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Defending the Personhood of the Fetus – Part Three: Defense

Dr. Tim Yonts /


In part one of this series, we examined the pro-choice argument from denial, namely, that the unborn is not a person and therefore abortion is morally justified. In part two, we examined the argument from doubt, meaning that we do not know whether or not the unborn is a person and therefore abortion is not morally irresponsible. In Part three, we will examine the argument from defense.


Unlike the first two arguments — each of which raised questions about the personhood of the unborn — the argument from defense concedes that the unborn is a person, but that the woman’s right to self-defense supersedes the right to life of the unborn. The argument from defense is multifaceted and complicated, and Christians may even agree that in rare cases abortion may be justified on these grounds. This article will attempt to refute the basic form of the self-defense argument in order to show that, in the vast majority of cases, the defense argument simply fails to justify abortion.


Argument 3 — Defending Women’s Right to Abortion Even if the Unborn are Persons


The pro-choice argument from defense, or self-defense as it is sometimes stated, comes in various forms, but the core of the argument is an appeal to a woman’s right to control her body (or an appeal to bodily autonomy). According to the argument, autonomy is a basic property right, thus compelling a woman to continue an unwanted pregnancy deprives her of this right. In this argument, abortion advocates don’t necessarily deny that the unborn is a person with a right to life. If a woman has the right to defend her body against unwanted intrusions, her right must also extend to the right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, or so the argument goes.


A famous version of this argument was offered in 1977 in Judith Jarvis Thompson’s “A Defense of Abortion.” Thompson offers an analogy that she thinks successfully demonstrates a woman’s right to an abortion. She poses a hypothetical scenario in which a woman awakes to find that she has been kidnapped and is now attached to an unconscious person, a famous violinist. The violinist is dying and needs a blood transfusion in order to survive, and the woman’s blood is the only perfect match. The transfusion will take roughly nine months. Afterward, the woman will be free, but if the woman disconnects from the violinist before the transfusion is complete, he will die.


The woman can either stay connected, keeping him alive at great cost to her own freedom and autonomy, or she can disconnect and let him die. Thompson wants us to consider whether the woman’s choice to disconnect from the violinist is morally wrong. Most people, Thompson argues, would recognize that the woman should not be forced to sustain the life of this stranger at great cost to her own body and autonomy. The violinist is intruding on the woman’s right to her own body. He is, in a sense, trespassing on her property right. Since the woman has a right to control her own body and to expel unwanted intrusions, disconnection would not be morally wrong.


Thompson then applies this analogy to the issue of unwanted pregnancy. The woman finds herself pregnant with a person who needs her body for approximately nine months. If the woman terminates the pregnancy, the baby will die. However, the woman no longer consents to the pregnancy and considers the baby to be trespassing on her property. Both the woman and the baby have a right to life, but the woman has a right to her own body. Does the woman have a right to terminate the pregnancy? Thompson argues yes. If the woman has the right to “disconnect” in the first scenario, then she has same right in the second scenario. Notice that Thompson does not deny the personhood of the baby or its right to life. Instead, she argues that the woman’s right to control her own body supersedes the baby’s right to life.


“I am arguing,” says Thompson, “only that the right to life does not guarantee having either a right to be given the use of or right to be allowed continued use of another person’s body — even if one needs it for life itself. A woman has the right to protect her body against an unwanted trespassing. The unwanted baby is a foreign object trespassing on the woman’s property right. Therefore, she has a right to protect her body against unwanted pregnancy.


There are many layers to this argument, and each layer demands lengthy treatment that cannot be fully addressed in this article. However, at least four key weaknesses are readily apparent in Thompson’s argument.


First, Paul and John Feinberg note many dissimilarities between Thompson’s violinist and a woman’s pregnancy, too many for the analogy to hold. The unborn is not an intruder or trespasser. The womb is the natural environment of the unborn and where it develops via natural processes. Unlike the violinist, the unborn person did not force itself into the womb; it was placed there. Furthermore, the unborn is not a stranger to the mother as a violinist would be. One’s obligations to a stranger are not the same as a parent’s obligation to her child. Lastly, the woman has been connected to the violinist without her consent. In contrast (with the exception of cases of sexual assault), the woman has given explicit or implied consent to pregnancy. Having granted this consent, it would seem that the woman’s obligations to the unborn person would be significantly different than her obligations to the violinist.


