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As both Judith Thomson and Don Marquis accept, a fetus is believed to become a living human sometime before birth. While most anti-abortion and pro-choice advocates believe the morality of abortion depends largely on this issue, both Thomson and Marquis believe more moral reasoning must occur to reach a sound conclusion. Don Marquis, arguing against abortion, establishes a fetus’s right to life through examining the wrongness behind killing adult humans and relating fetuses to adult humans. Judith Thomson, defending abortion, does note a fetus’s right to life, but finds this right not compelling enough to forbid abortions by revealing one’s lack of an obligation to provide a fetus with life. While both philosophers search deeper into human rights than the standard arguments for and against abortion do, Judith Thomson presents a more convincing argument defending abortion that exposes holes in Don Marquis’s argument by revealing the dependency of fetuses and their need to be given life.
To undermine the view that abortion is immoral even in cases involving rape, Thomson first suggests considering a situation where a man wakes up and finds himself kidnapped and in a hospital bed with a famous violinist. In addition to being kidnapped, the man is told that the violinist has a fatal kidney disorder and that his circulatory system was “plugged” into the circulatory system of the violinist. Lastly, the man is told by the hospital staff that all persons have a right to life, so although the man has a right to what happens to his body, he cannot disconnect himself from the violinist and kill the violinist. Since the man being morally required to remain “plugged into” the violinist for any period of time seems extremely unreasonable and unlikely, Thomson offers a legitimate challenge to the anti-abortion argument in cases of rape. Additionally, since, although the man was kidnapped, it would certainly not be immoral for the man to detach himself from the violinist, this example also has stronger implications for Thomson. As Thomson argues, the fact that one’s right to life most likely does not depend on whether one is the product of rape shows that some other right must exist that either allows or neglects one’s right to life. This example introduces Thomson’s main defense for abortion by suggesting that merely having the right to life may not necessarily mean that the killing of that person would be immoral.
Thomson demonstrates the moral gap between showing one’s right to life and then concluding that killing that person is immoral by exploring what the right to life actually entails. Thomson offers two perspectives on the right to life and reveals this gap in each. In the first perspective, Thomson claims the right to life “includes having a right to be given at least the bare minimum one needs for continued life” (Thomson 55). To disprove this claim, Thomson creates a new situation where the only way to save someone from death would be to have Henry Fonda touch the person’s forehead. Since Henry Fonda does not have any moral obligation to touch the person’s forehead and save him, though the person does have a right to life, Thomson refutes an assumption important to the anti-abortion argument: that the right to life includes the right to be given life.
Thomson proves a similar point in disputing a more narrow definition of the right to life. In disputing that the right to life includes the right not to be killed by anybody, Thomson returns to the violinist example. Using the claim that the violinist has a right not to be killed by anybody since the violinist has a right to life, Thomson concludes that the violinist then has a right against everybody to prevent the man from detaching himself and killing the violinist. Since it seems difficult to find any moral reasoning that obligates the man to remain attached to the violinist, Thomson here offers evidence against a more general claim that happens to underlie almost all arguments against abortion: the claim that right to life guarantees the right not to be killed by anybody.
Offering an opposing argument to Judith Thomson, Don Marquis attempts to challenge Thomson’s argument by relying on a fetus’s right to life. To demonstrate this right and what it means, Marquis evaluates the reasons behind the wrongness of killing adult humans. In conclusion, Marquis claims the wrongness of killing an adult human is the loss of all the activities, projects, and experiences that would have comprised the adult’s personal life. Marquis shows the validity of this claim by ensuring that this idea supports our natural inclinations, such as that killing is one of the worst crimes and that killing animals is also wrong, and by considering and then discrediting other theories.
Although Judith Thomson would seemingly agree with this sound theory regarding the immorality of killing adults, she would certainly find fault with the premises and the ultimate conclusion Marquis draws: that abortion is prima facie an immoral act. To come to this conclusion, Marquis presents the idea that “the future of a standard fetus includes a set of experiences, projects, activities, and such which are identical with the futures of adult human being and are identical with the futures of young children” (Marquis 31). He continues “the reason that is sufficient to explain why it is wrong to kill human beings after the time of birth is a reason that also applies to fetuses,” and this leads to his conclusion. As Thomson notes in her article, a key distinction between both the future’s and the actual lives of adults and fetuses lies in the fetus’s dependence on the mother for its livelihood. As Thomson proves through her violinist example and Henry Fonda example, any person’s right to life, interpreted by Marquis to mean the right for a human not to have the value of his future taken from him and interpreted by Thomson either to be given the basic means to live or the right not to be killed, does not obligate anyone to provide life to that person according to any of these meanings. Since fetuses are not capable of having any type of livelihood without someone giving them the basic necessities to live, it follows that a mother may morally be allowed to abort her fetus if she does not desire to give the fetus life. While Thomson and Marquis may seemingly agree that one’s right to life, regardless of its interpretation, ensures that one has the right to be allowed to live, Thomson proves that this right does not include the right to be given life, which is so essential for a fetus to live.
Since Marquis focuses on the right to life of adults, who usually do not need a right to be given life, his argument lacks the distinction Thomson makes between a right to life and a right to be given life. Since Marquis’s argument holds that the fetus’s right to life obligates the mother to provide her fetus with life, Marquis would seemingly believe the man connected to the violinist in Thomson’s example would be equally obligated to provide the violinist with life. Marquis may argue that the relationship between the man and the violinist is different than the relationship between a mother and fetus, but, as Marquis argues in his own work, he would then need to justify how the purely biological characteristics of motherhood is morally relevant.
In presenting arguments for and against abortion, Judith Thomson and Don Marquis both acknowledge humans’ right to life, but ultimately interpret this right differently. While Marquis connects a fetus’s possession of the properties that make killing adult humans wrong to abortion being immoral, Thomson focuses on a fetus’s dependence on someone else and one’s lack of an obligation to provide for others. As Thomson implies, one does not have an obligation to provide for another unless one chooses to, and only after that point is ending the provisions immoral.
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