Shane Cannon Coolbaugh

Professor Darren Gardner

ETHC 200

Apr 22, 2022

Critiquing Thomson’s Defense of Abortion


In her essay, A Defense of Abortion, Judith Jarvis Thomson writes that a fetus is a person from the moment of conception for the sake of argument. Thomson then makes the case that abortion is often permissible even if a fetus is always a person and thus always has a right to life. Thomson delivers a tactful argument that consists of vivid examples that make her case compelling. I will argue that Thompson successfully shows that abortion is often acceptable, even if the fetus is a person at the time of conception. I will explain this by analyzing her various analogies, considering the strengths and weaknesses in each. I will weigh the opinions of Don Marquis and Michael Tooley, who have different views on the topic of abortion. Lastly, I will explain why although Thomson makes a solid case, Tooley ultimately makes the strongest argument of the three authors.

The Famous Violinist Example

Thomson’s first example asks us to imagine waking up and discovering that we are now attached to a famous violinist who has a fatal kidney ailment. You are being asked to sacrifice the next nine months of your life and have your kidneys extract poisons from his blood and your own. Thomson asks if it is morally incumbent upon you to do so in this situation (Thomson, 64). What makes this analogy so powerful is its simplicity and accuracy. The case is frighteningly analogous to what can happen if a woman is slipped a date-rape drug and winds up pregnant. The mother does serve as a host for the unborn person, and without the mother, the unborn person would not survive. Thomson poses the question that if antiabortionists are to argue that everyone has a right to life, what are you supposed to do if delivering the child to term would cost the mother her own life. Thomson goes as far as to ask if we should flip a coin in those situations (Thompson, 65). It may sound harsh, but it makes a fair point and begs the question of who decides what is right in those devastating circumstances. Should the established life outweigh a potential existence?

Considering the Third-Party Element of Abortion

Thomson points out that much of the discussion relating to abortion has to do with the third party who will perform the abortion. The mother cannot safely do this herself, so a lot of the discussion leads to who can do this procedure and when it is permissible. The mother ultimately is at the mercy of those who can facilitate the operation (Thomson, 65). I see this as a strength in Thomson’s argument as it makes the case that society reduces pregnant women to a lesser status than the fetus inside them. When considering this point, it’s challenging to rebuke the claim that antiabortionists are arguing that a fetus is controlling the pregnant woman’s autonomy from this point forward, barring a third party being able to perform a safe and legal abortion. 

Thompson’s Other Analogies

Thomson paints two similar scenarios for us. The first is the case where you open a window because it is stuffy, and a burglar comes in as a result. Thomson points out that it would be absurd to say the burglar can stay because you had the window open. Thomson adds that it would still be strange to think of yourself as responsible if a burglar still goes in through bars you installed on your windows (Thomson, 68). This strong hypothetic example paints a picture of the argument many antiabortionists make about the case of consensual sex. The mere fact that the woman chose to have sex, even with protection, means she should have to accept the consequences of “leaving that window open to chance.” Most people don’t hold this extreme view, strengthening Thomson’s position.

Thompson’s second example involves living in a world where “people seed” floats through the air like pollen. Like the previous example, if you open your windows and don’t want any children, you better be sure your windows have the best mesh screens on the market. Thomson poses the possible scenario where one of your screens is defective, and a people seed plants itself in your home. She adds that some would argue that the people plant has a right to your home because you could have lived your life behind sealed windows and doors (Thomson, 68-69). The use of the people seeds analogy aids Thompson in making a solid case that it’s morally questionable to force a woman to bear a child that she did everything to avoid conceiving. For example, a woman who somehow becomes pregnant even after having an intrauterine device (IUD) put into her uterus to prevent pregnancy should not have to endure that unforeseen pregnancy.

Because of Thompson’s use of clear analogies, she successfully points out that abortion is often permissible even if we view the fetus as a human life at the time of conception. Thomson’s examples hold up to the test of her premise’s logic as she uses hypothetical situations that mirror the problem’s reality. Thomson’s line of reasoning is easy to follow, so I believe she successfully proves her ambiguous argument that abortion is often permissible but not always proper.

Weighing Marquis’s Perspective

Marquis believes that someone killed is deprived of something valuable, a Future Like Ours or FLO. He argues this is the worst of crimes, worse than being robbed or harmed in any other way, because to be killed is to terminate any possible future (Marquis, 86). I argue that this theory is too broad and leaves out the possibility that someone’s FLO may consist of prolonged suffering. For example, the child could be born with intellectual or physical disabilities that the parents may not have the resources to handle. When considering this scenario, the FLO appears arbitrary, especially for a being that has not yet been born. The discussion of what kind of FLO they may have experienced is somewhat moot. 

Marquis debates whether fetuses have the right to life. The premise Marquis goes off the criterion of simply being human, acknowledging that antiabortionists are intentionally broad. However, Marquis ultimately deems this apparently sound (Marquis, 84). I argue that Marquis’s premises are too simplistic and general to be considered plausible. Further clarification beyond “being human” is needed to make a substantial case.

Marquis’s sole focus on why it is usually wrong to kill adults resonates as deceitful in presenting the overall argument. Marquis makes his argument by using the term killing rather than aborting. He is doing this to create what he perceives as the linkage between the two, but it is not without its limitations. With his argument’s foundation relying solely on this premise, the case he makes is rocky at best.

Considering Tooley’s Point of View

In Tooley’s essay, he discusses the issue of what properties a thing must possess to have a right to life. Among them is the concept of self, which he argues fetuses and infants do not have—subsequently removing their right to life (Tooley, 37). I find this premise to be sound and plausible. If the thing we are considering has no understanding of their identity, is it honestly considered murder as Marquis frames it? This initial premise shapes Tooley’s argument.

Tooley critiques Thomson’s writing by saying, “the tendency to use an expression like person and human being interchangeable is an unfortunate one. For one thing, it tends to lend covert support to antiabortionist positions” (Tooley, 41). I believe this is a compelling statement that offers some insight into how these words have different connotations that Thomson acknowledges in a way that appears to appease the antiabortionists. Additionally, Thomson’s assertion that she only argues that abortion is not impermissible but not always permissible leaves many gray areas to discuss further.

The most vital point that brings Tooley’s argument to the front of the pack is the following line: “it is still true that one’s right to something can be violated only when one has the conceptual capability of desiring the thing in question (Tooley, 49)”. What makes that line so powerful is the logic in its premises. One can only infringe on the rights of another human being if that person is aware that they have rights in the first place. If they lack the awareness of their present experience, we can argue that they are not within the mental capacity to have any natural desires, like wanting to continue living.


In conclusion, when comparing the three author’s perspectives, Tooley makes the most compelling case because it explains the potentiality principle. However, Thomson’s argument does substantially prove her intended claim. Regardless, this doesn’t dismiss the credible criticisms of Thompson’s delivery and premises. Thomson acknowledges that there are weaknesses in her argument. She points out that she doesn’t give a clear yes or no answer on when abortion is morally permissible. Thomson also approaches the discussion differently, forgoing the traditional debate of when the fetus transitions into a person with human rights in a woman’s pregnancy. However, the point she intends to make is still weaker because of its inherent ambiguity. The acknowledgment that a fetus is a person from the time of conception remains a flimsy premise because of the scientific facts we have available. Therefore, Thomson’s argument performs as well as possible while considering her weaker, ambiguous claim that abortion is often permissible but not always acceptable (Thomson, 70). Tooley’s approach and premise of view ultimately fair the best among the three.

Works Cited

Marquis, Don. “An argument that abortion is wrong.” Ethical theory: an anthology (2007): 439-50.

THOMSON, JUDITH J. “A Defense of Abortion.” Philosophy & Public Affairs, vol. 1, no. 1, 1971, pp. 47-66.

TOOLEY, MICHAEL. “Abortion and Infanticide.” Philosophy & Public Affairs, vol. 2, no. 1, 1972, pp. 37-65.