Drawing The Line

Not-Human, Then Human

Thomson denies the argument that no good reason can be given to draw a line at some point in the continuum from conception to birth to state that the thing is not a human before that point and is a human after that point.  She uses the analogy of an acorn, which goes through development to become an oak tree, but we do not say that acorns are oak trees.  She realizes, however, the difficulty of “drawing a line,” and that at some stage of development we would all have to agree that the fetus has become a human person well before birth.  But she thinks that a zygote or early embryo, “a newly implanted clump of cells, is no more a person than an acorn is an oak tree” (“Defense” 265).  If there is to be a legal restraint against something, Thomson argues, then the reason for that restraint must be such “that the constrained are unreasonable in rejecting.”  In the case of abortion, just saying “the fetus has a right to life from the moment of conception” will not do, because neither side of this debate can prove their case (“Abortion”). 

There is an asymmetry here in that the supporters of this fiat want to impose force, and the deniers want a freedom from force.  Therefore, Thomson avers, the burden is on those who would impose force to prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that the fetus has a right to life from conception on (“Abortion”).  While I agree with Thomson that neither side can prove their case, her acorn analogy does not hold up.  There is a different reproduction process involved between trees and humans, but once an acorn germinates, analogous to a human fertilized egg attaching to the lining of the womb, then the continuum of life from acorn to tree begins.  Likewise, we have a different name for the human egg and the human being, but the one life is continuous.

Fear of Slippery Slope

Pro-lifers fear the slippery slope of allowing abortion immediately after conception because arguments could then fail to restrict it at much later times in the pregnancy.  The pro-lifers who allow for abortion in the case of rape or incest are also on a slippery slope: why should the right to live depend on the circumstances of conception?   If one grants that the need is great enough to justify abortion, then this abrogates the right of the child to not be sacrificed for the sake of another person.  On the other hand, pro-choicers are leery of the slippery slope when the state prohibits third-trimester abortions, even if these occur in less than 1% of the cases in the U.S.  They argue: “Once we acknowledge that the state can interfere at any time in the pregnancy, doesn’t it follow that the state can interfere at all times” (Sagan and Druyan “Questions”)?  But it also does not follow that a woman’s right to control her own body gives her the right (indiscriminately) to have an abortion.   Richard Garlikov contends: “If abortion of a normal fetus is anywhere nearly as serious as murder of an innocent and normal infant, privacy would hardly warrant non-interference. [. . .] Privacy is not an absolute right; it is a right that stronger rights can override and that some circumstances can render untenable” (“Abortion”).

Defining Human

Definitions in my dictionary point out the difficulty of presenting pro and anti-abortion arguments based on criteria for what counts as being a human or being a person.  The definition for “human:” A human being; person.  The primary definition for “person”: A living human being, especially as distinguished from an animal or thing.  The “Law” portion of this definition states: “A human being or organization with legal rights and duties” (American Heritage).  This circular route gets us no where.  Philosophers and other moralists are attempting to either fuse or diffuse the concepts of “human,” “embryo,” and “fetus.”  Garlikov thinks that it is not important whether we call embryos persons or not: “Whether they should be called human or alive, or things that can be murdered [sic], at a stage earlier than they were before is an arbitrary matter to be pronounced rather than discovered.”  Rather, what is important is that, without an abortion, in most cases, the fetus will be born and will most certainly be alive and human.  I agree with Garlikov on this viewpoint: If it was somehow proved that a four day old fetus was not yet human, and it would be considered murder to kill it on or after the forth day, but would not be murder to do so in the first few days, this makes no difference in the morality of abortion.  “Whether a fetus is killed or not is morally significant, not when” (“Abortion”).

Thomson argues that both sides are too simplistic if they merely argue their case based on whether the early embryo is a human person or whether it is only a clump of cells.  The issue needs more examination than this.  She addresses the position that, given the premise that a fetus is human from the time of conception, its basic right to life outweighs the mother’s right to decide what happens in and to her body.  She offers this puzzle case: You are kidnapped and a music lovers’ group has plugged a famous violinist into your circulatory system to save his life.  Are you morally obligated to allow this to continue based on the violinist’s inherent right to life, or may you order the hospital to unplug him even though that would kill him?  Most, if not everyone, would consider that it is outrageous to consider you would have to continue in this parasitic relationship.  Therefore, Thomson concludes, there must be something wrong with the basic argument that the unborn fetus has a basic right to life in virtually all circumstances (“Defense” 266).

