Saturday, January 29, 2011

Response to "A Defense of Abortion"

A short response to Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion” (,Fall02/thomson.htm):

JJT lays a weak foundation by beginning with anomalies as a defense of choice for all. Her first example, cases of rape, is often the first argument pro-choice advocates use because they know people are moved by cases of rape. Rape is alarmingly common. This was my greatest concern when I was contemplating the arguments surrounding abortion: I know dozens of women, including many close friends, who have been raped or sexually assaulted. I was sexually assaulted in high school. The thought of a victim being faced with a pregnancy that has been forced on her is horrifying.

However, pregnancy resulting from rape is extremely rare because:
(1) Many American women use ongoing birth control methods (the pill, IUD).
(2) For most women, there is a very narrow window in which they can become pregnant each month. For the most fertile women on the planet, it’s five to six days; average is perhaps two to four. (This is why couples are said to be “trying” to get pregnant; the average period for “trying” is having sex daily for five to nine months, based on the woman’s age, before a pregnancy is achieved.) Add in the many probability-lowering factors: sperm quantity/speed, health of the egg that month, the fact that eggs don’t always get fertilized even on a “fertile” day and that fertilized eggs often don’t implant, and that trauma increases the likelihood of miscarriage.
(3) rape victims who report the crime usually receive medical treatments to lessen the possibility of implantation of a potentially fertilized egg.

JJT’s second example, of pregnancy presenting a threat to the mother’s life, is also extremely rare. Such cases most often end in miscarriage long before any serious threat presents. More importantly, few pro-life advocates take the position that the at-risk mother must carry the pregnancy to term. Rather, a more consistent pro-life position is to assert that since all life is valuable, the mother’s life is no less valuable than the child’s. Since JJT is prone to using absurd, unrelated illustrations, I’ll use one of my own: Two construction workers are impaled through the chest by a steel rod. While surgeons could save the worker in the front by getting him immediately into surgery, the pressure of his body is sustaining the one in the back. The front worker’s choice will decide who lives.

Compare this with another silly illustration: A man is walking down the street and someone is blocking his path. He yells out, “I have an appointment and I must get there, so you need to move now!” But the pedestrian blocking the path doesn’t move. So the walking man pulls out a revolver and shoots the other pedestrian dead.

What’s my point? Anyone can create a ridiculous illustration (or even a plausible-yet-unrelated one) as a defense. It’s very dangerous to base one’s stance on unrelated scenarios such as the sudden appearance of a violinist that’s surgically attached to your body, or expanding babies that live in teeny, tiny homes and grow so quickly that they crush the homeowner inside. Or people who shoot pedestrians who don’t move quickly enough down the street. I would submit that the topic is far too serious—both pro-choice and pro-life advocates recognize that it’s a moral issue—to build one’s argument largely based on a string of analogies. Do coats and boxes of chocolate really have a direct correlation with mothers and fetuses?

I’d submit that analogies are helpful for explanation, but hardly the building blocks of good argumentation.

Moving on … a precedent shouldn’t be established merely based on anomalies. (Note that the Mosaic law takes anomalies into account, e.g. the norm is to rest on the Sabbath, but if your ox falls into a pit during the Sabbath, it’s good and right to do whatever work is needed to aid the animal.) We base our laws on the norm; we alter our laws to account for extenuating circumstances.

In any case, the above examples, of rape cases and of the at-risk mother, cannot in any sense be considered the norm in regard to abortion. As JJT has constructed her argument, using anomalies as the foundation and building upon that with piecemeal analogy, I find it unsubstantial and unpersuasive.

Aside from what JJT has presented, more important questions have been raised: What is the moral position for a Christian in regard to these rare cases? Is it morally permissible for a woman to terminate a pregnancy that results from rape? Or if her life is in danger? Realizing the limits of my own knowledge on these topics, I would refer those interested in more insight to Scott Rae, a philosophy professor and an ethicist who consults for hospitals on topics such as abortion, euthanasia, fertility treatments, and stem-cell research. He discusses some specific scenarios in his book “Moral Choices,” and I’m sure I could get a list of resource readings from him if anyone is interested.