PZ Myers is not exactly known for the timidity of his statements (or for the mildness of his tone when he disagrees with someone, even a fellow atheist). On August 1st he posted a brief statement on his blog, presumably as a commentary on the recent Republican-led charade concerning a proposed ban on all abortions after 20 weeks in Washington, DC . (The ban was voted favorably by a majority in the House, but since Republicans themselves invoked a ⅔ majority rule, it didn’t pass. Considering that they knew this would happen, one has to deduce that the whole thing is a naked example of how bent on scoring political points they really are rather than getting anything done. But I digress.)

PZ’s statement, in its entirety reads thus: “We can make all the philosophical and scientific arguments that anyone might want, but ultimately what it all reduces to is a simple question: do women have autonomous control of their bodies or not? Even if I thought embryos were conscious, aware beings writing poetry in the womb (I don’t, and they’re not), I’d have to bow out of any say in the decision the woman bearing responsibility has to make.”

As it turns out, PZ could (should?) have helped himself to philosophy to make his point, rather than putting out a simple summary of his opinion, as respectable as the latter may be. Indeed, the most widely reprinted paper in contemporary philosophy is “A Defense of Abortion,” by Judith Jarvis Thomson, originally published in 1971, and still widely discussed in moral philosophy. It would have provided PZ with an impressive arsenal of arguments to back his, um, hunch?

Thomson’s paper is based on a series of provocative thought experiments, a standard tool of philosophical (and scientific) investigation. One of them is remarkably similar to the situation envisaged by PZ, but significantly more conducive to reflection. Thomson famously imagined a woman who wakes up one day to find a famous violinist attached to her body. It turns out that she had been kidnapped by the Society of Music Lovers, who couldn’t think of any other way to save the violinist, whose kidneys are rapidly failing. The violinist will need nine months in this state to recover, after which the two could part ways. Does the woman have a moral obligation to keep the violinist connected to her body?

No, she does not, argues Thomson, because the violinist’s right to life does not override the woman’s right to her body. It may be nice of the woman if she let the violinist use her body, but she has no obligation to do so. The basic concept, in analogy with a fetus, is that abortion does not violate the fetus' (or the violinist's) right to life (which they do have, according to Thomson), but rather denies them access to a particular resource (the woman’s body), which takes moral precedence.

Of course, there are critical responses to Thomson’s various thought experiments, beginning with the violinist one. Clearly, the situation is disanalogous with that of most pregnancies (except, say, with cases of rape), because the woman typically chooses to have intercourse voluntarily (this is the “tacit consent” objection) and therefore is responsible for the fetus’ wellbeing (the “responsibility” objection).

Thomson anticipated some of these counter-arguments, introducing a second thought experiment, concerning imaginary “people-seeds.” Consider a scenario in which seeds that can germinate into people drift in the air. You know this, but do not want any of them to take root in your apartment. So you take all necessary precautions, like installing mesh screens in front of your windows. But accidents happen, and one of your screens turns out to have a small opening, through which a people-seed comes in and takes root. Are you therefore obliged to keep him in your house and feed him? No, says Thomson, precisely because you took all reasonable precautions to avoid that outcome, just like a woman who has voluntary intercourse and uses appropriate contraceptives, may nevertheless face the possibility of an accidental pregnancy.

Thomson defends a very limited understanding of legal (though not necessarily moral) responsibility even with respect to other adults. Another of her thought experiments involves a situation in which she is dying and only the cool touch of Henry Fonda’s hand (hey, this was in the ‘70s!) could cure her. Should we require Fonda to fly all the way from the West coast to save her? No, though it would be mighty kind of him to do so. Indeed, Thomson claims that there ought to be no legal requirements place on Fonda even if he happened to cross the hall of the hospital in which she lay dying, though in that case his refusal to intervene would be morally horrific.

There is a point pertinent to abortion too in the Henry Fonda thought experiment, and that is that a woman — according to Thomson — should not be barred from undergoing the procedure even if her reason for having the abortion is as trivial as not missing a scheduled vacation, and the pregnancy is in its eighth month. Again, Thomson does say that such a woman would engage in a morally repellent conduct, but there is a difference between morality and law, as she explicitly remarks when she says that the United States has no “good samaritan” laws on the books — i.e., no laws that punish omitting to help others under certain circumstances. (I checked, and the US does, at least now, have a number of such laws, as do pretty much all other Western countries. Interestingly, however: “Laws in North America mainly shield from liability those who choose to help in a situation they did not cause; laws in much of Europe and other countries criminalize failure to help in such a situation.”)

There are a number of other objections and counter-objections to Thomson’s paper that have been proposed in the philosophical literature. For instance, the violinist thought experiment may not be a good analogy with abortion because it concerns a stranger, not one’s own offspring. At least from the point of view of virtue ethics, there is a difference there. The “natural-artificial” objection says that the violinist situation is artificial, while pregnancy is natural. The obvious counter to that is that it commits the naturalistic fallacy. The “different burdens” objection states that the burden of supporting the violinist is much bigger than that of carrying out a pregnancy, which means that it is (more?) morally acceptable to unplug the violinist than to abort the fetus. And then there is famous utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer — advocate of animal welfare and of infanticide (in the case of severely disabled babies in excruciating pain and with a short expected life span) who actually bites Thomson’s bullet and says that the woman has a moral duty to stick with the violinist for the whole nine months, because by utilitarian calculus the total {happiness - pain} equation will be more positive in that case than if the violinist is left to die.

The point that I hope has become clear throughout this brief tour into Thomson’s famous paper is that — contra PZ — one does need arguments and/or evidence for any rational position, no matter how “obvious” such position may seem at first glance. Otherwise one takes himself de facto out of the community of reason. In this instance, a bit more philosophical reading would have done PZ a world of good. Moreover, the debate is far from simple and obvious, as shown by the number of thoughtful papers written in response or support of Thomson’s ideas.

Most of these papers have been written by professional moral philosophers, not fundamentalist cranks. And many of the objections come from authors who are also pro-choice, just like Thomson, PZ and myself. We should always remember the words of that quintessential skeptic, H.L. Menken: “For every problem there is a solution which is simple, clean and wrong.” We just need to reflect on it to make sure we are less likely to be wrong.

Reprinted from Rationally Speaking