The Right to Another’s Body

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Philosophy 500

12 October 2013

The Right to Another’s Body

In her article A Defense of Abortion, Judith Thomson argues for the moral permissibility of abortion by using a number of analogies.  Each analogy aims at defeating some premise or support of a premise of the most common argument against abortion–briefly, that performing an abortion kills a person, and killing a person is wrong because all persons have a right to life.  While none of these analogies are perfect, they all seem to be plausible at first blush.  One of them, however, stuck out as being almost parallel with another analogy commonly used in moral philosophy, the alleged obligation to save a drowning child.  Thomson’s analogy, we’ll call it the Fonda analogy, is meant to show that nobody’s right to life gives them the right to another person’s body.  The drowning analogy, on the other hand, seems to draw a different conclusion.  So if both analogies really are parallel, they both must lead to the same conclusion.  Let’s start first by examining each analogy.

The Fonda analogy is quite simple.  Thomson is deathly, and the only thing that will save her life is Henry Fonda’s cool hand on her fevered brow.  If he doesn’t give her his healing touch, she will certainly die (Thompson 55).  Thomson thinks that it’s clear in this case that she has absolutely no right to Henry Fonda’s touch, even though it would be downright kind of him to do so.  Thomson even goes so far to say that Henry Fonda would be callous and indecent if he doesn’t help her, but his inaction isn’t unjust (66).  She further argues that relatively minor inconveniences like traveling distance are irrelevant to the case.  It doesn’t seem that if Henry Fonda was in the room, Thomson’s right to his hand is any greater than her right to his hand if he’s on the other side of the country, if she were to have that right at all.

It is important to note here that Thomson ignores the language of moral obligation or requirement in favor of speaking in terms of rights.  I think it’s clear from her analogy, however, that she implicitly equates the two, at least in this argument.  Thompson makes claims about Henry Fonda’s culpability for not helping her, namely that he would not be unjust for refraining.  The justification for that claim is only that she has no claim to rights over his body for healing purposes.  And so, while she avoids the language, she does indeed equate the moral responsibility of the acting party with the rights of the party in need.  We can therefore see that on Thomson’s view, cloaked as it may be, if person A has a right then person B is morally required to honor that right.  And on the flip side, if person B is morally required to act in a certain way towards person A, then person A has a right to whatever that action may be.

The only repercussion this has for Thomson’s analogy is that we can extract one more implied claim: Thomson thinks that Henry Fonda is not morally required to heal her with his cool hand.  It is, however important for our discussion to put her claim in these terms in order to compare this analogy with the drowning child analogy.

The drowning child analogy is just as simple as the Fonda analogy.  Suppose I am walking along near a pond and spot a young child drowning.  Assuming that I can swim or that the child is close enough to shore that I can wade to him safely, it seems like I’m morally required to save the child.  Saving the child poses no serious risk to me–at most getting my clothes wet and being a few minutes late to my destination–while it provides a great benefit to the child.  It would be morally reprehensible for me not to save him.  Peter Singer used this same analogy to argue a case for charity in 1972, and found this same conclusion unobjectionable (233-234).  And given Thomson’s connection between moral obligation and rights, I would grant that the drowning child has a right to my swimming abilities for the duration of the rescue.

Now that we have these two similar situations laid out, so let’s compare them to see if there are any significant differences between them that would lead to the different conclusions.  If there aren’t any, then we’ll have to explain which conclusion ought to be applied to both cases.

In each analogy, we’re faced with a situation where one person has to decide between acting to save a person or not acting and allowing that person to die.  And in each situation, the action that may be taken directly helps a person who otherwise cannot help themselves.  In the Fonda Analogy, however, we’re faced with a case in which only one specific person can help the victim, whereas any old passerby can help in the drowning .............


Type: Essay || Words: 1745 Rating || Excellent

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