A Defense of Abortion

A Defense of Abortion
In this classic essay, Thomson argues that even if a fetus is a person at conception, at
least some abortions could still be morally permissible. A fetus may have a right to
life, but this right “does not guarantee having either a right to be given the use of or a
right to be allowed continued use of another person’s body— even if one needs it for
life itself.” A woman has a right not to have her body used by someone else against
her will, which is essentially the case when she is pregnant due to no fault of her own
(as a result of rape, for instance). The correct lesson about the unborn’s right to life
is not that killing a fetus is always wrong, but that killing it unjustly is always wrong.
Most opposition to abortion relies on the premise
that the fetus is a human being, a person, from the
moment of conception. The premise is argued for,
but, as I think, not well. Take, for example, the most
common argument. We are asked to notice that the
development of a human being from conception
through birth into childhood is continuous; then it
is said that to draw a line, to choose a point in this
development and say “before this point the thing is
not a person, after this point it is a person” is to make
an arbitrary choice, a choice for which in the nature
of things no good reason can be given. It is concluded
that the fetus is, or anyway that we had better
say it is, a person from the moment of conception.
But this conclusion does not follow. Similar things
might be said about the development of an acorn
into an oak tree, and it does not follow that acorns
are oak trees, or that we had better say they are.
of this form are sometimes called “slippery
slope arguments”— the phrase is perhaps self-explanatory—
and it is dismaying that opponents of
abortion rely on them so heavily and uncritically.
I am inclined to agree, however, that the prospects
for “drawing a line” in the development of the
fetus look dim. I am inclined to think also that we
shall probably have to agree that the fetus has already
become a human person well before birth. Indeed, it
comes as a surprise when one first learns how early in
its life it begins to acquire human characteristics. By
the tenth week, for example, it already has a face,
arms and legs, fingers and toes; it has internal organs,
and brain activity is detectable.1 On the other hand,
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. But
I shall not discuss any of this. For it seems to me to be
of great interest to ask what happens if, for the sake of
argument, we allow the premise. How, precisely, are
we supposed to get from there to the conclusion that
abortion is morally impermissible? Opponents of
abortion commonly spend most of their time establishing
that the fetus is a person, and hardly any time
explaining the step from there to the impermissibility
of abortion. Perhaps they think the step too
simple and obvious to require much comment. Or
perhaps instead they are simply being economical in
argument. Many of those who defend abortion rely
on the premise that the fetus is not a person, but only
a bit of tissue that will become a person at birth; and
why pay out more arguments than you have to?
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.
From “A Defense of Abortion,” Philosophy & Public Affairs,
vol. 1, no. 1 (Fall 1971). Copyright © 1971. Reprinted with
permission of Blackwell Publishing. (Notes edited.)
Chapter 7: Abortion 327
I propose, then, that we grant that the fetus is a
person from the moment of conception. How does
the argument go from here? Something like this, I
take it. Every person has a right to life. So the fetus
has a right to life. No doubt the mother has a right
to decide what shall happen in and to her body; everyone
would grant that. But surely a person’s right
to life is stronger and more stringent than the
mother’s right to decide what happens in and to her
body, and so outweighs it. So the fetus may not be
killed; an abortion may not be performed.
It sounds plausible. But now let me ask you to
imagine this. 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 now is 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 you’ve
now 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.
In this case, of course, you were kidnapped; you
didn’t volunteer for the operation that plugged the
violinist into your kidneys. Can those who oppose
abortion on the ground I mentioned make an exception
for a pregnancy due to rape? Certainly. They can
say that persons have a right to life only if they didn’t
come into existence because of rape; or they can say
that all persons have a right to life, but that some
have less of a right to life than others, in particular,
that those who came into existence because of rape
have less. But these statements have a rather unpleasant
sound. Surely the question of whether you
have a right to life at all, or how much of it you have,
shouldn’t turn on the question of whether or not you
are the product of a rape. And in fact the people who
oppose abortion on the ground I mentioned do not
make this distinction, and hence do not make an exception
in case of rape.
Nor do they make an exception for a case in
which the mother has to spend the nine months of
her pregnancy in bed. They would agree that would
be a great pity, and hard on the mother; but all the
same, all persons have a right to life, the fetus is a
person, and so on. I suspect, in fact, that they would
not make an exception for a case in which, miraculously
enough, the pregnancy went on for nine
years, or even the rest of the mother’s life.