The Church and the Golden Rule

Christian theologians employ the maxim of the Golden Rule to determine that the fetus’s life has equal status with that of any other life, since it is indeed a human life in their viewpoint.  This life cannot be forcefully taken away except in the rare cases of self-defense where the mother’s life is also at stake.  The conclusion is that abortion violates the Golden Rule of morality as well as it violates the secular dictum to not injure your fellow man without reason (Noonan 264).  Most people, who hold the right-to-life from moment of conception view, will not even concede exceptions due to rape; incest; if the mother must lie in bed for nine months; knowledge of the fetus’ severe deformity; or knowledge of the fetus’ severe mental retardation.  Many, if not most, however, do permit exceptions when the mother’s life is threatened.  Some anti-abortionists get around the problem, in the case where the mother will die if the fetus is allowed to come to term, by allowing termination of pregnancy and calling the abortion process “removing” the fetus.  Thus a distinction is made and it is no longer deemed to be murder.  However the Tribunal of the Holy Office in 1902 specifically would not allow for abortion, even in the case of ectopic pregnancies where the fetus is bound to die, and if not removed, the mother will also die:  “[. . .] no acceleration of birth is licit unless it be done at a time, and in ways in which, according to the usual course of things, the life of the mother and the child be provided for” (qtd. in Robinson “Current”).  

"Just" Killing?

Thomson argues: “[. . .] that having a right to life 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. [. . .] The emendation which may be made at this point is this: the right to life consists not in the right not to be killed, but rather in the right not to be killed unjustly. [. . .] we need to be shown also that killing the fetus violates its right to life, i.e., that abortion is unjust killing. And is it” (Thomson “Defense” 271-2)?  In the cases of rape and incest, your basic right to life should not hinge on whether or not you were conceived in rape or incest, so say the anti-abortionists.  However, Thomson counters that “[. . .] unborn persons whose existence is due to rape have no right to the use of their mothers’ bodies, and thus that aborting them is not depriving them of anything they have a right to and hence is not unjust killing” (“Defense” 273). 

Thomson provides this hypothetical circumstance: Suppose  a woman becomes pregnant due to rape (or under any other problematic circumstances), but the fetus only needs to use her body for one hour—that pregnancy only lasts one hour.  Then, many would aver that she ought to let the fetus remain and come to term—that would be the right thing to do, since there is virtually no inconvenience to her.  The problem with this, Thomson points out, “is that it is going to make the question of whether or not a man has a right to a thing turn on how easy it is to provide him with it [. . .]” (“Defense” 275).  On the other hand, Thomson proceeds to declare that humans ought to be “Minimally Decent Samaritans,” thereby they should perform acts that probably do not threaten their lives, nor do they cause great personal sacrifice, but the acts do assist others in special needs or in crisis.  Under this “standard we must not fall below,” she defines the boundaries within which a woman should carry her baby to term, even in an unwanted pregnancy (“Defense” 278).

Minimally Decent Samaritan

If we grant that Thomson has a valid pro-choice stance in the cases of rape, incest, and threat to the mother’s life, we are then left with the dilemma of applying a “Minimally Decent Samaritan” standard to other cases of unwanted pregnancies.  The standard sounds moral, but humans would still disagree on the majority of cases whether the right of choice should have precedence over right of life.  How might this standard be applied to a case where a couple faithfully used a reliable method of birth control, but they were “unlucky” and became pregnant anyway.  Since society judges them to be responsible in using birth control, must society judge them immoral for wanting to terminate the pregnancy?  Are they denied the Minimally Decent Samaritan status if they eliminate a fetus that was never supposed to have been conceived in the first place?  Some would claim that this new child-to-be is a “miracle” baby, or at least very special just for the fact that it “beat the odds.”  Others would totally understand the couple’s plight and would not consider the couple to be immoral for having an abortion: this couple has less of an obligation to make sacrifices than a couple who conceives a child through negligence or through lack of concern for the consequences of their actions.

