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Argument From Bodily Rights

The Supreme Court’s momentous 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade was meant to settle the abortion issue once and for all. Instead, the debate over the morality of abortion has persisted, with polemicists on both sides of the divide offering sophisticated arguments. In this essay I will analyze and refute Judith Jarvis Thomson’s argument from bodily rights presented in her seminal paper “A Defense of Abortion.” I take it as axiomatic that an analogy is apt only to the extent that the two cases are relevantly similar. Ergo, if it can be demonstrated that the two cases should not be analyzed in the same way, then whatever conclusions might apply in the one case will not necessarily apply in the other. I will argue that the analogy Thomson uses to ground her argument elides characteristics of sex and pregnancy that undercut her reasoning and that the logic of her position leads to consequences that most who favor abortion would find untenable.

Thomson is a formidable advocate for abortion rights who makes her case in a creative and memorable way. Unlike many who favor abortion, she is willing to grant that the unborn is indeed a person with rights. However, for Thomson, the fact of the unborn’s personhood is not enough to establish the impermissibility of abortion. We are not required to allow someone to use our kidneys even when they would die without our help and we would survive in good health despite rendering it. Allowing the person in need to have the use of one’s kidneys is a kindness on one’s part, a supererogatory act, not a morally obligatory one. Similarly, having a right to life does not guarantee having either a right to be given the use of, or a right to be allowed continued use of, another person’s body. It follows that if a couple takes all reasonable precautions, they do not, simply by virtue of their biological relationship, have a special responsibility for the child they conceive.

Thomson’s analogy, while ingenious, fails to establish her conclusion. It is true that I am not morally obligated to donate my kidney to my neighbor simply because he needs one to live. If I do donate, I have done a good deed but I don’t have an obligation to do so. However, this kind of case is not really analogous to that of a woman who finds herself pregnant with an unwanted child. In the case of the stranger in need of a kidney donor, the person who withdraws or withholds assistance is not responsible for the dependency on him of the person about to die; in the case of pregnancy, the biological parents are responsible for the fetus’s condition of dependency. Nor is the example given by Thomson of a woman’s opening her windows not being an invitation for a burglar to enter her apartment applicable to the vast majority of pregnancies; in such a case, the burglar himself is the primary agent responsible for his being in the house—the woman does not cause him to be there but merely removes an obstacle to his being there. Conversely, in pregnancy, the baby is not the primary agent responsible for her presence in the mother’s womb, the mother and father are. Thomson’s analogy fails to capture the true nature of pregnancy and parental obligation because it equates a stranger-stranger relationship with a mother-child relationship. Comparing unwanted pregnancy to compulsory organ donation or burglary only supports Thomson’s conclusion if the relevant differences between the two situations are ignored.

Moreover, Thomson’s bodily rights argument presupposes and promotes a corrosive moral volunteerism and social atomism. The view that human beings are isolated, autonomous individuals pursuing our own self-interest with no duties to our fellow persons beyond those that we voluntarily choose must be argued for rather than merely asserted. Indeed, we occasionally find ourselves in communion with others because of a physical or social relationship which precedes our consent, but nonetheless entails very real duties and responsibilities. Drunk drivers whose driving results in manslaughter are held responsible for their actions even if death was merely foreseeable and not intended. Likewise, a mother has a responsibility to carry her child to term if conception occurs, even if conception was merely foreseeable and not sought. Thomson would have us believe that it is perfectly acceptable to engage in a pleasurable act that is intrinsically ordered to bringing into existence a vulnerable human person and then destroy her if one of the persons responsible for bringing her into existence and on whom she is dependent for her continued survival and development so desires.

Our current child support laws seem to be grounded in the widespread moral intuition that parents have a natural pre-voluntary obligation to care for any child they might conceive, even if her existence is not the result of conscious planning or intention. If moral volunteerism is to be the underpinning of our understanding of parental obligation to offspring, then we must ask ourselves whether it is reasonable that our child support laws require fathers to provide financial support for their children because of their paternal relationship to their children. Why should a father who used contraceptives and does not want to be a father be compelled to take responsibility for his child? If fathers do indeed have a responsibility to their offspring, this responsibility cannot be based merely on biology, for we do not hold sperm donors responsible for their biological children. It would seem to stem from the fact that the father engaged in sexual intercourse, an act which he fully realized could result in the creation of another human because reproductive organs are intrinsically ordered to reproduction. If Thomson's argument is correct, then absentee fathers who consented to sex but not fatherhood would not be morally obligated to pay child support. Though some who favor abortion would be willing to accept this outcome as the logical corollary of their position, most would find such a change unacceptable.

Accepting that parents do have special responsibilities to their biological offspring has significant implications for our understanding of the nature of abortion and whether it should be permitted in our society. If a man’s daughter has a serious respiratory disease and he is told that smoking in her presence will cause her death, then it is immoral for him to continue smoking in her presence even if he does not intend her death as an end but merely foresees it as a side effect he is willing to put up with to avoid the inconvenience of altering his smoking habits. If a man works for a steel company in a city with lots of air pollution and his child has a respiratory problem making air pollution a danger to her life, he should move regardless of the personal cost to his career. In both examples the act that would cause the child’s death would avoid a harm to the parent but cause a much worse harm to the child. Pregnancy imposes severe burdens on parents, particularly on the mother, but it isn’t nearly as harmful as death, which is complete and irreversible. The sacrifice morally required of a mother is far less burdensome than the harm done to a child by aborting her. Fortunately, adoption is available for those who are not in a position to parent a child.

In conclusion, Judith Jarvis Thomson’s bodily rights argument cannot withstand our best and most rigorous moral reasoning and ought to be abandoned. Grappling with all of the relevant properties and particularities of sex and pregnancy leads one inexorably to the verdict that, in circumstances where consensual sex has resulted in conception, pregnancy generates a duty and responsibility on the part of the mother to carry her child to term. Therefore, abortion should be stigmatized in our culture and its moral wrongness should be reflected in our law by the enactment of legislation prohibiting elective abortion in the vast majority of cases.

Photo by Lunar Caustic. “Embryo week 9-10” Some rights reserved.


Pavlischek, Keith J. “Abortion Logic and Paternal Responsibilities: One More Look at Judith Thomson’s ‘A Defense of Abortion.’” Public Affairs Quarterly, Vol. 7, No. 4 (1993). Print.

Lee, Patrick, Robert P. George. “The Wrong of Abortion.” Contemporary Debates in Applied Ethics. Ed. Andrew I. Cohen, Christopher Welman. Boston: Wiley-Blackwell, 2005. 20-25. Print.


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