Good Samaritans?

Another approach to the politics of abortion
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A licensed vocational nurse at Houston Women’s Reproductive Services in Texas hands a patient her ultrasound, October 2021 (CNS Photo/Evelyn Hockstein, Reuters).

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.

As a matter of biological complexity and social dysfunction, women in the United States spend nearly half of our lives on a reproductive Jericho road.

To my mind, Thomson’s second point is more interesting, though often neglected. She spends much of that 1971 article arguing that beyond debating competing rights, there is nevertheless something deeply morally significant about someone who would offer themselves to enable another person to live. She calls this the issue of “good samaritanism.” A good Samaritan is someone who perceives a strong moral reason to sacrifice for another person, without that person having any standing to demand their sacrifice. While you might exercise a right to unplug the violinist, she argues, we can still wonder whether your act was brave, cruel, heedless, or tragic. Crucial (and controversial) to Thomson’s analogy is granting that a fetus is like a stranger in need, at least in cases of unintended pregnancy. In a key passage, Thomson suggests we should invoke the idea of “minimally decent samaritanism” to capture the twinge we feel about some abortions. She presses her case:

I am inclined to think it a merit of my account precisely that it does not give a general yes or a general no. It allows for and supports our sense that, for example, a sick and desperately frightened fourteen-year-old schoolgirl, pregnant due to rape, may of course choose abortion and that any law which rules this out is an insane law. And it also allows for and supports our sense that in other cases resort to abortion is even positively indecent. It would be indecent…to request an abortion and indecent in a doctor to perform it, if she is in her seventh month, and wants the abortion just to avoid the nuisance of postponing a trip abroad.

For Thomson, this kind of samaritanism comes in degrees, and importantly, no outside party has the standing to compel someone to be a good or even minimally decent Samaritan.

When I teach Thomson, I ask my students if she understands samaritanism in the same way Christians do. The concept comes to us from the famous parable in the Gospel of Luke. A man is robbed and beaten while traveling down the Jericho road. Two passersby—both religious elites—see the man in need, but ignore him. Then a Samaritan comes across the man and is moved with compassion. His response is intimate and intense: he bundles up the man, takes him to an inn, cares for him throughout the night, and promises the innkeeper to pay any expenses “over and above” what is needed to help him fully recuperate. Jesus offers the parable as an answer to the question of how to understand the Greatest Commandment, the foundation of Jewish and Christian moral life. We are meant to be moved to love others, including strangers, in a way that expresses radical generosity. The moral pressure is interior rather than social, a vulnerability to the significance of someone else. Moral life involves coming to respond to the twinge.

Do you feel it? Would you stay plugged into the violinist? My students often complain that Thomson’s thought experiment is under-described. They want to know if they can move around the hospital room while they are plugged in. They want to know if they will lose their jobs or if their partner will dump them if they devote themselves to this for nine months. They wonder how traumatic the kidnapping was. I note that the passage in Luke also tells us next to nothing about the Samaritan or the man who was hurt. Readers are left to imagine the details. Most commentators suppose that the beaten man was Jewish. The Samaritan was a regular guy on his way to conduct some business. In the Ignatian tradition, we are directed to contemplate the parable by imagining ourselves in the role of each character, including the passersby and the innkeeper. We think about their possible intentions, and in the process shape our own consciences.

What if we imagine the Samaritan as a graduate student, personally secure and set on a busy course that doesn’t involve an all-night detour in an inn? Or if we imagine the Samaritan as a scared ten-year-old? What if handling the stranger’s body would make the Samaritan dangerously sick? What if the passersby are unwilling to stop to help people of a particular gender or people with cognitive disabilities? Is the innkeeper responsible for helping the Samaritan? How we understand the moral significance of an act of samaritanism or a refusal surely depends on such details.

You may worry that a Samaritan approach to abortion makes the issue purely a matter of personal morality, that it has nothing to say about the policy debates we now face. But samaritanism is also deeply political. Martin Luther King Jr.’s commentary on the parable focuses on the Jericho road itself: How on earth did each of these men find themselves in such a dangerous place? As a matter of biological complexity and social dysfunction, women in the United States spend nearly half of our lives on a reproductive Jericho road. For those of us inclined to think of the abortion debates in Samaritan terms, the Dobbs decision returns the wrong issue to the states. Legislatures are directly responsible for “road maintenance,” and they have a special obligation to work with physicians, family services, and employers to build systems that alleviate the unconscionable risks that still come with pregnancy.

Such work requires a commitment to non-coercive love that seems quite absent from our social lives at the moment, in part because of the efforts of Christians. The Texas abortion-restriction law functions by turning neighbors into informants on one another. National political parties have built strategies that depend on abortion remaining an issue that persistently divides voters. In universities where moral questions are meant to be contemplated and consciences are meant to be formed, there is a definite reluctance to study the Dobbs decision in any way that might amplify views that are at odds with the local moral consensus. I worry that after fifty years, both Thomson and her critics will be dropped from philosophy textbooks.

Pope Francis has taken up the role that samaritanism plays in Christian political life very directly in recent discussions of polarization, wars of aggression, and the pandemic. In his 2020 encyclical Fratelli tutti, he offers an extended meditation on the Good Samaritan, and a harsh judgment for how we have let our politics disintegrate our moral integrity:

There are those who appear to feel encouraged or at least permitted by their faith to support varieties of narrow and violent nationalism, xenophobia and contempt, and even the mistreatment of those who are different. Faith, and the humanism it inspires, must maintain a critical sense in the face of these tendencies, and prompt an immediate response whenever they rear their head.

Many people today assume that Christians are anti-intellectual or out of touch with serious moral philosophy, especially on issues like abortion. And Americans are, without doubt, experiencing the 2020s as an unprecedented crisis for the common good. Rediscovering our commitment to Samaritan love could help restore our integrity on both issues. 

 

 

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Published in the September 2022 issue: 

Meghan Sullivan is the Wilsey Family College Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame and the director of Notre Dame’s Institute for Advanced Study. She is currently writing a book about samaritanism in moral theory.

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