17 thoughts on “Class 6: Thinking About Abortion

  1. Hi Mary, great job on your blog post! I found your addition of personal context in the introduction to be tremendously helpful in framing the issue as a distinctly personal one, rather than just a theoretical one. Your analysis of the dichotomy between Thomson and Arkes’ article is quite interesting to be. I didn’t feel that the two pieces spoke directly to each other as I was reading them. My train of thought in that regard was that they were focusing on two different aspects of the same topic, with Thomson looking more at the issue from the perspective of the parent and Arkes looking more from the perspective of the fetus. However, reading your analysis made me understand the view that the two were directly countering each other, as your framing of the two arguments directly next to one another made the relationship between their arguments more evident. Reading through your detailed analysis of Arkes’ argument, it is clear to me that some parts of her piece were more convincing than others. The idea that the Court failed to consult medical experts on the threshold of viability is certainly concerning, but her argument that Blackmun’s refusal to determine when life starts is a logical fallacy is not compelling. Life means different things to different people, and it would clearly be wrong for the courts to substitute their judgement for the doctors and patients actually involved in the case. Thomson’s argumentation also appeared to me to be both compelling and not at points. The idea that people only possess a right not to be killed unjustly seems to be a slippery slope towards vigilantism, with the added issue that what is just and unjust is subjective. However, her argument that laws should not be permitted to prohibit something simply because it is subjectively immoral is a compelling one to me, as it is not up to the beliefs of certain groups what should or shouldn’t be allowed in society. Overall, while I think both arguments have their strengths and weaknesses, both my own reading of the text and your analysis leads me towards supporting Thomson’s claims. Great job on the paper!

  2. Hi Mary, thank you for your well-written summary of the two articles. I especially appreciate how you integrate your experience (and perspective) into your reflection on the topic because it makes me realize how different our experiences can be due to different social and cultural backgrounds. I grew up in China. And I remember seeing advertisements for abortion clinics on TV all the time in my childhood. These ads did not engage with the ethics of abortion at all and instead fully focused on how quick and painless the abortion can be in these clinics. Some of the taglines were like, “you can go to work the next day morning,” or something like that. I think because of the absence of a religious backdrop and the existence of the one-child policy in China, there was little debate about whether abortion should be legal or not. Recently, there seem to be fewer and fewer such ads on TV in China. I think because of the drastically dropped birth rate, the government begins to encourage having more children. So, I think in my culture and society, the government is not concerned with whether abortion is ethical or whether it should be legal; instead, they are concerned about whether it is for the betterment of the country (whether it aligns with the current population plan). The legalization of abortion is not seen as a hot topic for debate.
    I want to specifically address one of Arkes’ arguments. Arkes argues that “the fetus may be a potential doctor, a potential lawyer, or a potential cab driver; but he cannot be considered merely a potential human being, for at no stage of his existence could he have been anything else” (364). First, the language describing the fetus is not gender-neutral here and is problematic. Second, the center of Arkes’ argument is that at no stage of the fetus’ existence could it have been anything else. However, I want to argue against this statement, that a fetus could very possibly be a miscarriage– not a human being. There is no promise that the fetus will successfully develop into a full human being. So, it is no more than a seed of a potential human being. And therefore, the point at which the fetus will be very likely to successfully develop into a human being, supposedly the point when the fetus can survive outside of the womb, is very crucial to determine when it should be illegal to terminate a pregnancy.

  3. Mary, I really appreciate the way you’ve summarized the readings. I especially enjoyed your clarification in the beginning about your personal bias affecting your opinions. It is extremely difficult to detach yourself from an issue for which you have a passionate opinion, and I think you did a good job of representing each side (though, I have a similar bias). In your summary, you mention how both authors talk about abortion also centers around a cut-off for when a fetus can survive outside the womb. Scientifically, each individual is different, so no one cut-off will be the same for each individual situation. It was also briefly touched on last class how this cut-off of twenty-four weeks and the beginning of the third trimester is changing with our changing access to advanced technology. One fetus, through sheer luck, may be able to survive at twenty-three weeks when others would not, and another may not survive at twenty-five weeks, and so on. With such a charged issue, everyone will find a fault with something, whether it is the definition of when life begins or how we define the cut-off. I think this will definitely lead to some interesting conversations tomorrow. Thank you!

