Response To Judith Jarvis Thomson
’s “A Defense For Abortion” Essay, Research Paper
Judith Jarvis Thomson, in “A Defense of Abortion”, argues that even if we grant that fetuses have a fundamental right to life, in many cases the rights of the mother override the rights of a fetus. For the sake of argument, Thomson grants the initial contention that the fetus has a right to life at the moment of conception. However, Thomson explains, it is not self-evident that the fetus’s right to life will always outweigh the mother’s right to determine what goes on in her body. Thomson also contends that just because a woman voluntarily had intercourse, it does not follow that the fetus acquires special rights against the mother. Therefore, abortion is permissible even if the mother knows the risks of having sex. She makes her points with the following illustration. Imagine that you wake up one morning and find that you have been kidnapped, taken to a hospital, and a famous violist has been attached to your circulatory system. You are told that the violinist was ill and you were selected to be the host, in which the violinist will recover in nine months, but will die if disconnected from you before then. Clearly, Thomson argues, you are not morally required to continue being the host. In her essay she answers the question: what is the standard one has to have in order to be granted a right to life? She reflects on two prospects whether the right to life is being given the bare minimum to sustain life or ir the right to life is merely the right not to be killed. Thomson states that if the violinist has more of a right to life then you do, then someone should make you stay hooked up to the violinist with no exceptions. If not, then you should be free to go at any time.
When Thomson contends that having a right to life includes having a right to be given the bare minimum one needs for continued life, she also holds that if the bare minimum that is needed for continued life is something that that person has no right to be given, then it does not follow that the person is owed that bare minimum to survive. She argues that a person has no right at all against anybody that he/she should do anything to keep that person alive. Thomson uses the violinist to illustrate that just because he needs the continued use of your kidneys for continued life, that does not establish that he has the right to be given the use or you kidneys. She claims that he definitely has no right against you that you should give him use of your kidneys continuously. Thomson maintains that nobody has the right to your kidneys unless you give them permission. If you do give him the right to your kidneys it is out of kindness on your part, and if you begin to unplug him now, no one should try to prevent you from it. In relating back to the fetus, because a person has the right to decide what happens in and to their body, and a fetus does not have that right yet. This is because it depends on the mothers body and not it’s own. Just as the fetus has not gained a right to your body for it’s growth, the violinist has not gained or been given permission to the use of your body. Neither have more of a right to life then you do because they both depend on you for life. Since your right to life includes deciding what happens in and to your body, you are able to make a decision about whether they live or die.
One difficulty with Thomson’s argument is why should we admit that a woman has no more obligation to her own child than she has to a violinist that she doesn’t even know? This means that she is claiming that a mother has no more moral obligation to her unborn child than she has to strangers. Another issue is that Thomson is stating it seems to be that if you alone own something, then you alone have the rights to it. No one else has any right to it unless you give it to him. One counter-example to this claim, is if you own an abundance of food and turn a starving beggar away. In this case a person owns something, and the person has not given the beggar the right to use it, but it is not permissible to deprive or withhold it from him, especially if it means his death. Also, in her analogy, the violinist is sick, but in abortion the fetus is not sick. If one removes the fetus from the womb and it dies, its death is because it has been taken out of that environment which is the ordinary means for sustaining his life. When fetuses are sick, they are spontaneously aborted. When a fetus is deliberately aborted; it is usually healthy. In abortion the fetus dies not of something for which one is not responsible; it dies either because someone poisons the amniotic fluid he lives in, because someone dismembers it, or because it is taken out of the natural environment that it lives in. Even if the fetus does not have a right to be hooked up to a woman to use her body, it is still shocking that she or a doctor may poison, dismember, or let the fetus die in an environment that cannot support its life.
PART 3:Thomson implies that moral obligations must be voluntarily accepted in order to have any moral force. Therefore, she misguidedly infers that all moral obligations to a child are voluntary. However, if a man were to father a child unaware that the mother decided to keep the baby, and he refuses to help with child support. Although he took every precaution to avoid fatherhood, showing that he did not want to be a father, according to nearly all child-support laws in the United States he would still be obligated to pay support precisely because of his relationship to this child.
