In this module, we’ll consider controversial issue of abortion. All three of the articles I’ve
assigned for this module are famous among philosophers and should provide a fair introduction
to the main philosophical issues surrounding the abortion topic except for one that I’ll mention at
the end of the lecture.
After completing this module, you will be able to
Explain the distinction between the genetic sense of “human” and the moral sense
Explain Mary Ann Warren’s position on Abortion
Explain Judith Jarvis Thomson’s Famous Violinist Case, her Henry Fonda Case and the
Explain Don Marquis’s Future Like Ours Argument
Module 9: Abortion
Mary Ann Warren: On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion
Warren’s question: How are we to define the moral community, the set of beings with full and
equal moral rights?
On the Definition of “Human”
There are two distinct senses, definitions, of the word “human”. You should be able to state
Defining the Moral Community
Warren argues that it is a mistake to define the moral community in terms of humans in the
genetic sense. She argues that it is right to define the moral community in terms of humans in
the moral sense, where to call something a human in the moral sense is to call it a person.
Warren’s interesting thought experiment: It is useful to look beyond the set of people with
whom we are acquainted, and ask how we would decide whether a totally alien being is a person
She says we have no right to assume that genetic humanity is necessary for Personhood.
She gives a list of five traits that she takes to be central to the concept of personhood/humanity in
the moral sense. She does not think something has to have them all in order to be a person. She
thinks two or three of them might be all that is needed to make something a person. But she
claims that a fetus has none of them, even though later she will grant that a fetus might have a
rudimentary form of consciousness. If a fetus has none of the traits central to personhood, the
fetus is not a person. Since the fetus is not a person, it has no right to life. Therefore abortion
does not violate a fetus’s right to life, since it has none.
You should be able to state Warren’s five central traits of personhood. You should also make
sure you remember that she does not think that all five are necessary for something to be a
Fetal Development and the right to Life
Here, Warren grants that fetus have a rudimentary form of consciousness, but not in any way that
undermines the force of the argument given in the previous section.
Potential Personhood and the Right to Life
Even if the fetus is a potential person with a potential right to life, the potential right to life of the
fetus cannot outweigh the actual right of the mother to choose what will happen to her body.
Postscript on Infanticide
Warren has argued in favor of the Extreme Pro-choice view that abortion is permissible at any
time for any reason the woman chooses. If the argument is successful, however, it also provides
an argument that infanticide is morally permissible. You should be able to explain why. You
should also be able to explain why Warren believes that infanticide is not morally permissible on
Judith Jarvis Thomson: A Defense of Abortion
Whereas Warren defends abortion by denying that the fetus is person. Thomson proposes to
grant that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception. There are several reasons:
First, as she says, much of the opposition to abortion the time (and this was published in 1971)
relied on the premise that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception. So, in granting
that the fetus is a person, she is granting her opponent what seems to be the most important
premise in the Pro-life position.
Second, she wants see what a valid argument would look like that has as a premise “The fetus is
a person” and as a conclusion “Therefore abortion is wrong”. Several additional premises are
needed to make a valid pro-life argument. The first few steps are obvious and Thomson provides
1. The fetus is a person from the moment of conception
2. All persons have a right to life
3. Therefore the fetus has a right to life from the moment of conception
Thomson believes that the next premise the Pro-life defender needs is something like the
4. The right to life is stronger and more stringent than the mother’s right to decide what happens
in and to her body and therefore outweighs it.
Thomson does not explain the next steps, but it is easy to see how they would go:
5. Abortion violates the fetus’s right to life,
6. The violation of rights is wrong.
7. Therefore abortion is wrong
Thomson takes the above argument to be a fair representation of what a valid pro-life argument
would look like if it were fully spelled out. She uses the Famous Violinist Case to argue that the
above argument is not sound. You should be able to explain the Violinist Case and the
conclusion that Thomson draws from it, and you must be very careful: Thomson does not use
the Violinist case as an analogy to abortion but as a counterexample to premise 4 of the above
If it were given as an analogy to the situation in abortion, it would be an unhelpful analogy.
There is an important difference between the Violinist Case as an analogy to abortion and the
Violinist Case as a counter-example to premise 4. If we take the Violinist Case as a counterexample to premise 4, the conclusion Thomson intends to draw is not that abortion is
permissible, but rather that the above Pro-life argument is not sound. Because it has a false
premise, premise 4, it does not establish the conclusion that abortion is wrong.
The rest of the article is an attempt to make her case that abortion is sometimes permissible.
There are two examples/cases on which I would like you to focus: The Henry Fonda Case
(section 3) and the Peopleseed Case (section 4).
In The Henry Fonda Case, Thomson considers two ways to understand the right to life. You
should be able to state both.
The right to life is the right to the bare minimum needed to stay alive
The right to life is the right not to be killed unjustly
You should be able to explain the Henry Fonda Case and explain why Thomson thinks it shows
that the right to life should be understood in the second way and not the first.
If she is right, then the fetus’s right to life does not require that it be provided with the bare
minimum needed to stay alive. It would require only that if it is killed, it is not killed unjustly.
Thomson uses the peopleseed case to argue that if a woman takes all reasonable precautions to
prevent pregnancy, and nonetheless becomes pregnant, terminating the pregnancy is not the
unjust killing of the fetus. The argument goes like this:
1. Something has a right to use your property if and only if you grant it that right
2. By taking all reasonable precautions to prevent pregnancy, one is refusing to grant the fetus
the right to use one’s body, which is one’s own property.
3. Therefore abortion in such a case is not the unjust killing of a fetus.
Even if the above argument is successful, it defends abortion only in some cases. It is a
moderate Pro-choice argument in that it does not claim that abortion is permissible at any time
for any reason the woman chooses.
Don Marquis: Why Abortion is Immoral
Marquis gives an account of why killing normal adult humans is wrong, an account that does not
root the wrongness of killing in the fact that we are persons, but in the fact that we are beings
with a future of value. According to Marquis, killing us is wrong because it robs us of a future of
value. A human fetus, whether it is a person or not, has a future like ours, since we were all
fetuses. So, abortion is wrong for the same reason that killing normal adult humans is wrong.
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