  4. I really enjoyed reading the piece by Arkes because, coming from such a liberal town, I rarely have my beliefs challenged. I found that some of the logic in this piece, such as the idea that pro-choice people are similar to those who find “sadistic pleasure in the torture of animals and humans” is farfetched and poorly supported (Arkes, 371). I disagree strongly with Arkes when it comes to the idea that embryos, just because they have all they need to develop into a person one day, justify the protections of a functional human. Just because someone may grow up to be the president does not mean they should assume the role at five years old, and just because someone owns a gun does not make them a killer. I think the presumption that “the individual is whoever he is going to be from the moment of impregnation” is biologically correct but morally flawed. However, I struggle to be objective when critiquing this argument because of my biases and political opinions. I agree with Arkes idea that development is continuous and at no point does something constitute a human being. However, this does not mean that this human being takes precedence over the mother, especially in cases where the mother’s life is put in danger. I also agree strongly with Thomson that the mother should never need to “sit passively and wait for her death” just because a collection of embryos may or may not constitute a human being. Again, I find it hard to remain objective when talking about this because I feel that so much is at stake by even indulging the pro-life opinion. I do not mean to offend anyone by saying that; I just want to clarify my own mindset so that people can place my post in context. I really enjoyed reading Arkes piece and educating myself further on pro-life ideologies but only because it felt hypothetical to me. The fact that people take these words off the page and live their life based on them was a terrifying thought.

  5. Hi Mary. This was great. The way that you juxtaposed of your early background and how you were told that abortion was murder with your increasing distance from this idea, and mixed this with the juxtaposition of the two readings from this week was particularly powerful. I think your synthesis of how Arkes’s reading goes comes up with one point about how abortion is murder because the fetus is alive, and then how Thompson took this argument not from the standpoint that is normally taken that the fetus is not alive, but from the standpoint of “what if the fetus is alive?” was quite smooth. What I was a little bit left to think about was this idea proposed by Arkes about illegal abortions. It was not her calculus done of the death to death ratio of woman to fetus that struck me (it did at first until I read what Thompson wrote which was all about that). What struck me was how those pushing the legalization of abortion had allegedly falsified those numbers for effect. That I did not like. But, either way, Thompson’s analogies given throughout did provoke a lot of thought as did Arkes’s. What I am still unclear abut though, and what I find most would find unclear, was the impact that it has that Thompson says at the very end of her piece that she ultimately does not believe life begins at conception. She and Arkes gave detailed reasonings to follow to illustrate their points, that are subject to the reader’s liking really. But that last sentence there by Thompson comes out of left field and then it is over. Thus, I am confused.
    I think also that it would have been cool for you to touch upon the difference between your religious ideals taught about abortion versus your general communal ones. The readings here were not owing to religion in their explanations. Thus, it would have been cool to see if you had any anecdotes to elaborate on the difference.

  6. Hi Mary, thank you for the guide to this week’s readings. This is my first time reading arguments that are explicitly in favor of or against abortion. I think, as you point out, that it is useful to think about these arguments as if they are in conversation with each other. The communication between the authors is not perfect and there are a few points that are left unaddressed by one side or the other. One point that I wish Thompson would’ve discussed is the majority opinion written for the Roe v Wade case. Arkes’ claim that the opinion was weak when held up to philosophical and moral standards is persuasive to me. The fact that the legality of abortion throughout the US rested upon the outdated abilities of neonatology technology is very concerning. A similarity between the papers that I found interesting was the use of analogy/antecdote. Many of the analogies/antecdotes were unhelpful in my understanding of the issues and I think were likely included to relate the issues to men who can’t get pregnant and struggle to empathize with people who can get pregnant.

  7. Hi Mary. Thank you for sharing such detailed summaries of the readings. Like others, I appreciate that you situate your discussion within your bias—I also found it difficult to think about this week’s reading without letting my bias seep in (though I think this is almost always the case.)