The father’s responsibility for his offspring stems from the fact that he engaged in an act, sexual intercourse, that he fully realized could result in the creation of another human being, although he took every precaution to avoid such a result. This is not absurd because we hold drunk people whose driving results in manslaughter responsible for their actions, even if they did not intend to kill someone prior to becoming intoxicated. Such obligations, although not directly undertaken voluntarily, are necessary in any civilized culture to preserve the rights of those that cannot control what happens to them, such as a fetus. Consequently, Thomson is mistaken, because she ignores the natural relationship between sexual intercourse and human reproduction, when she claims that if a couple has “taken all reasonable precautions against having a child, they do not by virtue of their biological relationship to the child who comes into existence have a special responsibility for it.” “Surely we do not have any such ’special responsibility’ for a person unless we have assumed it, explicitly or implicitly.” Therefore, instead of providing reasons for refusing any special responsibilities for a child, she simply rejects the concept altogether
Some people think that the right to life includes the right not to be killed.
Let us grant that one may indeed unplug oneself from the violinist. May one take a gun and shoot him in the head? May one cut him into pieces? May one poison him if by doing so he will disconnect in the process? I imagine you would find this outrageous. Why? Does he not die in either case? Yes, certainly. And are you not the cause of his death in either case? In one sense of “cause of death” yes. But in spite of these similarities there is a difference. The man is sick. If you unplug yourself from him, he will die from his sickness. For if he were not sick, he would not die from being disconnected. But if you shoot him, then he dies of the bullet you have put in his brain, and not of his sickness. For even if he were well, he would still die of the damage done by the bullet. Moreover, you are not responsible for this man’s sickness, his bad kidneys. (If you were, you would have to let him use yours.) But you are, of course, responsible for the bullet in his brain, for the damage you do to his body.
Thus, even supposing that the violinist does not have a right to be hooked up to you, still it is not the case that you may do whatever you want to him. Prof. Thompson, granting that the man has a right to his life, focuses her attention on whether he has a right to what it would take to sustain his life. What she fails to notice, however, is that, even if he doesn’t, this does not imply that whatever one does to him is morally permissible.
In the same way, that the fetus does not have a right to use the woman’s body (unless she gives it to him) does not imply that whatever one does to the fetus is morally permissible. Rather, just as one may not stab the violinist in the throat or shoot him in the head, i.e., damage his body and thus cause his death, one may not cut the fetus into pieces or poison him to death.
Thus, all Prof. Thompson can hope to infer from the violinist example is that one may “disconnect” oneself from the fetus providing one does not fatally damage his body in the process. This means that of the six methods of abortion only those cases of prostaglandin chemical abortion (where the woman’s uterus is stimulated to contract and expel the fetus whole) in which the fetus is born alive and is not decapitated or fatally damaged by the violence of the contractions, and those cases of cesarean section abortion where the fetus dies of neglect rather than by the knife, that only these cases are possibly morally permissible types of abortion. Only those cases where the fetus is not fatally damaged by the procedure might be permissible (on Prof. Thompson’s showing), for only such procedures might be cases of “disconnecting” oneself from a person. The other methods of abortion, dilation and curettage, dilation and evacuation, suction or vacuum aspiration, and salt poisoning, cause the death of the fetus by dismembering him or by poisoning him, and therefore are parallel to cutting the violinist to pieces or poisoning him to death, both of which are moral atrocities.
This argument is not just dangerous because it concedes what prolifers try to prove. It’s frightening because of what it asserts regarding the moral obligations of a mother to her child.
2=moral agents, with no special rights
Because Thomson is looking at the standard of a right to life, it is important here to introduce a second exception to the impermissibility of abortion. Let’s say that the mother voluntarily became pregnant, but then she was told that if she has the baby it would kill her. Now, who has more of right to life- the mother or the fetus. Well, Thomson has already
established that a woman has the right to establish what happens in and to her body in the first section, so if a woman is included with that right then she would have more of a right to life then the fetus.
