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Santa Clara Department of Philosophy


The problem of abortion is surely the most important issue in biomedical ethics today. Both the popular and the philosophical debate on this question have emphasized the rights of the parties involved, and the issue has been portrayed as one of "rights in conflict" -the right of the fetus to life at odds with the rights of the pregnant woman to privacy, control of her body, and self-determination. This emphasis on questions of rights has been unfortunate, for two reasons. First, it has resulted in a polarization of the disputants into two camps, which has led in turn to an impasse in the debate.1 Second, it has narrowed discussion of the moral permissibility of abortion to a single issue, whereas the question is broader in scope and more complex.

Other factors besides the rights of the parties involved bear on the moral permissibility of abortion, for there are other forms of oral evaluation besides those that concern the violation or protection of some right. We might ask not what rights of individuals are protected or violated by the practice of abortion in a society, but whether the practice is beneficial to that society. We might ask, not what rights the pregnant woman and her fetus have, but what their needs are and how they can be met. We might discuss the question of the permissibility of abortion not against the background of a political social or ethical theory such as libertarianism or contractarianism, where the language of rights is of central importance, but against the background of other theories in which such language is not so completely natural.

We might do these things, but need we? In this paper I shall argue that we do. By examining critically a classic defense of abortion, that of Judith Jarvis Thomson,2I shall attempt to show that the resolution of the conflict of rights, even if successful, does not answer the question of the moral permissibility of abortion. I shall go on to argue that, when we place the question of abortion in the context of Christian ethics, we can, without recourse to the language of rights, reach a definite answer to the question of the moral permissibility of abortion, and one which is at odds with Thomson's. I shall make use in this argument of the parable of the Good Samaritan, which Thomson, interestingly enough, makes use of also in her article. I shall argue that her use of the parable is in fact a misuse of it, that the lesson implicit in the parable is incompatible with a principle Thomson needs to make her defense of abortion work.3



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