    I found it interesting that you point out how the authors are in conversation with one another. Even though Thomson bases her argument on what is supposedly the same premise as Arkes—that life begins at conception—there still seems to me to be some kind of disagreement between the two authors about the nature of the personhood of the fetus. I wondered if a good part of Arkes’ argument hinges on the fact that the fetus is not only dependent on the mother (as is Arkes’ violinist) but also sort of a part of her. This seems to go back to our discussion of kinship—for Arkes, parents aren’t just “good Samaritans” providing services to those in need of help, but also responsible for their children because they created them. It surprised me that Thomson equated the mother’s body with a house. Thomson acknowledges the child’s dependency on the mother (again, as in her analogy of the violinist,) but disregards any other sort of kinship—something that I guess is just very scientific. In Thomson’s view, the mother has the right to kill (or maybe just cause death to) anyone if they infringe upon certain rights of her own. Quite honestly, I didn’t think the metaphors she used framed this in the best possible way—while I personally agree with many of her points, I think things are always different when they pertain to your family (or possible family) because these people are connected with your own sense of self.

    One of Arkes’ arguments against abortion involves a discussion of who qualifies as a “person” and what constitutes a viable life. Oddly, I think this translates to abortion being a kind of ableism—which my gut tells me is kind of a twisted argument. This idea, as well as the discussion of “viability” raised for me a number of questions that perhaps extend beyond the scope of the issue itself. Who do we as a society view as “fully” human? Who is “wanted” and “unwanted?” These seem to require a broader look at social and political systems that make certain lives viable or not. Why are we not making more lives “viable” in other senses—for example, providing better resources for mothers?

    At one point, Thomson acknowledges that women do not necessarily say to drifting children, “I invite you in.” I’m definitely not an expert in Buddhist or Hindu religion, but this metaphor especially conjured for me associations with rebirth—I wonder what questions might be raised about “personhood” and the right to life when babies can be seen as reincarnations.

  8. Mary, thank you for such a nicely written summary of the readings for this week. I also felt biased going into the readings at first, as I was raised in a Jewish Orthodox community In Panama abortion is unheard of. Even outside of the observant Jewish community abortion in Panama is only legal in cases where the mother’s life is in danger, so it is basically taboo in general. Similarly, I have developed my own opinions about abortion. I have also gathered the tools necessary to read about abortion and understand arguments from both sides, and where these arguments come from. I would like to dive deeper into Thomson’s claim about how, even if life did began at conception, a woman has no obligation to host a fetus. I believe that is a very strong statement. This statement raises one of the main arguments around abortion: when is a fetus considered to be a living human? I find that Arkes’s argument about how fetuses have the potential to become human is somewhat compelling. Essentially, the fetus’s only “goal” is to continue to grow in order to be born and be human. Therefore, abortion would considered killing a human (or at least the potential to be human). Yes, I agree that not because a fetus may become a famous figure it should live. I believe that there must be some value to the fact that any fetus has the potential to become any figure, a member of society, a part of the human race. That being said, the situation becomes more complicated when dealing with a fetus that has been formed due to a rape or a fetus with a detrimental disease. As you mentioned, for abortion to be right there must be a justification (a just cause) for a woman to undergo an abortion. In cases of rape or in cases of a fetus that is diagnosed with a fatal or terminal disease, abortion is especially sensible. When starting to think in this way, abortion only becomes more complicated and polemic topic. I believe that abortion is a powerful tool in society. It should continue to exist. Perhaps in an ideal world, methods of analysis or options for different individuals with different ideologies can be found so that no rights are violated, and no group feels unrepresented by the laws of their country.

  9. Hi Mary! Thanks for the incredibly insightful post and for leading off our discussion. I think you did a great job boiling down the arguments from the two authors into concise talking points. Your backstory regarding the topic is very interesting, and it is great that you’ve been able to inform your own opinions as you’ve grown into adulthood. I also appreciate the acknowledgement of bias in the beginning of your paper, as I went in with a very similar bias.

