Thomson takes the stance that “while I do argue that abortion is not impermissible, I do not argue that it is always permissible” (65).
First, Thomson counters the common arguments of anti-abortion discourse. Under the premise that human life is defined to begin at conception and all abortion is immoral, Thomson juxtaposes choosing between the right to life of a woman and her unborn child. As both have an equal right to life since both are human, opponents of an abortion in this scenario argue that it is “(3) as one’s duty to refrain from directly killing an innocent person is more stringent than one’s duty to keep a person from dying, an abortion may not be performed. Or, (4) if one’s only options are, directly killing an innocent person or letting a person die, one must prefer letting the person die, and thus an abortion may not be performed” (Thomson 51). Thomson deconstructs this argument with a parallel example of a body-hijacking violinist who abducts a person in order to use their kidneys for 9 months in order to filter the violinist’s own blood and save the violinist from imminent death, and at the end of the 9 months the violinist would live and the abductee would die from kidney failure. Thomson insists that our modern sensibilities think it just that the abductee be allowed to unplug and thus allow the violinist to die because the violinist has no right to the abductees body: “If anything in the world is true, it is that you do not commit murder, you do not do what is impermissible, if you reach around to your back and unplug yourself from that violinist to save your life” (Thomson 52).
Thomson goes on to point out a sexist fallacy inherent in concerns about the moral implications of 3rd party actions in answer to a request from a woman for an abortion. The typical train of thought defines what a mother is allowed to do by what a third party is morally allowed to do, but “But it seems to me that to treat the matter in this way is to refuse to grant to the mother that very status of person which is so firmly insisted on for the fetus” (Thomson 52). Thomson redefines the issue as such, giving the mother equal weight as a person and decisive agent in the scenario: “Both are innocent: the one who is threatened is not threatened because of any fault, the one who threatens does not threaten because of any fault” Thomson 53). However, there is also a power dynamic at play between the mother and her child. While both are considered equal human beings in this scenario, one is the mother and owner of the “house” or body, and the other is a fetus and an outsider that has either trespassed or once been welcomed in the the house but has began to threaten the owner’s life. Thomson uses another metaphor, of the “house” and the body, to argue that a woman’s right to her body undeniably allows a third party action to justly act on her behalf to save her life and her house from the trespasser. In essence, the right to life of the child is superseded by the right of the mother to control her own body.
Central in this discourse is the idea that no other person has the right to another’s body, even if the use of your body will save their life, and thus, according to Thomson, abortion is not completely unjust. However, while abortion is not an unjust act in Thomson’s eyes, she delineates between moral neutrality and what is viewed as socially decent through a surprising reference (at least to me) to religion. Thomson argues that when Jesus commanded his followers to be good samaritans, it “was not morally required of any of the thirty-eight that he rush out to give direct assistance at the risk of his own life, and that it is not morally required of anyone that he give long stretches of his life”… “to sustaining the life of a person who has no special right” to the samaritan’s body (Thomson 63). Furthermore, she deduces that taking responsibility for someone else is an act of Good Samaritanism, a social human decency, and that in her opinion the benchmark for actions towards other human beings should not fall below that which is “minimally good samaritanism.” Here the grey area of Thomson’s argument presents itself for she uses this ambiguous standard of “minimally good samaritanism” towards the fetus as a line in the sand to separate what is a just and unjust abortion in non-problematic pregnancies (Thomson 65).
In line with the discipline of philosophy, Thomson’s argument is almost sterile, devoid of reference to American cultural concerns. Contrasting, Faye Ginsburg demonstrates that the pro-life assertion that human life begins at conception is a rationale situated within a complex cultural critique of the evolution of American gender constructions and the subsuming of nurturance as a core value to that of materialism and egoism. The assertion that life begins at conception is symbolic of larger concerns about the degeneracy of American culture, and Ginsburg makes clear how hopelessly intertwined the two are … which raises the question, what came first, the chicken or the egg?