For the Good of the Fetus Argument

Abortions are being performed “for the good of the fetus,” in cases where there will be, with a high degree of certainty, severe deformity or severe mental retardation.  In extreme cases, the child would die within a few minutes or hours after birth.  They may lack a functioning brain or other vital organs.  Many pro-lifers agree that it is more humane to terminate these extreme cases to cause the least amount of pain and discomfort for the baby.  But others would cite statistics showing that, although representing only a small fraction of one percent in thousands of cases, some babies are born healthy and normal after ultrasound procedures predicted otherwise (Robinson “Genetic”).  What is more controversial is the practice of abortion in cases that are not so extreme, but that are thought to be for the good of the child who otherwise would have a life of continual suffering in the opinion of those who counsel that abortion is the best option.  The biggest problem with this is to determine how defective a fetus must be before we can ‘play God’ and decide for that child that his/her life is not worth living.  Indeed, many handicapped people have happy lives.  Eugene Diamond contends: “There is no evidence that the handicapped child would rather not go on living. [. . .] handicapped persons commit suicide far less often than normal persons” (qtd. in Schwartz 11-3.asp).  Still, there seem to be fairly clear-cut cases where the “better” choice for the baby is abortion versus the “never” anti-abortionist choice for the baby to be born and live out its life in utter misery and suffering. 

Another weak argument “for the good of the fetus” in defending abortion is the claim that “we should not bring an unwanted child into the world.”  Schwartz argues: “But the child in the womb is already in the world! [. . .]  She is merely not visible to us, and we cannot interact with her.  And so we overlook her.  But she is as real, and as present, as the rest of us.”  Schwartz further points out how many unwanted pregnancies turn out to be wanted children later, either by the biological parent(s) or through adoption.  He claims that evidence suggests that most women who opted to bring an unwanted pregnancy to term were glad they made that decision.  This unwanted-child argument collapses, Schwartz avers, if we take it to a logical absurd conclusion and ask if we should also kill other already born children who are unwanted, or unhappy (“Moral Question 11-1.asp)?  Although I think that Schwartz would stick to his “never” position in this example, however, “for the good of the child” can be an argument for abortion in the especially sad case where the mother is but a child herself, a young teenager: in this case, the “good,” or “less bad” might weigh in on the side of the child-mother.

PAS: Post Abortion Syndrome

Another reason pro-lifers give for their views is their conclusion that a large percentage of women who have abortions experience depression and massive feelings of guilt.  This is called “Post Abortion Syndrome,” or PAS.  Pro-choice advocates agree that PAS exists but they cite a study done by the American Psychological Associated and other sources that claim that PAS is a rare phenomenon.  Robinson discusses a survey where data was collected from women who felt “exploited by abortion.”  A very high percentage of these women felt strongly that information was lacking; they were not given information on the biological nature of the fetus; their decision was not well thought out; they were rushed; and/or they were not in control of their lives at the time of their decision to have an abortion.  This is valuable information, I agree with Robinson, because it points out the need for both a very early confirmation of pregnancy, and for an informed decision based on accurate information about all of the woman’s options (“PAS”).

Morbidity Rate: Other Complications

In addition to the psychological harm of PAS, the issues of physical safety for the woman come into question.  Schwartz claims that about ninety percent of abortions are by vacuum aspiration, and he points to a German study that found a thirty-one percent morbidity rate with various complications arising from these types of abortions.  For later-term saline abortions, the rate of major complications is five times greater than for first trimester suction abortions.  Furthermore, Schwartz maintains that between forty and fifty percent of all aborted women will have later reproductive problems.  Therefore, in addition to the aborted child and any psychological and/or physical harm to the woman, there are the additional, wanted, children to consider.  I.e., many wanted children will not be able to be conceived or be brought to term.  Although it is impossible to get accurate statistics, because not all problems from abortions are reported, the morbidity rate of abortion is astronomical, according to Schwartz’s research, compared to that rate for normal childbirth which is about two percent (“Moral Question” 10-4.asp).

