Chapter 8 : Abortion


Title: Thomson, the Right to Life, and Partial-Birth Abortion

Author: Peter Alward

Publication Information: Journal of Medical Ethics, 28, no.2 (April
2002),     pp. 99-101  


Judith Thomson’s article “A Defense of Abortion” concludes that
termination of a pregnancy that resulted without a woman’s consent is
morally permissible, even if a fetus is a person with a full right to
life. Peter Alward who initially agreed with Thomson’s conclusion for a
long time, however, later finds a problem with her conclusion. He
presents a series of cases and analogies to prove that Thomson’s
argument does not “yield a ground for robust right to an abortion”.  

Alward uses an example in which Sarah needs a respirator and a dialysis
machine as bare minimums to survive. Sarah is entitled to have a
dialysis machine but respirator belongs to Fred. In this analogy, Sarah
is the fetus, Fred is the pregnant woman, dialysis machine consists of
body organs of the fetus, and respirator is the womb. If Fred did not
consent to the use of his respirator by Sarah, as per Thomson’s view,
Fred can take back his respirator.  She says that respirator is Fred’s
property and he has a full right to his property. Not so fast, says
Alward. While exercising his right to the respirator, Fred should not
violate Sarah’s right to her property, the dialysis machine. Since right
to life outweighs right to property, only time Fred can ask for his
property is when his life is at stake. And according to Thomson, Fred
can use any method to retrieve his respirator in self-defense. However,
Alward says Fred can detach the respirator off Sarah only when, in doing
so he does not violate Sarah’s right to life. Dialysis machine consists
of Sarah’s body organs, including her brain. Therefore, the only
procedure Fred can use to get his respirator back in self-defense is by
detaching Sarah from respirator while leaving her connected to the
dialysis machine.  

With the above analogy, Alward proves that Partial Birth Abortion is
morally impermissible. In this so- called ICD procedure, physicians
first dilate the cervix, partially remove the fetus from womb (feet
first), insert a sharp object into the back of the fetus’s head, then
insert a vacuum tube through the hole and suck the brain out. This
contracts the fetus’s head and physicians can then easily remove it.
Alward argues that mind of the fetus is something that fetus needs to
survive and entirely belongs to it. Alward says even to save the
pregnant woman’s life, we cannot just use any other method of abortion.
If there is an option to save the fetus by removing it through caesarean
section and placing in an incubator, we have to choose that alternative.
If that results in the death of the fetus, then it is morally

Alward then brings up two more points worth discussing in favor of a
fetus’s right to life. First, if a pregnant woman refrains to have an
abortion for more than five months, she may have tacitly consented to
the fetus’s continued use of her body. Secondly, carrying a fetus to
term may require “only minimally decent samaritanism of the pregnant

Alward concludes that, “if the pregnant woman’s life is not at stake,
then, no procedure which causes the fetus’s death by any means except
its removal from the woman’s body is morally permissible”.  It means
that Partial Birth Abortion or any similar type pf procedures used in
late term abortion is simply not permissible. Alward poses a serious
challenge to those who are relying on Thomson’s conclusions for their
pro-choice stand.  

Summary: Hita Gurung (QCC,2003)

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