The third point made through the use of the analogy of the violinist concerns whether or not killing the violinist would be unjust or not. Thomson says that some view the right to life as having the right to not be killed by anyone. However, even though Thomson excepts that everyone has this right, she disagrees that that 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” (401). So the violinist does not have more of right to life then the dependency of his own body, that is, of course if no one else volunteers their own body for his. The violinist, even with his right of life included, has no right to your body. Since the violinist does not have a right to your body then you would not be unjustly killing him by detaching yourself from him. So the point of view that says that the right to life includes not being killed by anyone should be
changed. It should be stated that the right to life includes not being killed by anyone unjustly. If you were not killing the violinist unjustly, then you would not be killing the fetus unjustly either. They both depend on your body for life and it would not be unjust of you to not volunteer to save their life. As Thomson says, “you might be self-centered, and callous, indecent in fact, but not unjust” (404).
My second argument is concerning the end of this essay. It is apparent to me that at the end Thomson completely contradicts herself. She has already granted that in some situations it is okay to have an abortion, however, at the end she says that she does not agree with killing the unborn child. Thomson does not agree that, if the abortion is unsuccessful in killing the fetus, then it is not okay to slit its throat in order to make sure it dies. The contradiction is this. If she has granted that life begins at conception, then abortion would be killing the unborn child anyway- so these two things are not separate. If you are going to kill the unborn child through abortion then you might as well slit its throat- they are both methods of killing the unborn child. Another criticism in this is that if the unborn child has no rights, as Thomson has claimed, through her right to life interpretation, then it does not matter how you kill it because, either way, it would not be killing it unjustly. My question is, “What does it matter?” If the abortion is unsuccessful so you kill it in some other way, before it has come to term, then it would be the same thing. This is only because she granted that life begins at conception.
Ethical problems with Thomson’s argument
2. Thomson’s argument is fatal to family morality. It follows from the first criticism that Thomson’s volunteerism is fatal to family morality, which has as one of its central beliefs that an individual has special and filial obligations to his offspring and family that he does not have to other persons. Although Thomson may not consider such a fatality as being all that terrible, since she may accept the feminist dogma that the traditional family is “oppressive” to women,12 a great number of ordinary men and women, who have found joy, happiness, and love in family life, find Thomson’s volunteerism to be counter-intuitive. Philosopher Christina Sommers has come to a similar conclusion:
For it [the volunteerist thesis] means that there is no such thing as filial duty per se, no such thing as the special duty of mother to child, and generally no such thing as morality of special family or kinship relations. All of which is contrary to what people think. For most people think that we do owe special debts to our parents even though we have not voluntarily assumed our obligations to them. Most people think that what we owe to our children does not have its origin in any voluntary undertaking, explicit or implicit, that we have made to them. And “preanalytically,” many people believe that we owe special consideration to our siblings even at times when we may not feel very friendly to them . . . . The idea that to be committed to an individual is to have made a voluntarily implicit or explicit commitment to that individual is generally fatal to family morality. For it looks upon the network of felt obligation and expectation that binds family members as a sociological phenomenon that is without presumptive moral force. The social critics who hold this view of family obligation usually are aware that promoting it in public policy must further the disintegration of the traditional family as an institution. But whether they deplore the disintegration or welcome it, they are bound in principle to abet it.13
3. A case can be made that the unborn does have a prima facie right to her mother’s body. Assuming that there is such a thing as a special filial obligation, a principle that does not have to be voluntarily accepted in order to have moral force, it is not obvious that the unborn entity in ordinary circumstances (that is, with the exception of when the mother’s life is in significant danger) does not have a natural prima facie claim to her mother’s body. There are several reasons to suppose that the unborn entity does have such a natural claim.
a. Unlike Thomson’s violinist, who is artificially attached to another person in order to save his life and is therefore not naturally dependent on any particular human being, the unborn entity is a human being who by her very nature is dependent on her mother, for this is how human beings are at this stage of their development.
b. This period of a human being’s natural development occurs in the womb. This is the journey which we all must take and is a necessary condition for any human being’s post-uterine existence. And this fact alone brings out the most glaring difference between the violinist and the unborn: the womb is the unborn’s natural environment whereas being artificially hooked up to a stranger is not the natural environment for the violinist. It would seem, then, that the unborn has a prima facie natural claim upon her mother’s body.
