Answering a More Sophisticated Defense of Abortion – Part 12
This will be my second to last post in response to DavidBoonin’s book The Defense of Abortion.In chapter 2, “The Conception Criterion,” Boonin attempted to prove false thosearguments that say human life should be protected from conception onwards (seeparts 3-10 for my response). In chapter 3, “Postconception Criteria,” heattempted to prove false most arguments that say human life should be protectedbeginning at some point after conception but before birth(e.g., at implantation, viability, etc.), and then he puts forth his own viewon when fetal life should be protected. Boonin argues that a fetus acquires a rightto life when the brain reaches a certain level of maturity, when there isorganized cortical brain activity in the cerebral cortex between weeks 25-32 ofa pregnancy (see part 11 for my response). In chapter 4, “The Good SamaritanArgument,” Boonin makes his last attempt to undo the claim that “a fetus has aright to life and therefore abortion is impermissible.” In this chapter heconcedes (for the sake of argument) that the fetus does have a right to life,but goes on to argue anyway that this does not make abortion morally wrong.
To prove this, Boonin appeals to Judith Jarvis Thomson’sfamous analogy:
You wake up in the morning and findyourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famousunconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, andthe Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records andfound that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have thereforekidnapped you, and last night the violinist's circulatory system was pluggedinto yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his bloodas well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, “Look, we'resorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you--we would never havepermitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is nowplugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it's onlyfor nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and cansafely be unplugged from you.”
Boonin, following Thomson, suspects that in this situationyou would find it outrageous that there is a moral requirement upon you toremain plugged in. And so, in this situation, it is not being denied that theviolist has a right to life. Rather, it is being denied that the violist’sright to life includes or entails the use of your kidneys. This is how someonecould have a right to life, yet you could do something morally permissible thatwould result in that someone’s death. The same, according to Boonin, could besaid of the fetus. It is not that the woman’s right to control the use of herbody outweighs the fetus’s right to live. Rather, he asserts that “the fetus’sright to life does not include or entail the right to be provided with the useor continued use of whatever it needs to go on living.” He spends over 100pages defending this argument, which he calls “the Good Samaritan argument.” Ithink this is an inappropriate name for the argument, since the point is to saythat you don’t have to be a Good Samaritan if you don’t want to be. But in anycase, the main thing that Boonin wants to assert is that a person’s right tolife does not entail the use of another person’s body. Nobody is required tomake such large sacrifices to keep a person alive.
To me the best way to respond to this is to think Christianly about making personal sacrifices. Christians,actually, are called upon to make large personal sacrifices. If we were to usethe Good Samaritan parable in Luke 10:25-37, we would find that Jesus himself requiresus to have mercy that goes beyond ordinary obligation, becoming neighbors tothose who are helpless, whoever that might be. In the story, a certain lawyerpresses Jesus for a more specific definition of the term “neighbor.” The lawyerwanted to put a limitation upon whom he was morally obligated to love. Helikely felt that certain people, like Samaritans, were not worthy of neighborlove. To him, “neighbor” only meant “fellow Israelite.” Jesus then used theexample of a “hated” Samaritan, who shows great mercy toward a helpless person,going above and beyond the call of duty to restore a man back to health, aftertwo religious Israelites pass by and do nothing. The true “neighbor” in thiscase was the Samaritan. Jesus told the lawyer to be like this man.
Richard Hays, in his book on New Testament ethics, commentson the passage in relation to abortion: “When we ask, ‘Is the fetus a person?’we are asking the same sort of limiting, self-justifying question that thelawyer asked Jesus…To define the unborn child as a nonperson is to narrow thescope of moral concern, whereas Jesus calls upon us to widen it by showingmercy and actively intervening on behalf of the helpless.” I think Boonin isguilty of narrowing the scope of moral responsibility when he says that aperson’s right to life does not include the use of another’s body. This mayhelp him feel morally justified in his unwillingness to remain plugged in tothe violist and for thinking mothers are not required to make large personalsacrifices for their unborn children, but Christians should not feel the sameway. Jesus himself gave up his own life to rescue helpless souls. Christiansare to follow him in this by gladly giving up our time, resources, bodies, evenour very lives for the sake of others (see 1 Jon 3:16-17; Mark 8:34-37, etc.).If Christians were to take Good Samaritanism seriously, we would not feel okaywith unplugging ourselves from a violinist who needed the temporary use of ourkidneys. To the contrary, we would be volunteering for the job. What is more,we would volunteer to take every “unwanted” child into our homes, to helppregnant woman who are hurting and scared bring their child to term, to givemoney to pregnancy resource centers, to spend time education others about what abortionreally is, etc., etc., etc. This is the standard Jesus calls us to.