HomeOpinionGet Philosophized: Am I your body’s keeper?

Get Philosophized: Am I your body’s keeper?

Published May 12, 2022


In a draft brief leaked to Politico, the Supreme Court voted to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark abortion case that ruled that citizens have a constitutional right to abortion access. In response to the brief, protests against the decision broke out in major cities across the nation.

For decades, abortion has been a hot-button topic in America, creating tension between political parties and inspiring arguments about a person’s right to terminate a pregnancy. 

But the question remains: Is abortion ethical? If not, then it stands to reason that there is no moral issue with the overturning of the precedent set by Roe v. Wade. 

Prominent philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson takes on this question in her argument, “A Defense of Abortion,” in which she concedes a fact often battled over during disputes about abortion: The philosopher acknowledges that a fetus is in fact a person, beginning at the moment of conception, and thus, has an inherent right to be alive. 

By conceding this, Thomson turns her attention to bodily autonomy, posing a thought experiment: Say a famous violinist is hooked up to your circulatory system, and the only way to sustain his life is to connect your kidney to his body, so that you may filter out the poisons in his blood. You had no say in the matter, your body is being used unwillingly. The director of the Society of Music Lovers tells you that they surveyed all of the medical records they could, and you were the only match. In order to save his life, you, and only you, must remain in a bed, hooked up to another person’s body for nine months. 

Thomson claims that you are in no way obligated to sustain this violinist’s life because you have an individual right to freedom that no one else can impede upon. The philosopher says that someone’s right to life does not supersede your own right to life, happiness and a lack of suffering.

With the reversal of Roe v. Wade, the right to abortion in America is threatened, violating people’s right to bodily autonomy. (photo by MOBILUS IN MOBILI)

The philosopher, however, acknowledged that this argument only works when a child is conceived from non-consensual sex, because in the aforementioned scenario, you are entirely unwilling to be pregnant. 

To address a situation in which someone willingly engages in sex and subsequently becomes pregnant, Thomson created a second thought experiment: Imagine that it’s a hot day in spring, and you open the window in your dining room to let a cool breeze in, but much to your surprise, a man, adorned with a ski mask, climbs through the open window and robs your house. Sure, you opened the window, but you did not invite a robber in, and you certainly did not ask to be robbed. 

Thomson views this situation as analogous to pregnancy: An individual may have had sex, but that in no way means that they wanted a child. This takes us back to the violinist argument–you have no obligation to sustain another person’s life, even if they need your body in order for them to survive. No one can claim that you owe them salvation.

Though Thomson takes a libertarian approach to abortion, claiming that people have an unalienable right to choose what happens to their body, a utilitarian would look at the situation differently while ultimately arriving at the same conclusion. A utilitarian would act in a way that would maximize the happiness for the greatest number of people, and as a result would admonish the Oklahoma legislators because of the suffering that a person who no longer wants to sustain a pregnancy, but is forced to, would experience.

Based on Thomson’s argument, the reversal of Roe v. Wade is inherently unethical because it forces people to unwillingly sustain the life of a fetus and denies them the bodily autonomy that they inherently have a right to.


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