Other People Affected

Beyond the women involved in these decisions, there are other people who are affected by abortions.  Pro-choice legislature is focused solely on the woman’s rights and privacy.  The father, if the woman chooses to not involve him, has no say in the matter.  There are cases where the father wants the child, but the mother aborts.  On the other hand, there are situations where the man abrogates his responsibilities and puts the whole “problem” of pregnancy onto the woman, or worse, he applies great pressure for her to have an abortion.  It seems obvious that the father should not have any legal power in this kind of choice, when that legal power may then allow him to force the woman to have an abortion against her will, as well as the possibility of forcing her to bring the baby to term against her will.  In one study of over 400 couples, seventy percent of the relationships failed within one month after the abortion (Schwartz 11-3.asp).  Children who are not aborted may express insecurity and question why they exist; they may continue to check to see if they are still wanted.  Many doctors and others in the medical community have grave moral conflicts when forced to participate in procedures they deem morally reprehensible.  Given the number of abortions performed, one can see how literally millions of lives are affected by this issue annually.

Impact of Future Technology

In looking toward the future, when science has advanced to enable fetuses to be removed from the mother and where they will be nurtured in either a recipient gestation mother or by artificial contrivances, we need to examine the moral implications of such technology.  Garlikov supposes that the law will then treat future mothers of unwanted pregnancies like it currently treats the father: the genetic mother or father would have no right to terminate the life of the fetus as long as life-support systems or other gestation mothers are available (“Abortion”).

Fetus Abuse

There is the other side of the abortion issue ‘coin’ to consider, if we are concerned with balancing the rights of a woman and her fetus: what about the cases where a woman chooses to have the baby, but she is abusive to the fetus through things like taking drugs or smoking?  Should the state step in and, e.g., force the woman into some sort of treatment?  In 1996, such a case went to the Supreme Court of Canada where twelve interest groups, representing religious concerns, women’s rights groups, and civil liberties organizations, addressed the court.  The 7-2 majority opinion concluded that no one should interfere with a pregnancy against the woman’s will, even if her behavior is harmful to the fetus.  Justice Beverly McLachlin wrote: “To make orders protecting fetuses would radically impinge on the fundamental liberties of the mother [. . .]” (qtd. in Robinson “Balancing”).  The dissenting judgment stated that intervention against the wishes of a pregnant woman should be possible in such cases where her behavior would cause serious irreparable harm to the child.  This dissenting judgment declares that the woman must accept responsibility for the fetus’ well-being and that the state should try to ensure the child’s health (Robinson “Balancing”).

Morality: Role of Law

One aspect of the legal issues involved, is the role of “law” as a guide to one’s thinking.  Schwartz contends: “The law helps to create a certain climate of moral opinion.  Making abortion legal conveys the message that it is morally acceptable.”  I doubt that pro-choicers would disagree with his assessment.  However, they would say that the moral rightness weighs in on their side of the debate.  Nevertheless, Schwartz provides the statistics that before legalized abortion there were between 100,000 to 200,000 abortions per year [in the U.S.], compared to 1.5 million per year in 1983.  In one poll, seventy percent of women said that “the law had played a major role in their moral perception of abortion.”  This poll indicated that 75 percent of the women would not have had an abortion if it was illegal (“Moral Question” 12-3.asp).  But it does not follow that these women’s’ lives would have been more moral or better just from the fact that they would not have had abortions because of the current legal status of abortion.

Imposing Beliefs on Others

I have left out of this paper various statistics from opinion polls.  Otherwise, the paper would be much longer—I would have to explain too much about each poll and the questions asked.   Also, I doubt that these polls reflect true feelings of people faced with such a decision about what to do about an unwanted pregnancy.  The answers may reflect accurate viewpoints based on religious or political concerns, but they do not reflect deep thought about the issues at stake because most answer givers were never forced to thoroughly examine the questions.  We often hear the declaration, “I’m personally opposed to abortion, but I do not want to impose my beliefs on others.”  Schwartz wants us to imagine someone saying, “I’m personally opposed to beating small children to death, but I do not want to impose this on others.”  He asks us to consider why this sounds so absurd, while the first question regarding pre-born infants does not?  Schwartz is pointing out the psychological power that the pro-choice slogan holds over many who are genuinely opposed to abortion (“Moral Question” 9-5.asp).  On the other side, there are objections, by those who genuinely believe that aborting an early-term pregnancy is not tantamount to murder, to the pro-life use of emotional propaganda depicting abortion as cruel killing of innocent babies.  There are psychological warfare tactics used by proponents from both sides of this issue.  No wonder it is difficult for the average woman, or couple, to sort through the ideas in order to intelligently make good, moral decisions.

