Thought experiments: Abortion and the moral status of the foetus

The following thought experiments put forward today will require a trigger warning. This post will mention abortion, miscarriage and infant mortality. Some people may find these topics distressing.

Before putting forward the thought experiments, some background knowledge on what are the typical moral positions people hold regarding abortion and what moral position the foetus has in contrast to human beings.

The conservative view: that the foetus holds the same moral position as an adult human being at the moment of conception.

The extreme liberal view: until the moment of birth where the foetus is no longer part of the mother’s body, the fetus holds the same moral position as any other part of the mother’s body.

The mixed strategy: At the moment of conception, the foetus holds the same moral status as any other part of the mother’s body; but near the end of the pregnancy, the foetus holds the same moral status as an adult human being.

These next thought experiments come from Rosalind Hursthouse:

Imagine a madman has snuck into a hospital and stolen a vial containing a conceived embryo ready to be used by a woman to become pregnant. He has also kidnapped a newborn baby. The madman has climbed to the roof and held both over a ledge. He says we have the option of having him drop the vial or drop the newborn baby.

Would you have him drop the vial or the newborn baby? Or would it be a dilemma?

This next thought experiment involves two worlds:

In world 1, someone sneaks into their room mate’s bedroom and cuts off their hair. The amount of hair that was cut off would take roughly 9 months to grow back.

In world 2, someone breaks into their room mate’s bedroom, who has recently become pregnant, and administers medication that induces a miscarriage.

The question Hursthouse asks us is: At what level has the room mate commited a moral wrong? Are they equally morally wrong, or is one considerably more wrong than the other?

Now imagine a woman who has just given birth, but the baby is still attached via the umbilical cord and the placenta which is still attached to the mother. Thus, it is still part of the mother’s body.

The question asked by Hursthouse is: Would the mother be morally entitled to have the baby killed?

Consider all of your answers to these thought experiments and your reasons. Do you think your answers inform you on whether you hold the conservative view, the extreme liberal view, the mixed strategy, or none of them? Or do you think that your answers on the thought experiments do not inform you on whether you hold these views?

The next thought experiment comes from Judith Jarvis Thomson. The background for these thought experiments is the arguments regarding the right of the mother to have an abortion, even if we give the foetus the same moral status as an adult human being. Some will argue for specific reasons, such as when the life of the mother is at risk or when the pregnancy was a result of sexual assault. Others will argue it can still be for any reason.

This thought experiment is famous among philosophical circles called: the famous violinist:

There is a society that are fans of a famous violinist. This violinist has a rare disease that will kill him unless he has access to your body for 9 months, which will cure him of the life threatening disease. The members of the society kidnap you in your sleep and connect you intravenously to the famous violinist, who was unaware of the kidnapping. If you disconnect yourself, the famous violinist is going to die. For him to survive, you must stay connected to him for 9 months.

Thomson asks us: do you have the moral right to disconnect yourself?

Returning once again to Thomson, she puts forward this thought experiment:

There are things that exist called ‘people-seeds’. These seeds flow through the air and when they enter a house they embed themselves in the carpet. Once this happens, they take root and grow into a person. You don’t want any of these people-seeds in your house, so you put up mesh to stop any people-seeds from flowing in. However, the mesh was defective and a people-seed snuck in and has taken root.

The question Thomson asks us is: Does this people-seed have a right to your house?

What were your answers and why did you answer that way? Does the way you answered inform you on what view you hold on abortions for particular reasons, or do they not inform your reasons at all?

Published by

Andrew Tulloch

I have a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Philosophy and Sociology, with a Political Science minor. I also have an honours degree in Philosophy. I am currently studying for my PhD in Philosophy.

4 thoughts on “Thought experiments: Abortion and the moral status of the foetus”

  1. Trying to deal with all these Thought Experiments at once has made this exercise somewhat complicated for me, so I’m going to simplify and answer in part. If there were no other options but to drop the vial or the newborn baby, then my response would be to allow the vial to drop. Why so: Largely because the baby is fully alive & breathing. Chances are it already has a mother, so a symbiotic relationship has already been established. In other words to kill the baby would bring about a grave psychological disturbance in its mother, as well as all those concerned in the welfare of that child. In addition, on a collective conscious level, the crime would be greater to kill a living & breathing child than it would be to prevent an undeveloped organism from growth. That is to say that the community at large places much more value on a living child than an organism that has yet to come into human form. In my society, if one were to allow a living and breathing baby to die over and above a tiny organism in a vial, a bulk of the people would call for justice to be served. There would probably be a supreme court proceeding and even though the ‘decider’ may not end up with the same fate as the madman, there is a good possibility that both parties would at least temporally end up in a mental hospital. Both murderers, regardless of degree, would be shamed for the rest of their lives, and may even suffer sporadic assault from low minded individuals who believe that they deserve a more severe punishment.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes absolutely no problem with addressing just one thought experiment, which as you can see each one can potentially require a lot of teasing out. I like the progress of your reflection on your reaction. At first it seemed like a post hoc rationalisation of your reaction, then moved on to a reflection on not only how you would react, but how others would too (something I agree with btw). Thanks 😊

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you for your understanding. These exercises are just as practical as they are theoretical. However, in a real life situation like this one, regarding the vial & baby that is, I’d probably refrain from making a decision, and attempt to rationalize with the madman until the police showed up.

        Liked by 1 person

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