Discussion Scenarios and Theories of Abortion


In  your moral conversation project journals, you discussed Decision Scenarios 3 (pp. 127-28), 7 (p. 131), and 8 (pp. 131-32).  What would Thomson, Marquis, and Norman say about these scenarios?   Below are my thoughts on this question.  (For the sake of being thorough I have gone into more detail than I would expect from you in journals or in, say, an exam essay.)



Thomson asks us to assume for the sake of argument that the embryo/fetus is a person.  She then defines two questions we need to ask in order to determine the moral permissibility (or lack thereof) of a case of abortion:

A.     Is this an unjust killing?

B.     Is it morally indecent of the woman not to carry the fetus to term?

Assuming this is not a special case where the woman’s own health is at serious risk from the pregnancy, the answer to question A turns on whether the woman has granted the fetus the right to the use of her body.  If so, then abortion is unjust.  If not, then abortion is not unjust.

            When has a woman not granted the fetus the right to use her body?  Clearly, no such right has been granted in the case of rape, says Thompson.  Other cases are less clear, though Thomson’s “people-seeds” analogy indicates she does not believe the right has been granted in cases of contraceptive failure.  Beyond these cases, though, Thomson just says “there is room for much discussion and argument…”

            As for question B, Thomson believes that abortions are harder to justify in the late term; the less time that remains for the fetus to use the woman’s body, the more likely minimal standards of decency will require her to carry it to term. 

            What about the scenarios, then?  In 3, the pregnancy is probably early, since the social worker asks Mrs. Hinson if she is sure she is pregnant; hence the pregnancy is not yet visible.  Thus minimum decency does not require her to carry the fetus to term.

            Things are less clear, though, with respect to question A.  If she is pregnant from contraceptive failure, Thomson would conclude there is no injustice in getting an abortion.  But contextual features suggest she probably doesn’t use contraception (e.g. she already has five kids).  So this is a case that Thomson has not discussed completely.  It is open for one to argue within her theoretical framework that by having unprotected sex Mrs. Hinson was voluntarily accepting the possible outcome of pregnancy, and hence granting any embryo/fetus the right to the use of her body.  Arguing in this fashion, one could conclude an abortion would be unjust treatment of the fetus. 

            Two points deserve mention.  First, this is a moral conclusion.  It is still open for Thomson to argue that though abortion is morally wrong in this case, Mrs. Hinson should still have a legal right to an abortion, because we don’t want to empower government officials to make prying and censorious judgments as to whether individuals have acted in sexually responsible fashion.  Second, recall from your reading that Thomson has merely assumed for the sake of argument that an embryo/fetus is a person.  She really doesn’t believe this is true, however (it is she who said “an acorn is not an oak”).  So her overall position might be:  “Relative to the assumption that the embryo/fetus is a person, an abortion for Mrs. Hinson would be immoral.  But in the early term the embryo/fetus is not a person, so there is nothing wrong with an abortion for Mrs. Hinson.”  (In writing your essays for the final, though, in order to keep things manageable, you are free to ignore the fact that Thomson actually rejects the assumption that the fetus is a person.  You can write about “Thomson’s theory” as if it is taken for granted that the fetus is a person.)

            Scenario 7 is also a tricky case in some ways.  First, Helen is 5 months along in the pregnancy, so abortion will be hard to justify as decent.  Thomson never draws a firm line between exactly when abortion is compatible with at least minimum decency and when it is not.  Also, Helen became pregnant voluntarily.  This would seem to indicate she has granted the fetus a right to the use of her body, making abortion unjust.  However, I suppose there is room for one to argue, within Thomson’s theoretical framework, that in becoming pregnant Helen was granting any normal embryo/fetus the right to the use of her body, but that this is not a normal fetus.  As stated, however, I think this is too simple.  Similar reasoning, after all, could be used to justify a couple who desire a son and who therefore abort any female fetus (“But I granted a right only to male fetuses” just doesn’t cut it, I think).  Ditto with blond hair, eye color, etc.  On the other hand, what if a couple learns at week 12 that their fetus has, say, spina bifida?  This seems quite different from a preference based on sex, hair color, etc; many people would be sympathetic to abortion in this case, even if the pregnancy was voluntarily sought.   In short, there are complexities here that are not discussed in Thomson’s article, and further argument would be needed to sort them out.  (This doesn’t make her article worthless; she never promised an absolutely complete theory, and in any case her main goal was to refute those people who say abortion is never justified.)  My hunch is that further reflection along Thomson’s lines would indicate that abortion here is not morally permissible.  (Though she might argue that had the Down Syndrome been learned of earlier—say, via amniocentesis at week 12—then abortion is permissible since no person is killed at this earlier stage.  As before, this line of argument would mean dropping the assumption that the fetus is a person, which she granted only for the sake of argument.)

