Artificial wombs and violinists

Artificial wombs and violinists

The most well-known argument for the permissibility of abortion is Judith Jarvis Thomson’s violinist analogy, described in ‘A defense of abortion‘. Here, she imagines someone waking up to find themselves kidnapped and a famous, unconscious violinist plugged into their body. The violinist needs the use of their body for nine months to survive, and unplugging the violinist would kill him. Thomson claims the victim would be under no obligation to keep the violinist plugged in, and likewise a pregnant woman is under no obligation to continue providing life support for her fetus. Yes, it would be nice if she did so – performing what Thomson calls a ‘Good Samaritan’ act – but she is not obliged to.

Thomson’s argument is important because it does not rely on the moral status of the fetus. She claims that even if the fetus is regarded as a person in the moral sense – possessing the same moral status as an adult human being – her argument is still valid. Of course, there are various objections to Thomson’s reasoning, and debate is ongoing. A thorough and recent evaluation can be found in Kate Greasley’s excellent Arguments about Abortion: Personhood, Morality, and Law. But for those who rely on Thomson’s violinist as support for their pro-choice position, a distant storm is slowly brewing.

That storm is the relentless advance of new technology: the artificial womb is coming, and it may eventually have a significant impact on Thomson’s violinist. It has been mooted for a long time, but in 2017 it was announced that premature lambs were kept alive for four weeks in bags of fluid. They appeared to develop as normal, and those that were brought to term were removed and bottle-fed, and were doing well. As the technology improves, it should eventually be available for premature human babies. It’s a long way off, but it’s even possible that IVF embryos could be brought to term entirely in artificial wombs, a process known as ectogenesis. No female womb required.

So what? Well, a crucial point of Thomson’s argument is that she does not think there is a right to the death of the fetus. Her argument is that there is a right to extract the fetus to end its use of the mother’s body for its life support. For Thomson, the death of the fetus is an unfortunate byproduct of ending the pregnancy. Ectogenesis alters this situation dramatically. If we assume that the technology also includes the ability to safely extract the fetus at any stage of pregnancy (yes, this is a big assumption), then Thomson’s argument (as far as she is concerned) is no longer an argument for abortion, but rather for ectogenesis. The fetus gets to survive.

This possibility is rather awkward for the pro-choice position. There aren’t any other significant arguments that grant the permissibility of abortion in the case that the fetus is regarded as morally equivalent to an adult. Thomson’s argument has allowed pro-choice advocates to sidestep arguments about moral status. Ectogenesis will bring these arguments to the forefront, and they are controversial. Moreover, even if the fetus is not regarded as having the same moral status as an adult, killing a viable human being that is not reliant on its human mother is very different to abortion. Ectogenesis might mean a seismic shift in the abortion debate.

Some philosophers have anticipated this possibility, and tried to counter it by claiming that there is, in fact, a right to the death of the fetus. We (the PA and Daniel Rodger) examine (and reject) three of the most popular arguments in our recent paper published in Bioethics.  This paper also provides a detailed look at Thomson’s violinist and ectogenesis for those who are interested. Contact the PA if you’d like a copy.

 

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A simple argument against abortion: possible replies

A simple argument against abortion: possible replies

I recently posted a simple argument against abortion for pro-choice advocates to consider. I challenged them as to how certain they were of their conclusions, comparing this to the certainty associated with applying the death penalty, and noting the dismay most people feel when someone who is on death row is exonerated.

I’d now like to examine the most common replies to the first premise: it is morally wrong to kill innocent human beings. Rejecting this premise seems the only possible defense against this argument, unless the humanity of the fetus is denied, an extremely dubious proposition.

But how can this premise be rejected? Isn’t it always wrong to kill innocent human beings? Certainly, the onus is on pro-choice advocates to find good reasons why this may not be the case. Innocent people are sometimes killed in war, but no-one thinks this is permissible, but rather deeply regrettable: deliberately targeting the innocent in war is morally wrong. There are two general approaches, and I’ll briefly examine them both.

Bodily autonomy

The first approach is to claim that in some situations, innocent human beings can be killed. Usually, these situations involve a reference to a woman’s bodily autonomy, and come in two forms. One is to argue that a women has sovereign control over her body, and can whatever she likes with anything within her body. This doesn’t seem to be true, as it doesn’t seem permissible for a pregnant woman to deliberately ingest a drug that will result in a deformed child. More generally, having sovereign control of a space doesn’t usually confer the automatic right to kill people who enter it, say our private property.

Judith Jarvis Thomson presents the more sophisticated version of bodily autonomy in her famous article ‘A defense of abortion‘. She constructs a rather bizarre analogy about someone waking up to find a famous, unconscious violinist plugged into their body. The violinist needs the use of their body for nine months to survive, and unplugging the violinist would kill him. Thomson claims the victim would be under no obligation to keep the violinist plugged in, and likewise a pregnant woman is under no obligation to continue providing life support for the fetus.

There has been a lot of ink spilled over Thomson’s argument, and debate among philosophers continues to this day. We cannot examine it in detail here. But it’s worth noting some important points. Firstly, the argument is controversial, and not even all pro-choice advocates agree it is a valid defense for abortion in all circumstances (e.g. Kate Greasley). For example, the violinist is attached involuntarily, but some philosophers contend that voluntarily engaging in sexual intercourse implies consenting to pregnancy, should it occur. Others claim a mother has special obligations to her child. Secondly, Thomson never intended her argument to mean abortion is permissible in all circumstances, especially late-term abortions. In fact Thomson notes that she is not arguing for the death of the fetus at all, but rather its removal, which currently inevitably means its death. Artificial wombs could change this. So Thomson’s reasoning isn’t a slam-dunk argument for rejecting the first premise of our simple argument against abortion.

Persons, not human beings

The second approach is to modify the first premise to remove the reference to human beings, replacing it with ‘persons’: it is morally wrong to kill innocent persons. Here,  person is a moral term, meaning an entity with certain rights, in particular the right to life. So the modified premise is really saying it is wrong to kill human beings who have a right to life. Because it is claimed that a fetus does not meet the criteria for being a person, it does not have a right to life, and consequently it can be permissibly killed.

Defining persons also occupies a lot of space in philosophy journals, but it usually involves possessing certain rational capacities such as being conscious and self-aware. Herein lies the problem for this approach: these definitions of person invariably exclude infants. If the ‘personhood’ approach is taken, it is implicitly granting that infanticide is permissible in addition to abortion. For most people, that’s a bridge too far. And if it isn’t, there are implications beyond infanticide.

Conclusion

So there we have it. If the simple argument against abortion is to fail, it will have to fail at the first premise: it is morally wrong to kill innocent human beings. The two main options are rejecting it, via Thomson’s rather controversial argument, or changing the premise to refer to persons, not human beings, and all that implies for infanticide. Are these compelling enough to confidently reject the simple argument against abortion? You decide.