Common Goal of Both Camps

If proponents of the two “extreme” sides of this divisive debate could think outside of their “always” and “never” boxes, perhaps they could find ways to help make social changes to bring about more truly voluntary births—uncoerced via force or by emotional blackmail.  This is a common goal of both groups.  If people would concentrate on providing assistance for mothers instead of waging political war, a large percentage of abortions can be prevented.  Garlikov proposes various social changes that need to come about in order to radically reduce the occurrence of abortions.  One such proposal is to change the adoption laws and customs such that biological parents can maintain access and relationships with the children: this would make the choice of adoption more palatable for some who opt for abortion.  Other changes proposed by Garlikov include provision for on-site or near-site day care by employers, or perhaps subsidized by all taxpayers; various programs where adults other than the parents can help with mentoring and nurturing children; and widespread dissemination of good information for teenagers, and pre-teens, about sex and pregnancy.  Of course, these kinds of changes are easier said than done, and they would be all the more difficult to implement in countries that do not even provide for easy access to birth control medicines and devices.  I agree with Garlikov that an important role for a state genuinely concerned about its citizens is to ensure that sufficient counseling and good information be made available to anyone seeking an abortion (“Abortion”).  This alone should prevent a large percentage of abortions because the woman will find out about other options and resources to carry out those other options, if not having an abortion is a better choice in particular cases.  In any case, her decision will be an informed one.  If she chose abortion, she would be surrounded by compassionate understanding in Garlikov’s view of state-assisted programs.

Different Philosophical Viewpoints

This issue of abortion is related to other ethical issues discussed in John Burr and Milton Goldinger’s textbook.  For the sake of brevity, I will provide only a few comments to demonstrate how this issue is not isolated within the field of ethics.  For example, a utilitarian would ask, in deciding for or against abortion: “What provides for the most good for the most people?”  One might then decide for an abortion of a “special needs” baby because it would cause too much hardship on the rest of the family, or for the community at large.  An ethical relativist may find no problem in the fact that Romania has such a high percentage of pregnancies ending in abortion: according to their culture, certain kinds of birth control are not right, but abortion is morally all right.  While Harry Browne would probably weigh in on the woman’s right to chose, in any case, he would want her to make her decision not merely based on the fact that others may think she is selfish—that would be falling into “the unselfishness trap” (220).  Robert Maclver, author of “The Deep Beauty of the Golden Rule,” would agree with Noonan in claiming that we can not cause harm to another without reason; and therefore opt for abortion only for good reason (232).

But Maclver has something more interesting to say about the harm caused by zealots for various ethical causes—we can apply this to pro-life and pro-choice fanatics:

The greatest evils inflicted by man on man over the face of the earth are wrought not by the self-seekers, the pleasure lovers, or the merely amoral, but by the fervent devotees of ethical principles, who are bound body and soul to some larger purpose [. . .].  In the heat of devotion to that larger but exclusive purpose there is bred the fanaticism that corrodes and finally destroys all that links man to the common humanity. (234)


In the spirit of logical positivism, pro-lifers use the a priori premise that life is a continuum from the time of conception alongside the premise that “life is the ultimate value” to uphold their “never” abortion stance.  But we have seen that there are valid arguments for choosing abortion in cases where the mother’s life is in danger, in cases of rape, and in cases where the baby would surely die soon or would have a life of unremitting suffering.  Pro-lifers would be more effective, and thereby effect “better” choices for women and their babies, if they focused on a “pro-nurturing-children” slogan, along with substantial programs and assistance to back up that slogan, instead of their current focus on making abortion traumatic and punishing.  Pro-choicers need to join forces with pro-lifers to help social change come about; changes they would agree would be in women’s best interests.  This can come about only when each side recognizes that neither the right to life nor the right of privacy is an inviolate right, and when each side can truly understand the circumstances that real, live women and men face in having and rearing children.  With understanding comes the opportunity for effective assistance and healthy community bonding.

