Examining Thomson’s Views on Fetal Personhood

Acorns in ladies hands

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Published in 1971, Judith Jarvis Thomson’s A Defense of Abortion is now a classic in contemporary philosophy. She presents nuanced yet controversial conclusions on abortion from creative thought experiments, most notably the violinist scenario. While many have critiqued and defended Thomson’s violinist, I want to examine her views on fetal personhood.

Thomson used an acorn analogy to explain why she did not think human fetuses were persons. I still remember the first time I read her article in my Philosophy 101 class. When my philosophy professor asked for our thoughts on her acorn analogy, I did not know what to say; I was stumped.

In this article I will show why Thomson’s acorn analogy is faulty and fails to refute the fetal personhood view, even though it does work against one bad pro-life argument.

Abortion Is Birth Control

I think the most interesting question you can ask someone who identifies as pro-choice is whether they think abortion should have any restrictions at all. The phrase “pro-choice” means something different to almost everyone, and nothing reveals that quite as quickly as asking about when it’s okay to restrict abortion. For example, I was surprised to find out that two students from a college Planned Parenthood club were uncomfortable with third trimester abortions. Clearly, they weren’t just following the party line!

Maybe one of the most common responses when asked about restrictions is that “people should be able to have abortions, but they shouldn’t be allowed to use it as birth control.” There’s a certain image they seem to have in mind when they talk about abortion as birth control: an imaginary woman who doesn’t use contraception and keeps coming back for more abortions every time she gets pregnant.

Leaving aside how problematic their mental image might be, this restriction seems like a common ground point; after all, we don’t want women to use abortion as birth control, and they say they agree. But the agreement is only at the surface level. We’re using the same words to mean completely different things. As my contract law professor said, there’s no genuine “meeting of the minds,” so there isn’t any actual agreement.

Birth Control Pills
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

What’s Magical About Abortion Pills?

An abortion advocacy group, Reproaction, has a national campaign called “Abortion Pills are Magic.” As you browse their website, you find they label their stance on abortion as “progressive.” They unapologetically push for easier access to abortion and an absolute right to abortion. They represent the extreme of the pro-choice end of the spectrum. 

Magical Unicorns

Estimated reading time: 11 minutes

Their vision statement says (emphasis added)

Reproaction’s vision is to uphold abortion rights and advance reproductive justice as a matter of human dignity. We introduce a new culture of accountability, and empower and inspire the reproductive rights movement and the broader progressive community to openly and enthusiastically stand up for abortion rights.

Their closely-related mission statement also specifically addresses abortion:

Reproaction’s mission is to increase access to abortion and advance reproductive justice.

 

Refuting “Abortion as Self-Defense”

There is a new pro-choice argument that has begun to gain popularity. Many pro-life advocates have not heard of it yet, but to change minds on abortion, you need to know how to both identify and graciously refute it.

Estimated reading time: 26 minutes.

A woman in a self-defense position.

When I teach pro-life apologetics, I usually explain that there are two primary disagreements between the pro-life side and the pro-choice side and a bunch of distracting arguments that have grown from misunderstanding the issue at hand.

Most pro-life people are familiar with the first primary disagreement. These are pro-choice arguments that deny the humanity of the unborn child. These arguments about personhood definitions largely dominate the philosophical literature on abortion. People argue about what constitutes a person and then explain how the human embryo does or does not qualify. Notice that this is a philosophical question, not a scientific one. Science tells us what is killed during abortion: an embryo or fetus that is living, whole, and human. And philosophy tells us whether or not that human embryo’s life is valuable.

The second disagreement in the abortion debate is centered around bodily rights, in other words, the slogan that we have all heard before: “My body, my choice.” This argument is different from the first disagreement because it isn’t about whether or not abortion is killing a person. Instead, it argues whether the killing can be justified by the woman’s right to her own bodily autonomy.

A pro-choice person could agree with the pro-life community on the first personhood point, but still justify their position by arguing from bodily autonomy. However, it is more likely than the average pro-choice person will disagree with me on both points.

This new argument that I am going to refute today I am calling the “Abortion is Self-Defense Argument” and it doesn’t address either of these first two controversies. In fact, it can be used by someone who agrees with the pro-life position on both points, and that is one of the reasons I believe it seems so convincing on its face.

Scientism is Not Only Self-Refuting, but Dangerous

Part Three

Scientism is not merely wrong, but dangerous. This is the claim I want to make to conclude our series on scientism. It probably seems like an aggressive claim; perhaps it is. But it’s also right there in the subtitle of JP Moreland’s book: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology.

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes.

Power outlet on fire.

I started this series by explaining why scientism is self-refuting. Whether someone believes in strong scientism or weak scientism, their belief is logically incoherent. If scientism is true, then the non-scientific foundations on which scientism (and science!) rests would be null and void. If scientism were true, it would prove that scientism couldn’t be true; it’s a logical contradiction and has no merit as a system of thought.

I then covered the ways in which scientism influences how everyone talks about abortion. Both pro-life and pro-choice people often act like science is the thing with all the answers, but, in reality, science can only get us so far. Some scientific facts, like those from embryology, give us relevant information, but we have to use that information in non-scientific ways to come to a reasoned conclusion about abortion.

If you’ve gotten this far, you may wonder how scientism still exists and why it continues not only to survive but thrive in the public sphere. My answer is simple: scientism is a means of power for some things against other things. It is a convenient weapon in favor of moral relativism against absolute moral truths and those who claim them. Every meaningful defense of human rights must rest on moral truth, so denying moral truth must lead to an eradication of grounds for human rights. Scientism is not bad just because it is incorrect or unhelpful, but because it is a danger to humanity.