Chapter 5: Abortion


Judith Jarvis Thomson, “A Defense of Abortion”

Understanding

  1. Thomson assumes that the fetus has a right to life from the moment of conception. Why does she make this assumption?
  2. What is the point of the unconscious violinist example in Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion”?
  3. What does Thomson mean by a Minimally Decent Samaritan?
  4. Why does Thomson reject the “extreme view” of abortion?
  5. How does Thomson reach the conclusion that the right to life does not include the right to use another’s body?
  6. Thomson states that we as people, including pregnant women, “do not have any such ‘special responsibility’ for a person unless we have assumed it, explicitly or implicitly.” What does Thomson mean by this, and how does she reach this conclusion?

Evaluative

  1. Thomson thinks that if “women are compelled by law to be not merely Minimally Decent Samaritans, but Good Samaritans to unborn persons inside them” then “there is a gross injustice in the existing state of the law.” Do you agree with Thomson? If yes, would justice require a liberalization of abortion laws? Why or why not? If no, explain why you think Thomson is mistaken.
  2. Do you think that there are Good Samaritan laws which Thomson has overlooked? If yes, do they weaken her arguments? Why or why not? If no, explain why restrictive abortion laws are distinctly Good Samaritan.
  3. Although Thomson concludes that some instances of abortion ought to be permissible, she does not provide clear criteria for determining when abortion is justified, or how abortion practices “fit” in society. What policy proposals do you think follow from Thomson’s arguments?
  4. Are Thomson’s reasons for rejecting the “extreme view” of abortion compelling? Why or why not?

Don Marquis, “Why Abortion is Immoral”

Understanding

  1. What does Marquis mean by a “future-like-ours”? How does it support his argument that abortion is in most cases immoral?
  2. What role does the distinction between essence and accident play in Marquis’s argument?
  3. How does Marquis distinguish his “future-like-ours” argument from sanctity of human life theories?
  4. Why does Marquis reject the “desire account” as an adequate explanation for the immorality of abortion?
  5. Why does Marquis reject the “discontinuation account” as an adequate explanation for the immorality of abortion?

Evaluative

  1. Marquis makes many references to the value of human life in his future-like-ours argument. What does Marquis mean by “value”? Do you think the meaning of “value” is the same throughout the article? If yes, explain the singular meaning of value and how it is consistently used. If no, explain in what way the meaning of “value” changes in the article.
  2. Marquis argues that it is wrong to kill a child or a suicidal teen because they will, at some future time, value their lives. Marquis is making a prediction that might not be true in all cases. Is Marquis justified in making this claim for the sake of his argument? Why or why not?
  3. Marquis believes that “embryos can be victims” because “when their lives are deliberately terminated, they are deprived of their futures of value.” However, in the earliest stages of development, an embryo cannot understand or experience harm. Do you think that something must be able to understand or experience harm in order to be harmed? Why or why not?

L.W. Sumner, “Abortion”

Understanding

  1. Sumner says both the liberal (pro-choice) and conservative (pro-life) views have the same problem. What is this problem? How does his moderate view avoid this problem?
  2. Why does Sumner conclude that no acceptable criterion for moral standing can be constructed from the liberal (pro-choice) view of abortion?
  3. Why does Sumner conclude that no acceptable criterion for moral standing can be constructed from the conservative (pro-life) view of abortion?
  4. What does Sumner mean by a “sentience criterion”? How does this help shape his conclusion?

Evaluative

  1. Do you agree with Sumner that in “all morally relevant respects, a full-term fetus and a newborn infant appear to be identical?” Why or why not?
  2. Does Sumner’s sentience criterion give a good account of how we ought to understand moral standing? Why or why not?
  3. Sumner defends the moral indeterminacy of second-trimester abortion, in part, by reference to other moral indeterminacies, such as age of consent laws and drinking laws. Are these examples morally equivalent to the sort of time limit Sumner proposes for performing abortions in the second-trimester? Why or why not?
  4. Sumner concludes his article by stating “Those who are dissatisfied with the established views need not therefore fear that in moving to the middle ground they are sacrificing reason for mere expediency.” Do you agree with him? Why or why not?

Susan Sherwin, “Abortion”

Understanding

  1. Sherwin says that adoption is not really a live option for many women. Why does she say this?
  2. How does Sherwin distinguish the analysis of abortion provided by feminist ethicists from similar non-feminist positions?
  3. Why does Sherwin reject the arguments of antiabortionists?
  4. What kinds of reforms to abortion law and accessibility does Sherwin propose, and why?

Evaluative

  1. Sherwin says fetuses’ moral status is “relational rather than absolute.” What does she mean by this? Do you agree with her? Why or why not?
  2. Sherwin thinks that “usually only the woman choosing abortion is properly situated to weigh all the relevant factors.” Do you agree with her? Why or why not?
  3. Do you think that Sherwin’s arguments are strong enough to conclude that interfering with a woman’s choice about abortion is always morally unjust? Why or why not?
  4. Sherwin thinks that every day choices made by women are influenced by patriarchal patterns of dominance. Why does Sherwin believe that abortion rights are not also a patriarchal pattern of dominance? Do you agree with her? Why or why not?

Comparative Questions

  1. Thomson points out (but does not agree) that the fetus’ dependence on the mother may be used in favour of opponents to abortion. Sherwin uses this same fact to argue for the right to abortion. Sumner and Marquis do not believe the morality of abortion stands or falls on this fact. Which of these three views do you think is the most defensible? Why?
  2. Both Thomson and Sumner believe that there is a cut-off point at which abortion is no longer permissible. Sherwin believes that there is no cut-off point, and Marquis believes that every point in time is a cut-off. Which of these three views do you think is the most defensible? Why?
  3. Do you believe that Marquis’ future-like-ours objection to abortion is adequately considered by at least one of the other authors of this chapter? If yes, what do you think is the strongest argument against Marquis, and why? If no, what do you think the future-like-ours argument uniquely brings to the discussion of abortion?
  4. Do you believe that Sherwin’s feminist ethics arguments for abortion are adequately considered by at least one of the other authors of this chapter? If yes, what you think is the strongest argument against Sherwin, and why? If no, what do you think feminist ethics uniquely brings to the discussion of abortion?
  5. Thomson uses thought experiments to identify which facts are the most relevant to the moral permissibility of abortion. In the spirit of Thomson, can you design a thought experiment, or a series of thought experiments, that shed light on the arguments of any other authors of this chapter?
  6. Whereas Thomson believes that some instances of abortion are impermissible because they are prohibited by Minimally Decent Samaritan laws, Sherwin’s feminist ethical view seems to conclude that all restrictions on abortion are too restrictive. To use Thomson’s language, Sherwin believes all restriction on abortion are unjustly Good Samaritan in nature. Why do Thomson and Sherwin disagree? Do you believe their disagreement is irreconcilable? Why or why not?