This is a guest post by Rena Singer, current student of philosophy and former NARAL Pro-Choice Washington community organizer:
If a bunch of old Greek men in togas comes to mind when you think about the field of philosophy, you are not alone. For some, philosophy involves a totally outdated way of thinking that seems to have little bearing on the “real world.” For others, it is the random 101 class they took freshman year of college, while for many parents, it is the degree their children pursue in college which will land them with no job, no money, and no future prospects to speak of. When we talk about abortion however, and reproductive rights, we are engaging in one of the most relevant philosophical debates of our time (take that, parents!). From a philosophical perspective, the abortion debate tackles questions of personhood, when life starts, and how we deal with the fetus as a potential person versus the rights of the mother as an actual person. Unsurprisingly many of the famous pro-choice philosophy papers are written by women, but like most philosophy papers, they can get a little long. Here are some highlights!
Thomson is famous for the thought experiment she creates in A Defense of Abortion called the Violinist Experiment.
You have been kidnapped and wake up to find yourself attached to a super famous violinist! He is unfortunately experiencing some kidney failure at the moment, but thankfully you have just the right type of blood to save him. What sucks is that if he becomes detached from you, he dies. It turns out that if you agree to stay attached to him for 9 months, you can save him. What do you do?
Sound familiar? Thomson believes that this is a perfect analogy for the question of abortion. She thinks that the question of a woman’s right to an abortion is really a question of self-defense. Her argument is really strong because she starts by arguing from the perspective that a fetus is a person, so she’s saying that even if you believe that the fetus is a person, you should support a woman’s right to choose.
If you want to read the full paper, you can find it here! http://spot.colorado.edu/~heathwoo/Phil160,Fall02/thomson.htm
Warren also creates a thought experiment about potential people, this time with aliens!
She wants you to imagine that you have been captured by a group of curious aliens and are currently held captive in their spaceship. They tell you that they can use a few of your skin cells to create thousands of people. All they need to do is swipe your arm with a cloth and they will have enough information to instantly create thousands of healthy human beings. If you escape, the people will not be created.
Warren thinks that your right to escape overrides the potential of creating more human life. She extends this to saying that consequently, a “woman’s right to protect her health, happiness, freedom, and even her life,’ by terminating an unwanted pregnancy, will always override whatever right to life it may be appropriate to ascribe to a fetus, even a fully developed one.”
Maggie Little points out that unlike most living organisms, the development of a fetus depends on the choices of an autonomous being, not a “habitat.”
She argues that talking about fetuses as “potential people” can be misleading, because it implies that if nothing happens, the fetus will just become a person, when in reality, the mother, an autonomous actor, has to do a heck of a lot of work in order for a baby to appear.
She thinks that we should give fetuses some respect, by trying to avoid unwanted pregnancies. Just because we respect fetuses, however, does not mean that their rights should override all of ours!
In the end, I think that nobody puts it better than one of our most modern
feminist philosophers, Sarah Silverman: