Abortion – Thomson and Ginsburg

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.

6 Replies to “Abortion – Thomson and Ginsburg”

  1. Thanks for your post! I really enjoyed your analysis and summary of the readings for this week. Out of this week’s readings, I found Arkes’ writing to be the most powerful, primarily because he used poignant and memorable examples in making his argument. Personally, I am against abortion in most cases (not all cases!) for reasons that largely coincide with the Catholic Church’s position in Donum Vitae. Arkes’ point that the number of deaths from abortion significantly increases when legalized was notable, and this solidified my position even further. When abortion is legalized, an additional 1.5 million fetuses are terminated with no significant change to illegal terminations that occur (Arkes 383). For this reason, if one believes that a fetus should be treated as an individual with a “soul”, then abortion should be illegal, especially since having it legalized seems to have no impact on the number of illegal terminations. I also found the argument about consciousness being a central issue to be interesting because it’s a factor many fail to account for when taking a stance for abortion (like Thompson) or against it.

  2. Hey Courtney,

    Thanks for your blog post.

    I found the contrast of readings for this week to be very interesting and offering viewpoints from both sides of the aisle if you will. It was also great to have an “objective” view of the issue through the eyes of Ginsburg.

    Like others, I too was surprised from reading that the same people who created the stigma around abortion were trying to legalize it later. Although there were reports of bombings, arson, and physical harm due to more aggressive protestors, it had little effect on the number of women attending the clinics (Ginsburg, 116). I found it interesting that despite these very real threats, women were still going to clinics and even bonding over their being threatened (Ginsburg, 116). It’s also interesting to note that the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the pro-choice movement in 1983 and since that ruling, the “pro-life movement became more apparent”” (Ginsburg, 122). I find it somewhat ironic(ally sad) that since the ruling, “violence against abortion clinics escalated” (Ginsburg 122) and the number of abortions (and thus deaths of fetuses) also skyrocketed (Arkes, 383).

    I found the metaphors presented by both Thompson and Arkes to be compelling in their own right, and it made me challenge my beliefs and assumptions about abortion. As someone who is not a woman and therefore not have the same perspectives than a woman, I’ve bought into more or less the idea that a woman has a right to do what she wants/needs to her body. However, if you consider the fetus to be a person, abortion would be analogous to committing murder. However, if you have a mindset like Arkes, who argues that a fetus does not have the potential to be anything else, this opens up many other avenues on how to view the topic. Going back to your question: Are the rights of the mother and child equal? I think the mother’s rights in this instance have a greater priority, and I look forward to our discussion about this tomorrow.

  3. Emma,

    Thank you for your thorough and interesting blog post! I thought it was interesting that you referred to Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion” as “sterile”. The opinions that Thomson shares do not include direct reference to American culture however I had the overwhelming sense that her opinions were shared with an assumption that those opinions were formed within the context of her study and understanding of culture. In both texts as well as in the abortion debate as a whole, a central concern is who is at stake. The issue of prioritization of the fetus or the woman gestating the fetus is what divides so heavily the pro-choice and pro-life communities as well as a cause for conflict within those respective communities. A facet of Ginsburg’s “Contested Lives : The Abortion Debate in an American Community” that I found incredibly interesting was the history of the abortion debate and how integral physicians were in creating both the pro-life movement as well as spurring a whole infrastructure around abortion policy and regulation. I wish Ginsburg had discussed the context of these physicians lives outside of their lust for medical control and superiority in reproductive health, specifically potential religious influence. Both Ginsburg and Thomson address how abortion issues heavily correlate with women’s rights. Furthermore, reproductive technology aid and availability in the context of abortion has become a racially charged issue. “The doctrine of “the right to privacy” on which the Supreme Court rulings were based was intended to uphold a physician’s right to make a medical decision. The court offered no provision or guarantee for making abortion available, nor did the health care system respond uniformly to the increasing demand for abortion services. The gradual realization of the uneven availability of abortion in many parts of the country eventually resulted in pro­choice efforts to ensure more widespread, low­ cost abortion service” (41, Ginsburg). The complexity of abortion rights is exemplified by both of these writings, in very contrasting ways.

    Thomson explicitly shares her personal opinion on abortion rights and believes a woman to the right to health and prosperity, even while pregnant. She likens pregnancy to being a house, where she is housing a growing fetus but should not be revoked of her own right to wellbeing. While Ginsburg’s writing and studies have more of an ethnographic approach, I still gleaned the sense that she believes in the rights of the woman to have equal priority to that of the fetus.

  4. Hey hey Emma,

    Great blog post this week, I really appreciate how you lay foundation for most of the quotes you use and then either build argumentation off of or give summary to the impact/application of the quote. I think the key thing to understanding the arguments of both sides is to understand, as you said in your last paragraph, that both sides argue from the same base: the rights of women. Whether you following the logic of unplugging the violinist or of defending the cultural values of a family unit and no matter the substance of the argument- be it within the grey area of Roe or within religious doctrine (from either side)- the principle point is one of respecting rights. It’s coming from the same base that directly puts values in conflict, such as autonomy of the mother and autonomy of the fetus, and moves us into the category of “hard case”. Since the law does not create sufficient solvency for this hard case we have to look at the arguments and with Faye and Thomson the major question is if we evaluate this in a vacuum. Do we stay in this purely allegorical world (with a sprinkling of religious reasoning) or do we look at the historical roots for the problem and analyze societal development and changes? While each can lead to separate conclusions we have to wonder if the weight of the collective consciousness should be allowed a voice in ethical hardcases. If we live in a society that evaluates hard cases solely on the outcome and not on the argumentation, then should we take into consideration their conclusion; moreover, does a democratic process have a place where we are evaluating rights?

    Have a great one!

  5. Hi Emma,

    Thanks for your post! I appreciate your recognition that Thomson’s argument occurs in somewhat of a vacuum. Theories as they exist only apply as far as real circumstances allow them to, as we see in Ginsburg’s book. I am very intrigued by your mention of “social drama” and, since thinking of it, see it manifest in many areas of her book, especially in understanding how “deeply entrenched moral imperatives and constraints” interact in communities (Ginsburg 1989, 62). A powerful point Ginsburg also makes is that “[…] biological reproduction becomes a representation of the continuity of cultural life, as well. By extension, abortion comes to signify, in the right-to-life view, not only a withdrawal of unconditional, self-sacrificing nurturance, the devaluation of human life, but also a denial of the reproduction of the culture itself” (Ginsburg 1989, 109). This brings an entirely new aspect of discussion (that I wish Ginsburg spent more time on) to the nature of involving state in medical practices. In this way, abortion might be considered as a way to evolve cultures. Does this give women a special duty? How might this concept be used in a pro-choice or pro-life argument? Considering reproduction and, in this instance fetuses, as agents of change, could they be considered in a legal domain outside of an individual woman’s rights?

  6. Thanks for your post, I thought it was very insightful and provided a lot of good details. One interesting point you brought up was about the violinist. While no example is going to be completely comprehensive and perfect, I do not think this is a great example to rely on. A lot of what the article speaks about and the other one read is about when the fetus becomes human. Thompson argues that the fetus is not a person, and has no personality to it, and therefore is not human (except for certain points in pregnancy when he agrees that the fetus is a human). I find the violinist argument not compelling because there is no disagreement that both involved are people and humans. This can be seen as a false equivalence as you can argue the two are not the same because the violinist is a human and the fetus is not a human nor a person.

    I think you give a great summary, and point out the main points in the Ginsburg account especially about the Pro-life and Pro-choice reasoning for there views, and how they are connected and different. While I enjoy the fact that Ginsburg was able to try to capture the wave of abortion in Fargo in a very specified ethnography, I wonder if the feelings for there justification of there views (pro-choice and pro-life) would be different in various parts of the country during this time. And if so, why and how different were they? I’m not sure if another place existed that was as polarizing as Fargo and would have led to my suggested question.

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