million legal abortions having taken place last year. Despite this, its morality is still disputed. Religious organisations such as the Roman Catholic Church campaign against the availability of abortion, while women's rights groups campaign for greater access. The pro-life stance of the church against the pro-choice position of abortion is discussed in Thomson's article "A Defence of Abortion", in which she moderately leans towards a "pro-choice" outlook on the subject, arguing that abortion can be defended regardless of the moral status of the foetus.

Thomson (1971) firstly considers the traditional anti-abortion argument, "That a foetus is aÐ'...person, from the moment of conception". Although she contends throughout her defence of abortion that this view is false, she permits it to her opponents with the eventual goal of proving it wrong. In the case of abortion, there is little difference between a new-born child to a foetus (or a foetus to a fertilized egg), and if we were to treat them differently then we should do also to a premature baby. Warren (1973) claims it is arbitrary to have a specific line where an infant can be killed, and therefore it can be concluded that a foetus is a human from the moment of conception. Thomson argues that this idea is victim to the slippery slope notion, writing that "a newly implanted clump of cells is no more a person than an acorn is an oak tree", indicating it is wrong to claim a foetus as a human being as there is similarly a continual process of development, from acorn to oak tree.

Thomson goes on to attempt to prove the traditional anti-abortion argument is flawed with the example of the "unconscious violinist". She asks to imagine being hooked up to an unconscious violinist's kidneys for nine months, after being kidnapped by the Society of Music Lovers. As in a pregnancy, the violinist has a right to life; however it is unclear whether this overrides your right to control what happens to your body. Many would claim this analogy to be weak as the situation is very different from a conventional pregnancy; however the example is not written to prove that abortion is acceptable. Thomson's example is written to show that the anti-abortion argument is flawed, as it claims that "a person's right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body", which as Thomson's violinist case conveys, does not always work. Therefore, we can equally assume that it does not always work in pro-abortion cases also.

Many anti-abortionists object to this example, as numerous people have adapted their stance and now claim that the anti-abortion argument only applies if the woman's rights were not violated. For example, if a woman became pregnant through rape, an abortion would be acceptable. Thomson writes that "these statements have a rather unpleasant sound", as it seems hard to accept a human life that is the product of a rape has a diminished right to life. She further criticises this argument, claiming that many anti-abortionists do not accept this view. This extremist view holds that abortion is always wrong, even when the mother's life is at risk.

This perception of abortion also believes in a distinction between killing and letting die; a concept many argue is flawed from the start. For example, if an abortion was not carried out in a case where the future of the mother's life was uncertain, it could be contested that you are killing her. Those who decipher between killing and letting die strongly believe that a foetus is a human being with equal rights to us. Therefore, in this example a tragedy will undeniably occur. Many anti-abortionists maintain however that the tragedy would be worse if an immoral choice was made, such as killing the foetus, rather than following nature's dictated course. Thomson writes; "If mother and child have an equal right to life, shouldn't we perhaps flip a coin?" arguing that the mother's right to life is equal to that of a foetus; and therefore no distinction between killing and letting die can be made.

If anti-abortionists are to make a distinction between killing and letting die, she argues that their central premise should be revised. For example, "It is always wrong to kill an innocent person directly". Thomson again uses the example of the violinist to reveal that such premises are also false. She asks to imagine that the strain of the procedure on your kidney's means you will die, yet the violinist will live. Thomson contends that we have the right to unplug ourselves from the violinist as it will save our lives. Therefore, the argument against abortion in order to save the mother's life is flawed. Many would disagree with this comparison. John Finnis (1974) argues that unplugging yourself from the violinist is not killing him directly. Once unplugged, he may die or make a miraculous recovery, as nature follows its course. Finnis dismisses Thomson's distinction of her killing/letting die example because the example does not involve direct killing, as unplugging yourself is not the same as stabbing the violinist directly; it is only letting him

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