c. This same entity, when she becomes a newborn, has a natural claim upon her parents to care for her, regardless of whether her parents wanted her (see the story of the irresponsible father). This is why we prosecute child abusers, people who throw their babies in trash cans, and parents who abandon their children. Although it should not be ignored that pregnancy and childbirth entail certain emotional, physical, and financial sacrifices on the part of the pregnant woman, these sacrifices are also endemic of parenthood in general (which ordinarily lasts much longer than nine months), and do not seem to justify the execution of troublesome infants and younger children whose existence entails a natural claim to certain financial and bodily goods that are under the ownership of their parents. If the unborn entity is fully human, as Thomson is willing to grant, why should the unborn’s natural prima facie claim to her parents’ goods differ before birth? Of course, a court will not force a parent to donate a kidney to her dying offspring, but this sort of dependence on the parent’s body is highly unusual and is not part of the ordinary obligations associated with the natural process of human development, just as in the case of the violinist’s artificial dependency on the reluctant music lover.14
As Stephen Schwarz points out: “So the very thing that makes it plausible to say that the person in bed with the violinist has no duty to sustain him; namely, that he is a stranger unnaturally hooked up to him, is precisely what is absent in the case of the mother and her child.” That is to say, the mother “does have an obligation to take care of her child, to sustain her, to protect her, and especially, to let her live in the only place where she can now be protected, nourished, and allowed to grow, namely the womb.”15
If Thomson responds to this argument by saying that birth is the threshold at which parents become fully responsible, then she has begged the question, for her argument was supposed to show us why there is no parental responsibility before birth. That is to say, Thomson cannot appeal to birth as the decisive moment at which parents become responsible in order to prove that birth is the time at which parents become responsible.
It is evident that Thomson’s violinist illustration undermines the deep natural bond between mother and child by making it seem no different from that between two strangers artificially hooked up to each other so that one can “steal” the service of the other’s kidneys. Never has something so human, so natural, so beautiful, and so wonderfully demanding of our human creativity and love been reduced to such a brutal caricature. Thomson’s violinist story is to motherhood what Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” is to Good Friday.
I am not saying that the unborn entity has an absolute natural claim to her mother’s body, but simply that she has a prima facie natural claim. For one can easily imagine a situation in which this natural claim is outweighed by other important prima facie values, such as when a pregnancy significantly endangers the mother’s life. Since the continuation of such a pregnancy would most likely entail the death of both mother and child, and since it is better that one human should live rather than two die, terminating such a pregnancy via abortion is morally justified.
Someone may respond to the three criticisms by agreeing that Thomson’s illustration may not apply in cases of ordinary sexual intercourse, but only in cases in which pregnancy results from rape or incest,16 although it should be noted that Thomson herself does not press this argument. She writes: “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 rape.”17
But those who do press the rape argument may choose to argue in the following way. Just as the sperm donor is not responsible for how his sperm is used or what results from its use (e.g., it may be stolen, or an unmarried woman may purchase it, inseminate herself, and give birth to a child), the raped woman, who did not voluntarily engage in intercourse, cannot be held responsible for the unborn human who is living inside her.
But there is a problem with this analogy: The sperm donor’s relinquishing of responsibility does not result in the death of a human person. The following story should help to illustrate the differences and similarities between these two cases (for other responses to the general argument from rape and incest, see chapter 4).
Suppose that the sperm donated by the sperm donor was stolen by an unscrupulous physician and inseminated into a woman. Although he is not morally responsible for the child that results from such an insemination, the donor is nevertheless forced by an unjust court to pay a large monthly sum for child support, a sum so large that it may drive him into serious debt, maybe even bankruptcy. This would be similar to the woman who became pregnant as a result of rape. She was unjustly violated and is supporting a human being against her will at an emotional and financial cost. Is it morally right for the sperm donor to kill the child he is supporting in order to allegedly right the wrong that has been committed against him? Not at all, because such an act would be murder. Now if we assume, as does Thomson, that the raped woman is carrying a being who is fully human (or “a person”), her killing of the unborn entity by abortion, except if the pregnancy has a strong possibility of endangering her life, would be as unjust as the sperm donor killing the child he is unjustly forced to support. As the victimized man may rightly refuse to pay the child support, the raped woman may rightly refuse to bring up her child after the pregnancy has come to term. She can choose to put the child up for adoption. But in both cases, the killing of the child is not morally justified. Although neither the sperm donor nor the rape victim may have the same special obligation to their biological offspring as does the couple who voluntarily engaged in intercourse with no direct intention to produce a child, it seems that the more general obligation not to directly kill another human person does apply.
