PZ Myers is not exactly known for the timidity of his statements (or for the mildness of his tone when he disagrees with someone, even a fellow atheist). On August 1st he posted a brief statement on his blog, presumably as a commentary on the recent Republican-led charade concerning a proposed ban on all abortions after 20 weeks in Washington, DC . (The ban was voted favorably by a majority in the House, but since Republicans themselves invoked a ⅔ majority rule, it didn’t pass. Considering that they knew this would happen, one has to deduce that the whole thing is a naked example of how bent on scoring political points they really are rather than getting anything done. But I digress.)
PZ’s statement, in its entirety reads thus: “We can make all the philosophical and scientific arguments that anyone might want, but ultimately what it all reduces to is a simple question: do women have autonomous control of their bodies or not? Even if I thought embryos were conscious, aware beings writing poetry in the womb (I don’t, and they’re not), I’d have to bow out of any say in the decision the woman bearing responsibility has to make.”
As it turns out, PZ could (should?) have helped himself to philosophy to make his point, rather than putting out a simple summary of his opinion, as respectable as the latter may be. Indeed, the most widely reprinted paper in contemporary philosophy is “A Defense of Abortion,” by Judith Jarvis Thomson, originally published in 1971, and still widely discussed in moral philosophy. It would have provided PZ with an impressive arsenal of arguments to back his, um, hunch?
Thomson’s paper is based on a series of provocative thought experiments, a standard tool of philosophical (and scientific) investigation. One of them is remarkably similar to the situation envisaged by PZ, but significantly more conducive to reflection. Thomson famously imagined a woman who wakes up one day to find a famous violinist attached to her body. It turns out that she had been kidnapped by the Society of Music Lovers, who couldn’t think of any other way to save the violinist, whose kidneys are rapidly failing. The violinist will need nine months in this state to recover, after which the two could part ways. Does the woman have a moral obligation to keep the violinist connected to her body?
No, she does not, argues Thomson, because the violinist’s right to life does not override the woman’s right to her body. It may be nice of the woman if she let the violinist use her body, but she has no obligation to do so. The basic concept, in analogy with a fetus, is that abortion does not violate the fetus' (or the violinist's) right to life (which they do have, according to Thomson), but rather denies them access to a particular resource (the woman’s body), which takes moral precedence.
Of course, there are critical responses to Thomson’s various thought experiments, beginning with the violinist one. Clearly, the situation is disanalogous with that of most pregnancies (except, say, with cases of rape), because the woman typically chooses to have intercourse voluntarily (this is the “tacit consent” objection) and therefore is responsible for the fetus’ wellbeing (the “responsibility” objection).