By Perry Hendricks
Suppose while you’re hiking in the mountains, you stumble upon a young infant. The infant is crying and clearly hungry. With no other humans in sight, you’re the only person able to help her (the infant). Fortunately, you have a bottle of milk with you, and you’re able to feed her. Nearly everyone would agree that you (morally) ought to feed the infant, and in general that you ought to do what it takes to save her. Indeed, it seems that nearly everyone would agree that the state would be right to coerce you into caring for the infant. For example, the state would be right to enact laws that generally penalize people for not saving vulnerable persons when possible.
Now suppose that a mother of a very young child, Sally, finds herself in the same situation: she stumbles across a hungry infant in the woods that requires her help to live. However, in this case, Sally doesn’t have a bottle of milk. Fortunately, she’s currently producing breast milk since she has a young child that breast feeds, and so she is able to feed the infant. Again, nearly everyone would agree that Sally ought to feed and save the infant, and this is true even though it requires the use of her body. Indeed, it seems that the state would also be right to coerce Sally into helping the infant in this case, and this is true even though helping her (the infant) requires the use of her body.
The lesson here is that there are at least some circumstances in which the state is right to coerce its citizens to use their bodies to help or save other vulnerable persons. This undermines some arguments for legalized abortion: some arguments for legalized abortion make use of wild examples purporting to show that abortion should be legal even if the fetus is a person. For example, Judith Thomson asks us to suppose that you (the reader) have been kidnapped and hooked up to a violinist so that he can filter his blood through your kidneys. Surely, the thought goes, the state should not coerce you into staying plugged into the violinist. And this is (purportedly) true even though the violinist is a person and will die if you unplug yourself. Or, suppose that your friend needs a bone marrow transplant and you’re his only match. Surely – the thought goes – the state should not coerce you into giving your bone marrow to your friend. And this is (purportedly) true even though your friend is a person and will die without your bone marrow.
For the sake of argument, let’s grant that the above claims are right: the state shouldn’t coerce you into staying plugged into the violinist and it shouldn’t coerce you into giving bone marrow to your friend. This doesn’t show that abortion should be permissible even if the fetus is a person, since there are other circumstances in which we think the state should coerce one person into letting another use her body. For example, the state should coerce women into feeding starving infants even if they only have their breast milk available (see the case above). Of course, the case of breastfeeding is much closer to the case of pregnancy than the violinist case or the bone marrow case. And so if examples like this are to guide our thinking about the legality of abortion, then we should follow the hiker case above and hold that, given fetal personhood, abortion should not be legal.
Paper title: My body, not my choice: Against legalized abortion
Author(s): Perry Hendricks
Affiliations: Purdue University
Competing interests: None.
Social media accounts of author: https://www.perryhendricks.com/