Fine-Tuning the Responsibility Objection: A Reply to David Boonin

Caution Asbestos sign on rusting container
Estimated reading time: 15 minutes

Boonin’s Bodily Rights Argument

In his recent book, Beyond Roe: Why Abortion Should be Legal—Even if the Fetus is a Person, philosopher David Boonin develops a pro-choice argument that appeals to the legal case McFall v. Shimp. Here is Boonin’s description of this case:

Robert McFall was an asbestos worker from Pittsburgh. In 1978, he was diagnosed with aplastic anemia. The doctors told him he’d die if he didn’t get a bone marrow transplant. And they said he needed one soon. Preliminary tests for tissue compatibility were quickly conducted. Only one promising candidate was found: a cousin of McFall’s named David Shimp. Before additional tests could confirm his compatibility, though, Shimp had a change of heart. He refused to submit to further testing. And he declared that he wouldn’t give McFall any of his bone marrow even if it was needed to save McFall’s life. Running out of options at that point, McFall decided to sue Shimp. In the motion filed by his attorney, McFall asked the court to order Shimp to undergo the additional testing and, if the results were positive, to order Shimp to give him the bone marrow he needed.[1]

The judge ruled against McFall, deciding that the state had no right to force Shimp to let McFall use his bone marrow. 

Arguments about Pro-Life “Hypocrisy” Prove Nothing about Abortion

Masked face holding another mask, hypocrisy

Estimated reading time: 12 minutes

Charges of “pro-life hypocrisy” abound on the internet. Unfortunately, they also exist in professional philosophy journals in the form of “inconsistency arguments.” These take the following form:

         P1: Were pro-life people consistent, they would X.

         P2: Pro-life people fail to X.

         C: Therefore, pro-life people are inconsistent.

Accompanying such arguments is an implicit understanding or explicit assertion that if the pro-life person does not change her beliefs or behaviors in order to be consistent, then her continued inconsistency counts as hypocrisy.

Responding to an Unorthodox Worldview that Justifies Abortion

Mind body dualism worldview
Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Editor’s Note 12/15/20: We’ve expanded the conclusion to clarify how we use thought experiments in conversation.

Editor’s Note 12/11/20: We’ve changed the original adjective about the worldview we discuss here from “weird” to “unorthodox”, which has a less negative connotation.

Here’s the bad news up front: sometimes you’re going to get stuck in a conversation about abortion because the other person has a strange worldview. This is what happens, for example, when talking to someone who defends act utilitarianism or moral relativism. Their worldview justifies abortion, and also a number of really problematic things, and the only way through is to help them see that the problems in their position are too much to merit defending.

In other words, your goal is to wake them up from a bad worldview by showing them why it makes ethics a nightmare.

By way of example, let’s examine a comment responding to one of our podcasts that was brought to our attention by a listener. There is a very odd philosophical position lurking behind scientific-sounding language, so I’m going to clarify the position and show why it’s problematic.

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