Ginsburg opens her ethnography of a abortion clinic in Fargo, North Dakota with the history of abortion in America. Abortion was an accessible and widespread practice, performed up to until 5 month gestation, with little stigma in 19th century America, and surprisingly the agents of change surrounding abortion litigation prior to the 1960s were doctors. Around the 1860s-1880s physician’s pushed to make abortion wholly dependent on professional medical judgement in a play to grab control of their profession and lower competition of outside abortion providers. Due to the influence of physicians, abortion became illegal unless it directly endangered the life of the mother. Allied with anti abortion physician’s but for different reasons were 19th century feminists who largely saw abortion as a promiscuous, upper-class male’s backup plan and thus societal safeguard for the consequences of unrestrained male sexuality, greed, and materialism on defenseless women. As time went on, women still did not mobilize against abortion due to societal preoccupation with eugenic and sexist arguments of “race suicide” and “maternal instinct.” In fact, medical procurement of abortion did not reach national significance as an issue until the 1950s case of Finkbine’s denied abortion of her fetus with thalidomide-induced deformations. While doctors yet again sought legal reform of abortion, this time to evade litigation suits, feminists were not aligned with the doctors unlike in the 1860s. Thus, the modern conflict we know today of pro-life vs. pro-choice began to take form.
Ginsburg goes on to detail the events of the 1950s-1970s, interweaving the rise of the New Right, Hyde Amendment, group strategies for litigation vs court appeal, and the Roe v. Wade decision. By including the national picture and discourse, Ginsburg is astutely able to narrow into the local moral world of Fargo, North Dakota, and contrast/explain the national with the local “social drama—moments of revelation of social divisions when ‘people have to take sides, in terms of deeply entrenched moral imperatives and constraints”(62). Most inducing of social drama was the Roe v. Wade decision. Roe v. Wade demonstrated to the pro-life constituency that the courts and legislature had taken the side of pro-choice, and therefore the pro-life strategy “shifted the grounds of the conflict to the “gray areas” left unclear in the Court’s decision—questions regarding a woman’s rights to have access to abortion—and aimed at restricting the delivery of abortion services through whatever means possible” (75). Thus, the polarization of sides in Fargo and the onslaught of picketers outside the Fargo clinic, the opening of Fargo dummy clinics, and other subversive strategies of pro life activists began.
After an ethnography of the local positions of Fargo pro-life and pro-choice activists and their “procreation stores,” Ginsburg concludes with an analysis of the why behind each position. As Ginsburg succinctly puts it, “ Each position represents conflicting interpretations of the shifting social consequences of and connections between sexual activity, reproduction, and motherhood for women in American culture” (213); Ginsburg asserts that both positions are feminist in their own interpretation of the word.
Through ethnography, Ginsburg frames the pro-life opposition as arising due to the widening possibilities of female narratives in society that exist outside the domestic sphere. For pro-life proponents, the unique ability of women to bear children and the associated nurturance and motherhood qualities attributed to the “woman” identity that a man cannot possess are jeopardized by abortion’s ability to destabilize the natural progression surrounding the creation of a family unit (marriage, sex, birth, not necessarily in that order) and thus threaten the cultural value of motherhood. Furthermore, abortion conceals the result of illicit sexual relations in the view of pro-life advocates, and, as pro-life activist Roberta from Fargo echoes, “easy access to abortion as decreasing women’s power by weakening social pressure on men to take emotional and financial responsibility for the reproductive consequences of intercourse” (190,214). Pro-life proponents view pro-choice opposition and logic as “culturally male—sexual pleasure and individual ambition separated from procreation and social bonds of caretaking—is set against their own identification of ‘true femininity’ with the traits of nurturance that are, in American culture, conflated with motherhood”(205). In contrast, pro-choice proponents do not celebrate the culturally constructed differences between men and women but rather seek to equalize men and women in society through allowing motherhood to be a choice at all times that does not then define a woman’s identity.
While modern discourse often pits them against each other, Ginsburg paints the coexistence of pro-choice and pro-life activists in Fargo, North Dakota as undeniably rocky but not without a local respect and acknowledgement of mutual motivation: protection of what each defines as the right of women.