Editor’s Note: This article is part of a symposium titled “Abortion after Dobbs.” We asked seven Commonweal contributors, from various backgrounds and with various views, to discuss what the Supreme Court’s recent decision is likely to mean for abortion law, American politics, and the creation of a “culture of life” worthy of the name.
In one of the most vulnerable moments of her 2017 memoir, Priestdaddy, Patricia Lockwood discloses the vertigo she feels whenever abortion debates come up:
The twinge you are feeling right now is the twinge of wondering whether I am really right-thinking, whether I am really on the right side when it comes to this subject. I put that twinge in because I sometimes feel it myself. But after all that, you must understand that I had to leave right-thinkingness behind.
Lockwood was raised in a weird, wonderful, devoutly Catholic family. We learn that she’s skeptical of metaphysics. She bristles at the patriarchy. We squirm when she recounts a traumatic childhood visit with her mother to a protest at a Planned Parenthood clinic. Nevertheless, Lockwood feels a twinge that there is something significant about abortion that is missed by her family’s politics and even by her own carefully tended outlook.
The Dobbs decision returns the questions surrounding the legality of abortion to the states and the consciences of their residents. There is a confidence on the part of Justice Alito and the court that we will be able to think through abortion in the same way we have hashed out different state-level policies regarding, say, gambling or recreational marijuana use. For the past fifty years, the debate about abortion has centered on the arbitrary gestational cutoffs that Roe and then Casey drew to settle when fetal life has legal significance. We have now—surprisingly—managed to multiply that arbitrariness. In 2022 the same procedure involving the same two lives is deemed routine medical care in Buffalo, but felony malpractice in Biloxi. “Personhood” under American law now depends not only on time of development but also place.
Moral philosophy helps us manage arbitrariness, and this is especially important in times of social disruption. As we grapple with another revolutionary change in abortion policy, it can help to revisit the most important philosophy paper of the Roe era. In 1971, Judith Jarvis Thomson was in her early forties, a tenured professor at MIT, and one of astonishingly few women who could get a job as a philosopher. She published “A Defense of Abortion” in the first issue of Philosophy & Public Affairs, just as Roe was entering the Supreme Court. Thomson’s article helped make abortion a major research topic in moral theory. It has been cited and reprinted countless times, and has become a fixture of syllabi.
It begins with a thought experiment. Suppose one day you wake up in a hospital and discover your kidneys are linked up to an unconscious man next to you. The hospital director tells you that the man suffers from a grave infection and your kidneys are keeping him alive while he recovers. It turns out he is a talented violinist. An extremist group of violin aficionados has kidnapped you and arranged this scenario. The director assures you they will be prosecuted and that you will receive good treatment at the hospital. The man in the next bed will die unless you remain connected with him long enough for his kidneys to recover. They estimate it will take nine months.
The thought experiment appears in so many introductory philosophy courses because it is an approachable example of how philosophers work. Thomson grants for the sake of argument that a fetus at any stage of gestation is a person, with dignity and access to moral rights. She then asks what fetal personhood would entail about the moral significance of abortion. We can have a difficult time reasoning through this by directly thinking about pregnancy; we worry about conforming with “right thinking” in a superheated political debate. But we can consider instead this purely hypothetical case of one person being biologically dependent on another. We don’t have social scripts to follow about involuntary dialysis; the musical detail makes it still more surreal. Thomson’s ingenious strategy is to test our moral judgments about this thought experiment, and then see how those judgments shed light on real-world cases of pregnancies caused by rape or abuse. (She suggests other thought experiments for failed birth control.)
Thomson draws two conclusions from the method. First she thinks the violinist does not have a moral right to the use of your kidneys, even if he clearly has a right to life more broadly understood. By analogy, she infers that fetuses can have a broad right to life, but not a right that requires a woman to gestate. Most discussions of Thomson’s paper focus on this attempt to distinguish the relevant rights. There isn’t any philosophical consensus on whether she’s successful, and it is probably hard to determine whose rights take priority if we just have contrived thought experiments to go on. When moral rights conflict, actual historical details and context become very important.