4. Thomson ignores the fact that abortion is indeed killing and not merely the withholding of treatment. Thomson makes an excellent point: namely, there are times when withholding and/or withdrawing medical treatment is morally justified. For instance, I am not morally obligated to donate my kidney to Fred, my next-door neighbor, simply because he needs a kidney in order to live. In other words, I am not obligated to risk my life so that Fred may live a few years longer. Fred should not expect that of me. If, however, I donate one of my kidneys to Fred, I will have acted above and beyond the call of duty, since I will have performed a supererogatory moral act. But this case is not analogous to pregnancy and abortion.
Levin argues that there is an essential difference between abortion and the unplugging of the violinist. In the case of the violinist (as well as my relationship to Fred’s welfare), “the person who withdraws [or withholds] his assistance is not completely responsible for the dependency on him of the person who is about to die, while the mother is completely responsible for the dependency of her fetus on her. When one is completely responsible for dependence, refusal to continue to aid is indeed killing.” For example, “if a woman brings a newborn home from the hospital, puts it in its crib and refuses to feed it until it has starved to death, it would be absurd to say that she simply refused to assist it and had done nothing for which she should be criminally liable.”18 In other words, just as the withholding of food kills the child after birth, in the case of abortion, the abortion kills the child. In neither case is there any ailment from which the child suffers and for which highly invasive medical treatment, with the cooperation of another’s bodily organs, is necessary in order to cure this ailment and save the child’s life.
Or consider the following case, which can be applied to the case of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest. Suppose a person returns home after work to find a baby at his doorstep. Suppose that no one else is able to take care of the child for nine months (after that time a couple will adopt the child). Imagine that this person, because of the child’s presence, will have some bouts with morning sickness, water retention, and other minor ailments. If we assume with Thomson that the unborn child is as much a person as you or I, would “withholding treatment” from this child and its subsequent death be justified on the basis that the homeowner was only “withholding treatment” of a child he did not ask for in order to benefit himself? Is any person, born or unborn, obligated to sacrifice his life because his death would benefit another person? Consequently, there is no doubt that such “withholding” of treatment (and it seems totally false to call ordinary shelter and sustenance “treatment”) is indeed murder.
But is it even accurate to refer to abortion as the “withholding of support or treatment”? Professors Schwarz and R.K. Tacelli make the important point that although “a woman who has an abortion is indeed ‘withholding support’ from her unborn child . . . abortion is far more than that. It is the active killing of a human person — by burning him, by crushing him, by dismembering him”19 (see chapter 3 for information on fetal pain and abortion methods). Euphemistically calling abortion the “withholding of support or treatment” makes about as much sense as calling suffocating someone with a pillow the withdrawing of oxygen.
In summary, I agree with Professor Brody when he concludes that “Thomson has not established the truth of her claim about abortion, primarily because she has not sufficiently attended to the distinction between our duty to save X’s life and our duty not to take it.” But “once one attends to that distinction, it would seem that the mother, in order to regain control over her body, has no right to abort the fetus from the point at which it becomes a human being.”20
Legal problems with Thomson’s argument
There are at least two legal problems with Thomson’s argument: one has to do with tort law, and the other has to do with parental responsibility and child-welfare law.
