In “A Defense of Abortion”, Judith Thomson argues that abortion is morally permissible even if the fetus has the moral status of a person[1]. I will argue that the argument’s premises can likewise be used to justify a man’s decision to abandon a woman and their child. By ruling out potential objections, I will then conclude that we must either accept both abortion and abandonment as morally permissible in most cases or else reject Thomson’s argument altogether.

Thomson’s argument relies heavily on an analogy in which a dying world-class violinist is physically dependent upon a particular woman against her will for nine months[2]. In the Violinist Case, as it is called, we intuitively believe that the woman is not morally required to supply her body as a means of life-support, regardless of the violinist’s apparent personhood, on the grounds that she never consented to be connected to him in the first place. With this intuition in mind, Thomson argues, the pregnant woman is likewise vindicated of the moral obligation to support an unwanted fetus, even if it is a person.

However, Thomson’s current premises can also lead to potentially counterintuitive conclusions when applied to other cases. Suppose, for example, that a man makes it emphatically clear to his sexual partner that he does not intend to have a child; as a result of this conviction, he always takes reasonable contraceptive measures during intercourse. When a single contraceptive failure results in pregnancy, though, the woman decides that she will have the child anyway. The man promptly leaves the pregnant woman without paying a dime of child support[3]. Is he, like the pregnant woman, also vindicated of the moral obligation to support an unwanted fetus on the grounds of our conclusion in the Violinist Case? I will refer to this as the Abandonment Case.

However, Thomson’s current premises can also lead to potentially counterintuitive conclusions when applied to other cases.

Thomson claims that parents have no special responsibility to support a child if they have taken all reasonable precautions against having it in the first place[4]. By communicating his intentions beforehand and using contraceptives, surely the man in question has taken all reasonable precautions. Moreover, given that the fetus is not strongly dependent on him for survival, it seems that the man has at least as strong of a case for abandoning the fetus as a pregnant woman would have for aborting it. If we are being consistent in our moral reasoning, then, it follows that the man has no moral obligation to support the fetus in any way, shape, or form. To do so would be supererogatory, but in no way is it morally required.

This counterintuitive conclusion may suggest a morally significant connection between the fetus and the parent that is omitted in the Violinist Case. In addressing a similar case, for example, Jeff McMahan recognizes that, if this moral intuition is right, it must be due to either the parents’ responsibility for the child’s existence, the child’s need for aid, or the parents’ genetic relation to it[5]. Assuming these are the only relevant factors, we have already freed the parents from responsibility for the child’s existence by conceding Thomson’s claim that reasonable precaution is sufficient. If we now revoke this premise, however, we are dismantling Thomson’s whole argument. If we conclude that the parents are in fact responsible for the child’s existence, then the Violinist Case must fall short in that the bedridden woman is in no way responsible for the violinist’s existence. Our intuition in the Abandonment Case, then, must be justified by another factor in order to maintain Thomson’s argument.

The child’s need for aid seems promising. For example, we would likely condemn the man’s actions even more if we found out that he was very wealthy while the woman was very poor. Surely the woman’s inability to provide for the child shows that the child’s own need for aid is sufficient reason for the moral wrongness of the man’s decision to abandon it? We have therefore set up a situation in which the fetus is dependent solely upon the father for survival[6]. However, it is clear in the Violinist Case that the fact that the woman is the sole source of aid does not make her decision to withhold aid morally impermissible. If we now decide that the child’s need for aid on its own is morally significant in the Abandonment Case, then, it follows that the violinist’s need for aid is likewise morally significant. This would lead us to reverse our moral conclusion in the Violinist Case, which would, again, undermine Thomson’s whole argument.

If we now decide that the child’s need for aid on its own is morally significant in the Abandonment Case, then, it follows that the violinist’s need for aid is likewise morally significant.

It seems that our only remaining options are to either recognize the genetic relationship as morally significant in the Abandonment Case or else reject our intuitive belief that the man has acted wrongly. If we recognize the genetic relationship as morally significant, the Violinist Case is no longer identical to an unwanted pregnancy in all morally relevant respects in that the violinist is a stranger, not a close genetic relative. Without its main analogy, Thomson’s argument falls apart, allowing the moral emphasis to be placed back on the question of whether or not the fetus is a person in the first place.

If, however, we maintain that the genetic relationship is morally insignificant, we must concede that it is not wrong for a man to leave a woman and their child without any form of support, even when the man is wealthy and the woman is poor. Unless the Violinist Argument is recognized as falling short, then, Thomson’s defense of abortion should also be understood as a defense of abandonment.

 

Works Cited

[1] Judith Thomson, “A Defense of Abortion” in Philosophy and Public Affairs Vol. 1 No. 1 (Blackwell Publishing, 1971): pp. 47-66.

[2] Thomson, p. 49.

[3] For an analysis of a similar case: Jeff McMahan, The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life (Oxford     University Press, 2002): p. 374.

[4] Thomson, p. 65.

[5] McMahan, p. 377.

[6] I am assuming that the man abandons the woman in a society without a form of welfare that might aid her.