    I think Dr. Seeman, in his email, posed some great questions, especially in regard to personhood. Thompson, in her defense of abortion, gives her arguments under the assumption that a fetus is a person in order to play on the same field as anti-abortion proponents such as Arkes. However, at the beginning and end of her discussion, Thompson says that she does not view the fetus as a person, and this helps aid her stance (even though she makes plenty of other arguments for abortion under the assumption that a fetus is a person). On the other hand, Arkes suggests that to assign personhood based on certain characteristics is a slippery slope and that many humans would not meet the qualifications of “person” should we impose them.
    I think one of Thompson’s final remarks, that she does not support abortion when the fetus could survive on its own, is a good mark of personhood. She does not specifically say that the ability to survive outside the womb marks personhood, but I believe she would support this assertion. Yes, there are many, even adults, who could not survive on their own, which could call into question the existence of an “incomplete personhood.” However, being able to take your own breaths when not attached to another human being is a good enough definition for me. There are so many individuals (children, those who need individualized care, elderly, etc) who require the financial and physical support of others but are clearly persons themselves. In my opinion, it would be crazy to question whether or not these groups of people fall into personhood and whether or not they deserve support, even if some individuals would inquire about this in order to play “devil’s advocate” against pro-abortion arguments. Along the same lines, I agree that a viable fetus deserves support. However, until that fetus is able to live separately from the mother, does it fall under the same definition and deserve the same resources? I would argue no; it is still an attachment to the mother, even if it is one with potential to reach personhood.
    I believe we should support persons in any way we can, but to call a recently fertilized zygote a “person” is a stretch, and our empathy and resources should go toward protecting those already under the status of person.

  10. Hi Mary! Thank you so much for your thoughtful consideration of this week’s readings. In such a controversial topic, it is important to acknowledge our own (perhaps implicit) biases and try to approach reflection from a neutral position. I also appreciate the ways in which Thomson and Arkes included anecdotes and analogies to illustrate their arguments; however, in some cases, it does seem a bit elementary to reduce the discussion of humanity under the law to acorns and violinists…but perhaps in such convoluted debates as this it is helpful to simplify those involved to better gauge the morality of potential outcomes. In discussing the different values associated with certain lives, namely that of the mother versus that of the child, I found myself thinking back to our discussion of Jewish views on reproductive technology thus far. From what I remember, Jews value the life of the mother (and furthermore the status of motherhood) more than that of the fetus, and are therefore willing to allow abortion in cases that pose threat to the mother’s life. I feel that Thomson’s position aligns with this, but Arkes disagrees; I am curious as to how far Arkes’s emphasis on the life of the fetus extends – should women in a vegetative state be kept alive as surrogates/biological incubators? I also appreciate Thomson’s discussion of viability. Arkes makes a strong point that a fertilized egg has no potential but to become a human. However, should we discount the period between fertilization and viability, where the embryo is not yet fit for the outside world? Does viability imply personhood? Thomson courses through her argument assuming personhood from conception, yet should we form our opinions based on this same premise?

  11. Hi Mary!

    I think that you did a great job juxtaposing these two readings and made it seem as though they were talking directly to each other. I also appreciate your introduction paragraph showing how your opinions have changed as you’ve grown, and I think that is something that occurs with a lot of individuals. I am curious, at what age were you taught that abortion was ‘wrong’ and was that brought up in the context of personhood or abstinence?

    Secondly, in the email Professor Seeman sent, it made me think about how the argument regarding the power of the law determining “who has the right to kill whom?”. I think it all leads back to what an individual defines as personhood. If a person believes that abortion is murder, no matter the circumstances, then it makes sense that they think it is wrong and that the courts should step in. Although my views are different, it made it easier for me to see where those arguments are coming from. I do not think there is an easy, clear cut, answer to fix this huge debate, but I do think that individuals having the choice is the closest to compromise we will get.

  12. Hi Mary! Great work on your blog. You outlined Arkes and Thomson’s arguments in a very digestible way that effectively synthesizes the structure and main tenets of each. Given your writings and the questions posed by Dr. Seeman over email, I would like to explore whether or not personhood should be defined by the law, or rather that it should be a determinant for protection under the law.