Some won’t even make an exception for a case in
which continuation of the pregnancy is likely to
shorten the mother’s life; they regard abortion as
impermissible even to save the mother’s life. Such
cases are nowadays very rare, and many opponents
of abortion do not accept this extreme view. All the
same, it is a good place to begin: a number of points
of interest come out in respect to it.
1. Let us call the view that abortion is impermissible
even to save the mother’s life “the extreme
view.” I want to suggest first that it does not issue
from the argument I mentioned earlier without the
addition of some fairly powerful premises. Suppose
a woman has become pregnant, and now learns that
she has a cardiac condition such that she will die if
she carries the baby to term. What may be done for
her? The fetus, being a person, has a right to life, but
as the mother is a person too, so has she a right to
life. Presumably they have an equal right to life.
hospital says to you, “It’s all most distressing, and
I deeply sympathize, but you see this is putting an
additional strain on your kidneys, and you’ll be
dead within the month. But you have to stay where
you are all the same. Because unplugging you would
be directly killing an innocent violinist, and that’s
murder, and that’s impermissible.” If anything in
the world is true, it is that you do not commit
murder, you do not do what is impermissible, if you
reach around to your back and unplug yourself
from that violinist to save your life.
The main focus of attention in writings on
abortion has been on what a third party may or
may not do in answer to a request from a woman
for an abortion. This is in a way understandable.
Things being as they are, there isn’t much a woman
can safely do to abort herself. So the question
asked is what a third party may do, and what the
mother may do, if it is mentioned at all, is deduced,
almost as an after-thought, from what it is concluded
that third parties may do. But it seems to
me that to treat the matter in this way is to refuse
to grant to the mother that very status of person
which is so firmly insisted on for the fetus. For we
cannot simply read off what a person may do from
what a third party may do. Suppose you find yourself
trapped in a tiny house with a growing child. I
mean a very tiny house, and a rapidly growing
child— you are already up against the wall of the
house and in a few minutes you’ll be crushed to
death. The child on the other hand won’t be
crushed to death; if nothing is done to stop him
from growing he’ll be hurt, but in the end he’ll
simply burst open the house and walk out a free
man. Now I could well understand it if a bystander
were to say, “There’s nothing we can do for you.
We cannot choose between your life and his, we
cannot be the ones to decide who is to live, we
cannot intervene.” But it cannot be concluded that
you too can do nothing, that you cannot attack it
to save your life. However innocent the child may
be, you do not have to wait passively while it
crushes you to death. Perhaps a pregnant woman
is vaguely felt to have the status of house, to which
we don’t allow the right of self-defense. But if the
woman houses the child, it should be remembered
that she is a person who houses it.
How is it supposed to come out that an abortion may
not be performed? If mother and child have an equal
right to life, shouldn’t we perhaps flip a coin? Or
should we add to the mother’s right to life her right
to decide what happens in and to her body, which
everybody seems to be ready to grant—the sum of
her rights now outweighing the fetus’ right to life?
The most familiar argument here is the following.
We are told that performing the abortion would
be directly killing2 the child, whereas doing nothing
would not be killing the mother, but only letting
her die. Moreover, in killing the child, one would be
killing an innocent person, for the child has committed
no crime, and is not aiming at his mother’s
death. And then there are a variety of ways in which
this might be continued. (1) But as directly killing
an innocent person is always and absolutely impermissible,
an abortion may not be performed. Or,
(2) as directly killing an innocent person is murder,
and murder is always and absolutely impermissible,
an abortion may not be performed.3 Or, (3) as one’s
duty to refrain from directly killing an innocent
person is more stringent than one’s duty to keep
a person from dying, an abortion may not be
performed. Or, (4) if one’s only options are directly
killing an innocent person or letting a person die,
one must prefer letting the person die, and thus an
abortion may not be performed.4
Some people seem to have thought that these are
not further premises which must be added if the
conclusion is to be reached, but that they follow
from the very fact that an innocent person has a
right to life. 5 But this seems to me to be a mistake,
and perhaps the simplest way to show this is to
bring out that while we must certainly grant that
innocent persons have a right to life, the theses in
(1) through (4) are all false. Take (2), for example. If
directly killing an innocent person is murder, and
thus is impermissible, then the mother’s directly
killing the innocent person inside her is murder,
and thus is impermissible. But it cannot seriously
be thought to be murder if the mother performs an
abortion on herself to save her life. It cannot seriously
be said that she must refrain, that she must sit
passively by and wait for her death. Let us look
again at the case of you and the violinist. There you
are, in bed with the violinist, and the director of the
Chapter 7: Abortion 329
after all, is hardly likely to bless us if we say to him,
“Of course it’s your coat, anybody would grant that
it is. But no one may choose between you and Jones
who is to have it.”