1. Thomson’s argument ignores tort law. Judge John T. Noonan of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals points out that “while Thomson focuses on this fantasy [the violinist story], she ignores a real case from which American tort law has generalized.”21
On a January night in Minnesota, a cattle buyer, Orlando Depue, asked a family of farmers, the Flateaus, with whom he had dined, if he could remain overnight at their house. The Flateaus refused and, although Depue was sick and had fainted, put him out of the house into the cold night. Imposing liability on the Flateaus for Depue’s loss of his frostbitten fingers, the court said, “In the case at bar defendants were under no contract obligation to minister to plaintiff in his distress; but humanity demanded they do so, if they understood and appreciated his condition . . . . The law as well as humanity required that he not be exposed in his helpless condition to the merciless elements.” Depue was a guest for supper although not a guest after supper. The American Law Institute, generalizing, has said that it makes no difference whether the person is a guest or a trespasser. He has the privilege of staying. His host has the duty not to injure him or put him into an environment where he becomes nonviable. The obligation arises when one “understands and appreciates” the condition of the other.22
Noonan concludes that “although the analogy is not exact, the case is much closer to the mother’s situation than the case imagined by Thomson; and the emotional response of the Minnesota judges seems to be a truer reflection of what humanity requires.”23
2. Thomson’s argument ignores family law. Thomson’s argument is inconsistent with the body of well-established family law, which presupposes parental responsibility of a child’s welfare. And, of course, assuming as Thomson does that the unborn are fully human, this body of law would also apply to parents’ responsibility for their unborn children. According to legal scholars Dennis J. Horan and Burke J. Balche, “All 50 states, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have child abuse and neglect statutes which provide for the protection of a child who does not receive needed medical care.” They further state that “a review of cases makes it clear that these statutes are properly applied to secure emergency medical treatment and sustenance (food or water, whether given orally or through intravenous or nasogastic tube) for children when parents, with or without the acquiescence of physicians, refuse to provide it.”24 Evidently, “pulling the plug” on a perfectly healthy unborn entity, assuming that it is a human person, would clearly violate these statutes.
For example, in a case in New York, the court ruled that the parents’ actions constituted neglect when they failed to provide medical care to a child with leukemia: “The parent . . . may not deprive a child of life-saving treatment, however well-intentioned. Even when the parents’ decision to decline necessary treatment is based on constitutional grounds, such as religious beliefs, it must yield to the State’s interests, as parens patriae, in protecting the health and welfare of the child.”25 The fact of the matter is that the “courts have uniformly held that a parent has the legal responsibility of furnishing his dependent child with adequate food and medical care.”26
It is evident then that child-protection laws reflect our deepest moral intuitions about parental responsibility and the utter helplessness of infants and small children. And without these moral scruples — which are undoubtedly undermined by “brave new notions” of a socially contracted “voluntaristic” family (Thomson’s view) — the protection of children and the natural bonds and filial obligations that are an integral part of ordinary family life will become a thing of the past. This seems too high a price for bodily autonomy.
Ideological problems with the use of Thomson’s argument
There are at least three ideological problems in the use of Thomson’s argument by others. The other two problems are usually found in the books, speeches, articles, or papers, of those in the feminist and/or abortion-rights movements who sometimes uncritically use Thomson’s argument or ones similar to it. In fact, Thomson may very well agree with most or all of the following critique.
1. Inconsistent use of the burden of pregnancy. Thomson has to paint pregnancy in the most horrific of terms in order to make her argument seem plausible. Dr. Bernard Nathanson, an obstetrician/gynecologist and former abortion provider, objects “strenuously to Thomson’s portrayal of pregnancy as a nine-month involuntary imprisonment in bed. This casts an unfair and wrongheaded prejudice against the consideration of the state of pregnancy and skews the argument.” Nathanson points out that “pregnancy is not a ’sickness’. Few pregnant women are bedridden and many, emotionally and physically, have never felt better. For these it is a stimulating experience, even for mothers who originally did not ‘want’ to be pregnant.” Unlike the person who is plugged into Thomson’s violinist, “alpha [the unborn entity] does not hurt the mother by being ‘plugged in,’ . . . except in the case of well-defined medical indications.” And “in those few cases where pregnancy is a medical penalty, it is a penalty lasting nine months.”27
Compare and contrast Thomson’s portrayal of pregnancy with the fact that researchers have recently discovered that many people believe that a pregnant woman cannot work as effectively as a nonpregnant woman who is employed to do the same job in the same workplace. This has upset a number of feminists and rightfully so. They argue that a pregnant woman is not incapacitated or ill, but can work just as effectively as a non-pregnant woman.28 But why then do feminists who use Thomson’s argument argue, when it comes to abortion, that pregnancy is similar to being bedridden and hooked up to a violinist for nine months? When it comes to equality in the workplace (with which I agree with the feminists) there is no problem. But in the case of morally justifying abortion rights, pregnancy is painted in the most horrific of terms. Although not logically fatal to the abortion-rights position, this sort of double-mindedness is not conducive to good moral reasoning.
