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It is often assumed that if the fetus is a person, then abortion should be illegal. Thomson1 laid the groundwork to challenge this assumption, and Boonin2 has recently argued that it is false: he argues that abortion should be legal even if the fetus is a person. In this article, I explain both Thomson’s and Boonin’s reason for thinking that abortion should be legal even if the fetus is a person. After this, I show that Thomson’s and Boonin’s argument for legalised abortion fail; they have not given us good reason for thinking abortion should be legal.1 Finally, I argue that—if we play Boonin’s game—abortion should be illegal.
Boonin’s argument for legalised abortion
When discussing the ethics and politics of abortion, whether the fetus is a person is usually central.3 4.2 However, Thomson1 long ago challenged this view. She argued that abortion is permissible even if the fetus is a person. To do so, she asks us to consider a case in which you (the reader) are non-consensually taken to a hospital and hooked up to a famous violinist. The violinist, if he is to survive, needs to filter his blood through your body. After 9 months, he will be fine and you can unplug yourself and go on your way. If you unplug yourself prior to this, however, he will die. Is it permissible to unplug yourself? Thomson thinks the answer is ‘yes’. And this, she thinks, shows that abortion is permissible even if the fetus is a person. While the majority of her article focuses on the ethics of abortion, it is clear that she also aims to show that abortion should be legal if the fetus is a person; she would no doubt reject the view that the state is right to coerce you into …
Contributors PH wrote the whole paper.
Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.
Competing interests None declared.
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.
↵Most of this article addresses Boonin’s argument, since it is more developed and recent than Thomson’s.
↵While Boonin refers both to ‘persons’ and those with a ‘right to life,’ I will simply take a person to be a thing that has a right to life. Nothing hinges on this point.
↵This is because I do not know what the property (or properties) are.
↵Here, I understand X to coerce Y to R if (roughly) X will harm (broadly construed) Y if Y does not R. E.g. the U.S. coerces those with cars to purchase license plate tabs—if one is caught driving without (or with expired) tabs, she will be subject to a fine.
↵You can find the details of this case here: https://ktvo.com/news/local/se-iowa-mother-convicted-of-starving-son-to-death-gets-10-years
↵I ignore fathers for the sake of simplicity. But, obviously, fathers can be, should be, and are arrested for starving their infants as well.
↵By ‘unwilling mother,’ I just mean a mother that does not want to take care of her infant.
↵More exactly, she must give up the infant or feed it. I suppose here that she has not given it up and also does not want to feed it.
↵By this I mean that the mother would have to breastfeed her infant for her infant to get the breastmilk, not just that she has a bottle of breastmilk available.
↵Of course, this is an empirical question to which no survey has (to my knowledge) been conducted. For whatever it is worth, anecdotally, the vast majority that I have asked about CASE 2 have agreed with it.
↵The qualification ‘only’ here entails that the infant is not able to be transferred to someone else to be fed.
↵Of course, in this case, the infant is dead, so the state cannot coerce her into feeding her infant after she is taken from the cabin. My point is the state would be right in enacting a law that generally punished those who let their infants starve when there was food available. If there were such a law, the state would be coercing Sally into feeding her infant.
↵How might the government coerce Sally? One way would be to have laws that dictate that she be fined or imprisoned if she were to starve her infant in such a case.
↵Indeed, if one accepts Boonin’s view that McFall does not have the right to use Shimp’s body, then being a person is not sufficient for having a right to use another’s body. So, in the case of abortion and infant starvation, some other property (or conjunction of properties) is what gives the fetus the right to its mother’s body.
↵Hereafter, I will omit the qualification ‘given fetal personhood’ for the sake of readability. However, it should be clear that my discussion is following Boonin and Thomson in assuming fetal personhood.
↵Indeed, a referee points out that if McFall versus Shimp is to be made analogous to pregnancy/abortion, then, first, we would need to assume that Shimp had been giving McFall bone marrow (but not given him a sufficient amount). And, second, we would need to assume that to stop giving bone marrow to McFall, Shimp would have to actively kill him in some way (for a defence of abortion as killing, see ref. 4). In that case, it is not clear that McFall should not be coerced into giving more bone marrow to Shimp, and therefore not clear whether McFall versus Shimp supports Boonin’s position.
↵It is equally true that not all ethically permissible actions should be legal (e.g., slightly exceeding the speed limit on a road should not be legal).
↵Of course, this does not mean that anything goes—there will be heavy restrictions on what the government can/should do here.
↵Think of the popularity (in certain parts of the world) of governmental healthcare.
↵It is worth noting that there are some legal cases that offer support for CASE 2*. For example, Beckwith considers a case in American tort law in,12 pages 196–197, which arguably supports the conclusion of this section. I do not consider a such rulings in this piece partly because there are bound to be cases that support both sides and partly because I think we can see, independent of prior rulings, that CASE 2* is right.