We should really ask what it is that says “no one
may choose” in the face of the fact that the body that
houses the child is the mother’s body. It may be simply
a failure to appreciate this fact. But it may be something
more interesting, namely the sense that one has
a right to refuse to lay hands on people, even where it
would be just and fair to do so, even where justice
seems to require that somebody do so. Thus justice
might call for somebody to get Smith’s coat back from
Jones, and yet you have a right to refuse to be the one
to lay hands on Jones, a right to refuse to do physical
violence to him. This, I think, must be granted. But
then what should be said is not “no one may choose,”
but only “I cannot choose,” and indeed not even this,
but “I will not act,” leaving it open that somebody else
can or should, and in particular that anyone in a position
of authority, with the job of securing people’s
rights, both can and should. So this is no difficulty.
I have not been arguing that any given third party
must accede to the mother’s request that he perform
an abortion to save her life, but only that he may.
I suppose that in some views of human life the
mother’s body is only on loan to her, the loan not
being one which gives her any prior claim to it. One
who held this view might well think it impartiality
to say “I cannot choose.” But I shall simply ignore
this possibility. My own view is that if a human
being has any just, prior claim to anything at all, he
has a just, prior claim to his own body. And perhaps
this needn’t be argued for here anyway, since, as I
mentioned, the arguments against abortion we are
looking at do grant that the woman has a right to
decide what happens in and to her body.
But although they do grant it, I have tried to
show that they do not take seriously what is done in
granting it. I suggest the same thing will reappear
even more clearly when we turn away from cases in
which the mother’s life is at stake, and attend, as
I propose we now do, to the vastly more common
cases in which a woman wants an abortion for some
less weighty reason than preserving her own life.
3. Where the mother’s life is not at stake, the argument
I mentioned at the outset seems to have a
I should perhaps stop to say explicitly that I am
not claiming that people have a right to do anything
whatever to save their lives. I think, rather, that
there are drastic limits to the right of self-defense. If
someone threatens you with death unless you torture
someone else to death, I think you have not the
right, even to save your life, to do so. But the case
under consideration here is very different. In our
case there are only two people involved, one whose
life is threatened, and one who threatens it. Both
are innocent: the one who is threatened is not
threatened because of any fault, the one who threatens
does not threaten because of any fault. For this
reason we may feel that we bystanders cannot intervene.
But the person threatened can.
In sum, a woman surely can defend her life
against the threat to it posed by the unborn child,
even if doing so involves its death. And this shows
not merely that the theses in (1) through (4) are
false; it shows also that the extreme view of abortion
is false, and so we need not canvass any other
possible ways of arriving at it from the argument
I mentioned at the outset.
2. The extreme view could of course be weakened
to say that while abortion is permissible to
save the mother’s life, it may not be performed by a
third party, but only by the mother herself. But this
cannot be right either. For what we have to keep in
mind is that the mother and the unborn child are
not like two tenants in a small house which has, by
an unfortunate mistake, been rented to both: the
mother owns the house. The fact that she does adds
to the offensiveness of deducing that the mother
can do nothing from the supposition that third parties
can do nothing. But it does more than this: it
casts a bright light on the supposition that third
parties can do nothing. Certainly it lets us see that a
third party who says “I cannot choose between you”
is fooling himself if he thinks this is impartiality. If
Jones has found and fastened on a certain coat,
which he needs to keep him from freezing, but
which Smith also needs to keep him from freezing,
then it is not impartiality that says “I cannot choose
between you” when Smith owns the coat. Women
have said again and again “This body is my body!”
and they have reason to feel angry, reason to feel
that it has been like shouting into the wind. Smith,
Some people are rather stricter about the right to
life. In their view, it does not include the right to be

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