It’s a rare week that sees a new twist in the decades-old abortion debate. But this is that week.
Writing in the journal Bioethics, two researchers from the University of Toronto contend that that women have a right to abortion, but no right to kill a foetus. In support of their startling argument they invoke bioethicists Peter Singer and Judith Jarvis Thompson, two of the most intrepid supporters of abortion rights.
This needs a bit of unpacking, so here goes.
Eric Mathison and Jeremy Davis point out that theorists like Singer and Thompson have distinguished between the right to an abortion (expelling an unborn child from the womb) and the right to kill an independent foetus. Since abortion is nearly always lethal with current technology, abortion is identified with killing. But theoretically, they are distinct.
In a well-known passage Thompson says:
I have argued that you are not morally required to spend nine months in bed, sustaining the life of that violinist; but to say this is by no means to say that if, when you unplug yourself, there is a miracle and he survives, you then have a right to turn round and slit his throat. You may detach yourself even if this costs him his life; you have no right to be guaranteed his death, by some other means, if unplugging yourself does not kill him.
And Singer writes, with Deane Wells
Freedom to choose what is to happen to one’s body is one thing; freedom to insist on the death of a being that is capable of living outside one’s body is another.