Judith Jarvis Thomson’s 1971 article on abortion, “A Defense of Abortion,” is the most reprinted article on abortion ever written, and is one of the most reprinted philosophy articles of all time. Before Thomson’s article, the abortion debate was largely a debate about the personhood of the fetus. Was the fetus a person, endowed with the same moral rights as you or I, or was the fetus not a person? It was assumed that if the fetus was a person with the same moral rights as you or I, then abortion—which would then be the killing of an innocent person—was immoral.
Thomson’s article changed the debate about abortion in at least two ways. First, it made the seemingly irresolvable debate about the personhood of the fetus irrelevant. Thomson simply assumed for the sake of the argument that the fetus was a person. Second, it rejected the assumption that killing an innocent person is (always) immoral. Thomson argued that, even if a fetus was a person from the moment of conception, endowed with the same moral rights as you or I (something that she did not believe), and even if abortion was the killing of an innocent person, abortion could still be morally permissible. The trump card against abortion—that it was the killing of an innocent person—was, she argued, not a trump card at all.
My aim in this Article is to defend Thomson’s argument from two important objections: the “Kill Versus Let Die Objection” and the “Intend to Kill Versus Foresee Death Objection.” Both objections hold that even if her argument is sound, it fails to establish that abortion is permissible. I shall argue that both of these objections fail, and that, if her argument is sound, it establishes that abortion is permissible. Many people—although not everyone—believe that her argument is sound. It follows that they should agree that her argument establishes that abortion is permissible.