    I personally think that Arkes may have a stronger argument over Thomson because he at least takes a stance on when personhood begins–life begins at conception. On the other hand, Thomson does not fuss over definitions and timeline of personhood as much, instead examining the right to not be killed unjustly. She outlines more exceptions and how these may present themselves when the intent of the person carrying the child varies, making this argument feel weak because of its lack of definition.

    For something as objective as the law that governs this nation, I think that anti-abortion proponents will have to provide for defined ranges and explanations of personhood and when it begins, if we really do bear the right to life. These questions become complicated when we compare them with the same questions over capital punishment, for example. Do incarcerated peoples bear the same right to life as fetuses? I recently learned that prisoners are the only Americans with the right to healthcare by a historian that studies capital punishment. If abortion is a form of healthcare (a just killing) then is capital punishment also a just killing? These questions that I have posed, though scattered, must be looked at to further investigate where the commitment to the protection of personhood truly lies in our government.

  13. Hello Mary! I think you did a great job utilizing opinions and summaries from each reading in conversation with one another to frame the overall argument around abortion. You did an excellent job acknowledging the complexity of the topic and that the diversity of opinion, background, and values of American citizens is ultimately what shapes the evolving dialogue surrounding its ethicality. I appreciate that you mentioned the bias that you particularly have in approaching this topic, but I think it is important to mention that it is nearly impossible to not have a bias in something as politically and ethically stirring as this. The readings do a great job of tributing the fact that beliefs exist on a vast spectrum and are influenced by the nuanced, interconnected issues that shape our conception of the world – to be completely neutral from a personal stance is certainly quite difficult. Your specific perspective is actually very helpful in capturing the sentiment of many American women regardless of their upbringing, as it is an issue that can not only impact them, but also people that they love and respect. I have found a lot of conversation regarding this topic to be shaped by anecdotes and pathos arguments. However, in regards to the legal subspace in which most of these arguments become more complicated, this type of evidence does not have the same strength – the government tries to make a very sensitive, personal, and vulnerable issue and generalize it to a national population that contains millions of individual opinions. The existing legal codes (and recent developments in Roe v. Wade) have proven that forming a consensus is impossible – as the reading mentioned, current legal framework sets a benchmark of 24 weeks which now appears to be arbitrary. The need to reach for some concrete methodology and the immense challenge that this seems to bring upon in the medical, religious, and political community simply proves the point that this sort of regulation can not be concrete. Answers can really only be found through conversation, compromise, and a willingness to debate difficult questions like “Is it better to get a safe abortion legally or an unsafe abortion illegally?” Taking abortion out of the conversation briefly, I wondered when we have the right to kill anybody at all. I find it funny that many of the same people who believe in banning abortion also believe in capital punishment; this brings to light the role of purity and potential into their arguments. Killing out of mercy is something that also intrigues me, both in the role of abortion and difficult situations of assisted suicide and removal from life support.

  14. Great job with your post Mary! I think you did a really great jobs summarizing and comparing each of the readings while acknowledging how your own bias plays a role in your interpretation. I think you bring up a really important point about the relationship between the law and morality. And to think even further, not only the question of whether it is the law’s job to dictate the morality of the people it governs, but how do we truly decide what is moral. It is widely accepted that killing a person is immoral, but even if we are thinking about Arkes’ definition of personhood, I think we can also consider some of Thomson’s stipulations about the dependence of the fetus on the mother. If by Arkes’ definition, the fetus is a person, can we apply the same moral standards about murdering people if the person is not independent and could not survive without the mother’s body? I think there is a lot to discuss in terms of what defines personhood, but also how do we think about the rights of a “person” differently when they are a completely dependent entity versus when they become an independent entity. And additionally, what would define a dependent versus independent entity? How do we understand the difference between a fetus and a 6-month-old? While my biases lie much more with Thomson’s arguments, I do think that Arkes’ makes some compelling points as well as prompted me to reflect a bit on the way I think about abortion. A question I wonder is without a consensus on when life begins/when is someone a person, can we every really come to any sort of consensus on the morality/legality of abortion? Even if there was a consensus on the beginning of life, even then, would it be possible to have consensus on abortion?