2. The libertarian principles underlying Thomson’s case are inconsistent with the state-mandated agenda of radical feminism. If Thomson’s illustration works at all, it works contrary to the statist principles of radical feminism (of course, a libertarian feminist need not be fazed by this objection). Levin points out that “while appeal to an absolute right to the disposition of one’s body coheres well with other strongly libertarian positions (laissez-faire in the marketplace, parental autonomy in education of their children, freedom of private association), this appeal is most commonly made by feminists who are antilibertarian on just about every other issue.” For example, “feminists who advocate state-mandated hiring quotas, state-mandated comparable worth pay scales, the censorship of ’sexist’ textbooks in the public schools, laws against ’sexually harassing speech’ and legal limitations on private association excluding homosexuals, will go on to advocate abortion on the basis of an absolute libertarianism at odds with every one of those policies.”29 Although this criticism is ad hominem, as was the previous one, it serves to underscore the important political fact that many abortion-rights advocates are more than willing to hold and earnestly defend contrary principles for the sake of legally mandating their ideological agenda.
The sort of hypocrisy is evident in abortion-rights activity throughout the United States. In the state of Nevada, those who supported an abortion-rights referendum in November of 1990 told the voting public that they wanted to “get the government off of our backs and out of the bedrooms.” But when the state legislature met in January these same abortion-rights supporters, under the auspices of the Nevada Women’s Lobby, proposed legislation that asked for the taxpayers of the state to fund school-based sex clinics (which will refer teenage girls to abortion services and are euphemistically called health clinics) and assorted other programs. Forgetting that many of us keep our wallets in our back pockets and place them in the evening on our dressers in our bedrooms, the members of the Nevada Women’s Lobby did not hesitate to do in January what they vehemently opposed in November: to get the government on our backs and in our bedrooms.
But this proposed government intervention was not to prevent people from killing their unborn children, an intervention that is considered bad, evil, anti-choice, and intrusive. Rather, it was to take our money we earn to support our own children and use it to subsidize the killing of other people’s unborn children. The libertarians of November became the social engineers of March.
3. Thomson’s argument implies a macho view of bodily control, a view inconsistent with true feminism. Some have pointed out that Thomson’s argument and/or the reasoning behind it is actually quite antifeminist.30 In response to a similar argument from a woman’s right to control her own body, one feminist publication asks, “What kind of control are we talking about? A control that allows for violence against another human being is a macho oppressive kind of control. Women rightly object when others try to have that kind of control over them, and the movement for women’s rights asserts the moral right of women to be free from the control of others.” After all, “abortion involves violence against a small, weak and dependent child. It is macho control, the very kind the feminist movement most eloquently opposes in other contexts.”31
Celia Wolf-Devine observes that “abortion has something . . . in common with the behavior ecofeminists and pacifist feminists take to be characteristically masculine; it shows a willingness to use violence in order to take control. The fetus is destroyed by being pulled apart by suction, cut in pieces, or poisoned.” Wolf-Devine goes on to point out that “in terms of social thought . . . it is the masculine models which are most frequently employed in thinking about abortion. If masculine thought is naturally hierarchical and oriented toward power and control, then the interests of the fetus (who has no power) would naturally be suppressed in favor of the interests of the mother. But to the extent that feminist social thought is egalitarian, the question must be raised of why the mother’s interests should prevail over the child’s . . . . Feminist thought about abortion has . . . been deeply pervaded by the individualism which they so ardently criticize.”32