            Finally, scenario 8.  If the pregnancy arose from contraceptive failure, I suppose it would not be unjust by Thomson’s lights (though I think there is room to argue that by letting the pregnancy advance for 6 whole months, Ruth has implicitly consented to the fetus’s use of her body, and so an abortion would be unjust).  But that is hardly the end of the matter.  For given the advanced stage of the pregnancy, I think Thomson would insist that without good reasons for wanting the abortion (e.g. health risk), to abort at this stage would fail to meet a standard of minimum decency.  And Ruth and Carl’s reasons (“a child doesn’t fit in at all with our lifestyle”) are hardly admirable.  Thus I think Thomson would object to the abortion as indecent.



Marquis would clearly disapprove of abortion in scenarios 3 and 8.  In both cases a being with a future like ours is destroyed.  Scenario 7 is a harder case for Marquis’s theory, since the developing fetus is not a genetically normal person.  But I think Marquis’s would point out that many people with Down Syndrome live rich, fulfilled lives.  Even if not all do (some have severe forms of the condition which leave them severely retarded), for all we know abortion in this case would be destroying a being with a valuable future, and hence wrong.  (The severity of Down Syndrome cannot be determined in utero, so far as I know.)



            One thing to be clear about is that Norman rejects the sanctity of life approach.  His own approach—which he calls “respect for life”—certainly sounds similar to the sanctity of life approach, but in fact it is distinct.  (Note too that Norman does not accept utilitarian accounts of the wrongness of killing; he discusses them only to argue that in the final analysis they are inadequate.)

            His respect for life approach is not a sanctity of life approach.   The sanctity of life approach says that all biologically alive human organisms are sacred and hence deserve as much moral protection as any other child or adult human.  Norman rejects this.  What counts morally is not mere biological life, but rather life “in the biographical sense”—that is, the activity of living a life.  Cockroaches are biologically alive, but they do not live a life in any meaningful sense.  We think it is wrong to kill infants, children, and adult humans because they are beings who are living a life.  (This is less clear in the case of infants, but Norman argues that in fact infants are learning from experience and interacting with others, and hence have begun the process of living a life.  Thus infanticide is wrong.)

            Norman thinks abortion is a tough-issue with a large gray area.  He sees no problem with early term abortions, because in no sense is an embryo actively living a life, he thinks.  And he rejects abortion past the point of viability; once an infant is able to survive outside the womb, abortion is really early birth and infanticide, which his theory rejects.  That leaves a gray area between these two extremes.  He doesn’t say any more about how to handle this gray are.  It seems to me, though, that one could argue within his theoretical framework that with fetal consciousness the process of living a life has begun.  This is when experience begins, and there is probably some learning from experience—movement of limbs, etc.—that takes place in the womb.  So maybe we can say that with the beginning of fetal consciousness there now exists a new being who has begun to live a life.  This line of reasoning would suggest a cut-off point of around 20-22 weeks or so, depending on the latest research on fetal consciousness.  If this is right then abortion would be impermissible in scenarios 7 and 8, and permissible in 3.  (If it could be known that the case of Down Syndrome was so severe that the being that results would not “live a life” in any meaningful sense, then abortion would be OK in 7.  But as I said above we aren’t able to judge how severe the case is before birth.)


Hope this helps!


Prof. Duncan