Works Cited

Browne, Harry. “The Morality Trap.” Burr and Goldinger 213-222.

Burr, John R. and Milton Goldinger. Philosophy and Contemporary Issues.  8th ed.  Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2000.

Colker, Ruth. Abortion & Dialogue: Pro-choice, pro-life and American lawIndiana. Indiana Univ. Press. 1992. Note 9, Page 126.

Garlikov, Richard. “The Abortion Debate.”  22 Sept. 2001. <http://www.garlikov.com/writings.htm>

“Human.” Def. Noun. The American Heritage Dictionary. Release 1.1 (software). Houghton Mifflin Co. 1992. Writing Tools Inc. 1992.

Maclver, R.M. “The Deep Beauty of the Golden Rule.” Burr and Goldinger 231-237.

Noonan Jr., John T. “The Morality of Abortion.”  Burr and Goldinger 259-264.

“Person.” Def. 1 & 7. The American Heritage Dictionary.

Robinson, Bruce A.  “Abortion.” 18 Sept. 2001. <http://www.religioustolerance.org/abortion.htm>

---. “Abortion rationale based on the timing of miscarriages.” 18 Sept. 2001. <http://www.religioustolerance.org/abo_argu.htm>

---. “Balancing the Rights of the Woman and Her Fetus.” 18 Sept. 2001.  <http://www.religioustolerance.org/abo_feta.htm>

---. “Can a fetus feel pain? Various opinions.” 18 Sept. 2001. <http://www.religioustolerance.org/abo_pain.htm>

---. “Christian Beliefs on Abortion: Past and Present.” 18 Sept. 2001.  <http://www.religioustolerance.org/abo_hist.htm>

---. “ Current Roman Catholic Beliefs on Abortion.” 19 Sept. 2001. <http://www.religioustolerance.org/abo_emer.htm>

---. “Genetic Terminations of Pregnancies.” 19. Sept. 2001. <http://www.religioustolerance.org/abo_gene.htm>

Works Cited

---. “Human Embryos and Fertility Clinics: Are Pro-Life Groups Ignoring the Real Problems?”  18 Sept. 2001. <http://www.religioustolerance.org/abo_inco.htm>

---. “Is EC a form of abotion or of birth control?” 18 Sept. 2001. <http://www.religioustolerance.org/abo_emer.htm>

---. “Post-Abortion Syndrome (PAS).”  19 Sept. 2001. <http://www.religioustolerance.org/abo_post.htm>

---. “What the Bible Says About Abortion”  18 Sept. 2001. <http://www.religioustolerance.org/abo_bibl.htm>

--. “When Does Human Personhood Begin?”  18 Sept. 2001. <http://www.religioustolerance.org/abo_when.htm>

Sagan, Carl, and Ann Druyan. “The Question of Abortion: A Search for Answers.”  18 Sept. 2001. <http://www.2think.org/abortion.shtml>

Schwartz, Steven. The Moral Question of Abortion. 17 Sept. 2001. <http://www.ohiolife.org/mqa/nn-nn.asp> (note: text references citing this work include, e.g. “1-2.asp” as the “nn-nn.asp” portion of the web address for that particular section of this online book.)

Thomson, Judith Jarvis. “A Defense of Abortion.”  Burr and Goldinger.  Pp. 265-279.

---. “Abortion.” 19 Sept. 2001. <http://bostonreview.mit.edu/BR20.3/thomson.html>  Originally published in the Summer 1995 issue of Boston Review.  Copyright Boston Review. 1993-2000.

Opening quotes: “Correct Quotes 1.0” software. Copyright © 1990-92. WordStar Internationa Inc.  Software published by: WordStar International Incorporated

Previous Home E-Mail 

Copyright 2002 by Susan J. Fleck.
*** All rights reserved ***