Second, there is a significant moral distinction between the violinist and the unborn baby’s right to life. In the case of the violinist, the woman’s body is artificially keeping him alive. The violinist is dying; he is not developing. By disconnecting him, the woman would allow for natural processes to take effect, resulting in the violinist’s death. The woman’s choice would entail a negative action: she would simply disconnect. She would not be actively killing the violinist. In the case of pregnancy, the woman’s body is naturally keeping the baby alive. The baby is developing; it is not dying. “Disconnecting” the unborn would entail some sort of positive action; the mother or surgeon would be actively terminating a human person that would otherwise develop on its own into a child. This is a significant moral distinction, one that breaks Thompson’s analogy. Thompson conflates the duty to preserve life with the duty not to take life. Whereas the duty to preserve life is relevant to the situation involving the violinist, the duty not to take life is more relevant to the issue of abortion.


Third, it seems that Thompson’s argument would apply at most to cases where consent is not present (such as in the case of rape), not necessarily to cases where consent is present. If we grant Thompson’s primary assertion — the right to control one’s body is similar to the right to protect one’s property — the defense argument at best grants a “feeble excuse to kill.” Although one has the right to defend one’s property, one does not have the right to kill strangers who present no harm on one’s property. On the contrary, one may be held liable for undue harm committed against them. What is true of property rights in general would also be true of bodily rights.


Property rights do not entail the right to kill an innocent stranger on one’s property, especially if the stranger is there under the implied consent of the owner. Likewise, a woman’s property right over her body does not entail the right to terminate pregnancy, especially when implied consent is present. Hence, the right to one’s body entails certain limitations when dealing with another person’s right to life, especially when that person is present at the implied consent of the woman.


To put it simply: “Adult privileges and pleasures include adult responsibilities.”


Notwithstanding, in situations where consent is not present, as in the case of rape, the rules that govern these situations should not overturn the norms that govern the vast majority of cases in which consent is present.


Lastly, there are serious moral implications if mothers do not have certain moral obligations to their unborn children. If Thompson’s property right argument is extended to its logical conclusions, a mother would have the right to refuse care to her dependent born children, not just an unborn fetus. If a woman has property rights over her body, would not her property rights extend to her physical, emotional, and financial resources? As discussed in Part 1 of this series, when it comes to the issue of dependency, the only difference between an unborn person and a newborn person is their degree of dependency. If a mother has a right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy on the basis of her property rights, would she not also have the right to terminate her small children on the basis of her property rights? Why should she be compelled to sustain the latter but not the former? If Thompson’s conclusion is true, then it seems a mother would have the right to refuse care to any child (born or unborn) who is dependent upon her resources. Hypothetically, the self-defense argument could justify the neglect or termination of any dependent person.




The pro-choice argument from defense contains many problems, not least of which is its troubled moral implications. It requires us to think of the unborn as a stranger to the mother or a trespasser on her property, both of which imply certain moral categories that seem to beg the question about the nature of pregnancy and the relationship of the mother to her children. The baby is neither a stranger nor an intruder, and except in cases of assault, there is an explicit or implied consent to the pregnancy. Hence, in appealing to property rights, the defense rationalization falters on a false analogy once the issue of pregnancy is properly represented.


In closing this series, we should remember that pro-choice advocates have three options with respect to the personhood of the unborn:


First, they can deny personhood, in which case pro-life advocates can employ the SLED Test. Second, they can doubt personhood, in which case pro-life advocates can employ the abortion quadrilemma technique. Third, they can make an argument from self-defense, in which case pro-life advocates can show that a self-defense argument does not nullify certain obligations toward an unborn child — namely, not to kill the child. Hence, the defense argument only seems to work in “difficult cases,” cases, which this series does not address directly.


All other pro-choice arguments seem to assume one of the three positions with respect to the unborn’s right to life — denial, doubt, or defense.


Consequently, each option fails to morally justify abortion.


Check out the Falkirk Center podcast with Christine Yeargin on how the pro-life movement wins: