Judith Jarvis Thomson (1929-2020)

Judith Jarvis Thomson (1929-2020) December 13, 2020

MIT philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson died on November 20, 2020 at the age of 91.  She was, by all accounts, one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century, having penned some of the most penetrating essays in the history of the discipline. But, as her New York Times obituary notes, she is best known for an article she published in 1971 in the journal Philosophy and Public Affairs, “A Defense of Abortion.” The Times writes:

J. J. Thomson in 2010

[Thomson’s article] began with an insight into the anti-abortion position. “Opponents of abortion commonly spend most of their time establishing that the fetus is a person, and hardly any time explaining the step from there to the impermissibility of abortion,” she wrote. For the sake of argument, she granted that fetuses are people.

“Now let me ask you to imagine this,” she continued. You wake up one morning and find that the Society of Music Lovers has connected your body to that of a famous violinist, who is sick and using your kidneys because he needs the organ of someone with your rare blood type to survive. Is it morally incumbent on you to remain hooked up to the violinist for nine months, at the end of which he will have recovered?

“If you do allow him to go on using your kidneys, this is a kindness on your part, and not something he can claim from you as his due,” Professor Thomson wrote. She regarded pregnancy similarly, and considered abortion akin to declining to aid someone — as one might with the violinist — rather than murder.

J. J. Thomson in 1960

Even if you find yourself disagreeing with Thomson–as I do–you have to be impressed by the genius of her move: grant pro-lifers their most important premise, and then show that even if they are right about that premise they fail to establish their case. As you would suspect, many philosophers have responded to her, including myself (in three places: a book, an article, and another article), John Finnis, Christopher Kaczor, John Martin FischerDavid HershenovPatrick LeeAngela Knobel, Keith Pavlischek, and John T. Wilcox. There are, of course, philosophical defenders of Thomson’s reasoning, such as  David BooninEileen McDonagh, and Michael Watkins

I never had a chance to meet Professor Thomson, though I have come to know some of her friends and former students, all of whom speak glowingly of her integrity, character, and intellectual rigor. She was, in my judgment, deeply mistaken about the morality of abortion.  Nevertheless, I learned much from her.  She was a towering intellect to be reckoned with. May she rest in peace.


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