  15. Hi Mary, great job with your blog post! I really appreciate that you shared your personal background with us and how your perspective has changed over time. I was exposed to very different perspectives growing up, so it was interesting to hear about how abortion was framed throughout your upbringing. You also did a wonderful job putting the Arkes and Thompson readings in conversation with each other.

    In your blog you say that Thompson claims there is “no obligation for a woman to sustain a fetus in her body.” I would have loved for you to expand on this just a bit more – obligation to whom? The law? Her family? Herself? Her community? I think this is a really important point she makes.

    I am also glad you bring up Arkes’ argument that “a fetus should always be considered human because it does not have the potential to be anything else.” I thought this was a particularly unique point. I wonder though, how far Arkes is willing to extend this. Just a warning, I am going to give an extreme example here, but for the sake of wondering how far Arkes’ opinion goes. A sperm does not have the potential to become anything else but a human (if it fertilizes an egg). Would Arkes then think that any emission of sperm not for the purpose of seeking an egg also be considered murder, since it has the potential to be a human and not the potential to be something else? Again, this is quite an extreme example I am giving, I am just curious how far his argument goes. His argument likely does not become this extreme, but it is something to think about when considering the basis for his viewpoint.

  16. Hi Mary! I also agree that Hadley Arkes writing was more harsh than Judith Jarvis Thomson’s writing. I found that Arkes backed up his arguments with many opinions that he stated as facts, such as how he strongly believes that life behind at conception. I found that Arkes did not refute different opinions as much as Thompson. Arkes claims that a fetus is considered human because it will grow to be a human, but this is Arkes opinion on what is considered human. Everyone has different opinions on this, so we cannot adopt one definition of what it means to be human and assume that others should agree. It was difficult for me to be influenced by Arkes writing because of this. I enjoyed reading your blog, and I appreciate how you informed the audience that you were biased before diving into the readings. I did research on how Buddhists view abortion, and I read mixed views. Any act of putting an end to life is considered an act of killing that results in bad karma. However, bringing a child into a world in which the child would not be able to receive proper support would result in suffering for the child and the mother. This suffering can be considered greater than an abortion. Therefore, there are circumstances in which abortion is more favored than bringing a child into the world.

  17. Hi Mary! I’m glad the used for personal experience to build off of each authors’ arguments for this week. I am also from Alabama and experienced much of wag you faced as well. However, I was raised in a liberal home and surrounded by quote a few liberal Alabmaians and this argument is extremely tough to speak out on especially in Alabama. I feel many people in Alabama who are pro-life have similar view points to the Arkes point of view on the right to life. Another argument that I have seen while growing up in Alabama to justify making a woman have a baby she doesn’t want is that pregnancy/the baby is a punishment of her actions. It doesn’t matter if she isn’t ready for the baby, for they believe that it is her punishment for having sex out of wedlock to now raise a baby that they know she will struggle to bring up. I am very glad that these two readings were directly opposing each others views. Like I said, I have heard of Arkes argument before in real life, but even in an academic review, the argument seems weak to me. Posing abortion as a moral argument is just not enough to justify taking it away from all women. Arkes tries to dismantle the right to bodily autonomy by posing ,”The claim that a woman has a right to control her own body is a smokescreen, because the issue is not whether she has a right to control her own body, but whether she has the right to take the life of another human being.” However she fails to make a clear distinction between the relationship pregnancy has between two “humans” In most cases, we would all agree that a human has a right to live. However, in pregnancy, a fetus depends on the mothers body to continue to develop. I was open to listening to both sides of the argument, but Thomasen’s argument was much more well developed in my opinion. She directly opposed Arkes moral judgement with another moral question: A right to freedom. She also used in real life examples of how both right to life and right to freedom clash. Arkes also fails too mention how natural law has played out in the court system before. Abortion isn’t the first time natural law has been seen to make its way into politics. Many people who are pro-life also agree with the death penalty, but doesn’t this also disobey natural law? Arkes arguments has to address other factors than just morality when it comes to abortion, because morality is not the only factor. Also morality is extremely subjective to oppose on all people.

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