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Abortion and the Right to Not Be Pregnant

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Philosophy and Political Engagement

Part of the book series: International Political Theory ((IPoT))


James E. Mahon examines the role played by Judith Jarvis Thomson’s essay on abortion, published in Philosophy & Public Affairs, in the subsequent development of practical ethics as a field of inquiry. Mahon argues that the journal put the topic of abortion on the philosophical map, and Thomson’s article did more than any other, before it or since, to energize philosophical debate about abortion. Mahon also analyses the contrasting arguments of Thompson and Joseph Mahon on abortion, before concluding with an examination of the distinction between the claims that abortion is ‘indecent’ and that it is ‘impermissible’.

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  1. 1.

    The two other defences of abortion he criticizes are Kamm (1976) and Dooley-Clarke (1981). On a different point, I should apologize in advance for any confusion that results in my writing about someone who shares my name—namely, my father.

  2. 2.

    My defence of Thomson is very much in the spirit of Boonin (2002).

  3. 3.

    An equally historically important article on abortion is that by Philippa Foot (1967). It should not be lost on us that Philippa Foot was another prominent woman philosopher at a time when there were much fewer women in philosophy. Foot and Thomson, between them, may be said to have created the ‘Trolley Problem’, perhaps the most famous ‘problem’ of modern moral philosophy.

  4. 4.

    To give just one example, the recent 2014 US Supreme Court decision, Burwell v. Holly Lobby, essentially concerns the question of whether for-profit corporations are exempt from the mandate of the Affordable Care Act to pay for Plan B, ella, et cetera, for their employees, because those running the corporations consider these to be abortifacients rather than contraceptives. For the background to this debate, see Hrobak and Wilson (2014).

  5. 5.

    Sadly, G.A. (Jerry) Cohen, a friend of my father’s from my father’s sabbatical year at University College London in 1979–1980, died in 2009 and could not be a contributor to this volume.

  6. 6.

    As Thomson says, ‘we have only been pretending throughout that the fetus is a human being from the moment of conception. A very early abortion is surely not the killing of a person’ (Thomson 1971, p. 66).

  7. 7.

    Space constraints prohibit discussion of every one of Mahon’s objections to Thomson’s argument. I have selected the two most important criticisms.

  8. 8.

    For an argument against using the term ‘mother’ to refer to a woman who is an ‘abortion candidate’, see Nancy Davis (1984).

  9. 9.

    An older term for this kind of action was ‘offence’. See Chisholm (1963). See also Mellema (1987) and Mahon (2006).

  10. 10.

    The assumption throughout this essay is that the abortion under discussion is a voluntary abortion, and not one that is coerced or performed without the consent of the pregnant woman.

  11. 11.

    Footnote 9 on the same page attributes this position to Thomson. Note that Driver says about this position that ‘no consideration is given to the fetus in determining the permissibility of the abortion’ (1992, p. 289, n. 9). I would prefer to say that moral consideration is given to the fetus—Thomson assumes for the sake of the argument that a fetus is a person—but that the fetus, despite its moral status, is judged to fail to have a right to use the pregnant woman’s body, which is the only right that would make the abortion impermissible.

  12. 12.

    My thanks to Melina Bell for discussion of the normal moral philosophical usage of these terms.

  13. 13.

    For this reason, Liberto (2012, p. 399) is incorrect when she says that Thomson ‘suggests that it is probably morally impermissible for the older brother to refuse to share the chocolates’ with the younger brother. The older brother is being callous, self-centred, et cetera, but he is not doing anything impermissible.

  14. 14.

    There remains a third problem. Why is having an abortion (of a non-viable fetus) in the seventh month of pregnancy, in order to go on a holiday, ‘indecent’ at all? What is the argument for this claim? Lack of space prohibits discussion of this third problem.

  15. 15.

    The argument of the penultimate section of this essay was first presented in a talk at ‘Roe at 40—The Controversy Continues’, a symposium at Washington and Lee University School of Law, on 8 November 2013. For discussions about the argument contained in that talk (a version of which was later published [Mahon 2014]), I would like to thank Melina Bell. For an exchange about what Thomson says in her article about permissibility, impermissibility, and indecency, I would also like to thank Jessica Gordon-Roth. For clarification of Thomson’s argument, I would like to thank David Boonin. For a discussion about the suberogatory and Thomson’s argument, I would like to thank Julia Driver. Over the years, I have benefitted from discussing Thomson’s article with many different undergraduates and law students at Washington and Lee University, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank them for these discussions. I first discussed the topic of abortion with my parents, Joseph Mahon and Evelyn Mahon, as a teenager in the context of the passing of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of Ireland in 1983, which attempted to copperfasten a ban on abortion in Ireland. Years later, I helped proofread my mother’s report to the Irish government, Women and Crisis Pregnancy (Mahon et al. 1998). I am happy that the occasion of my father’s retirement from teaching philosophy has afforded me the opportunity to write on this topic, even if I disagree with the position he defended in his early writings (he has since moved on). Finally, I would like to thank the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, China, for affording me the opportunity to complete work on this essay in the summer of 2015.


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Mahon, J.E. (2016). Abortion and the Right to Not Be Pregnant. In: Fives, A., Breen, K. (eds) Philosophy and Political Engagement. International Political Theory. Palgrave Macmillan, London.

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