Inconvenient, in the way, insufferably demanding children

If caring for a young child infringes on a woman’s ability to do what she wants with her body, is she justified in taking the child’s life? Think before you answer. For many, it all depends on how young a child we’re talking about.

A 23-year-old woman in the UK was recently sentenced to life in prison for killing her two toddler daughters because they were getting in the way of her sex life. Louise Porton, the day after suffocating to death one daughter, accepted friend requests from 41 men on a dating app. She suffocated her other daughter 17 days later.

The two little girls “got in the way of her doing what she wanted, when she wanted and with whom she wanted,” the prosecutor said. But if we take certain arguments for a woman’s “right to choose” to their logical end, Porton was merely asserting the natural primacy of her bodily rights over the rights of the children she didn’t want, and so was morally justified in killing them.

This is the argument for abortion rights presented by philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson in her thought experiment about “unplugging the violinist” which I presented last time, from Chapter 7 of Frank Beckwith’s book Politically Correct Death: Answering Arguments for Abortion Rights (1). Thomson says that “having a right to life does not guarantee having either a right to be given the use of or a right to be allowed continued use of another person’s body – even if one needs it for life itself.” Of course she’s referring to an unborn child “using” his mother’s body for protection and nourishment while in the womb. But how different really is this from a toddler “using” his mother for protection and nourishment out of the womb?

In her popular essay of the famous violinist with kidney failure using the body of a stranger to save his life, Thomson hoped to justify abortion by arguing that just as you have no moral obligation to give the use of your body for the benefit of a stranger, even if not doing so means he will die, a woman is not obligated to sustain the life of her unborn child except as she chooses to obligate herself. Thomson has to deny the special responsibility parents have for their own offspring to make this argument, but why this responsibility is suddenly imposed on the woman when the child is born, she never explains.

Most people would readily agree that born children have a claim on their mother’s time, efforts, and even her body in sustaining their lives, and would likely have joined in the unanimous decision to convict Louise Porton, even if her children had died through her passive neglect and not her active smothering of them. But Beckwith argues that, contrary to Thomson’s portrayal of them as unwanted squatters, unborn children have a prima facie right to their mother’s body as well, and he gives three reasons.

  1. “Unlike Thomson’s violinist, who is artificially attached to another person in order to save his life and is therefore not naturally dependent on any particular human being, the unborn entity is a human being who by her very nature is dependent on her mother, for this is how human beings are at this stage of their development.”
  2. “[T]he womb is the unborn’s natural environment whereas being artificially hooked up to a stranger is not the natural environment for the violinist.”
  3. “This same entity, when she becomes a newborn, has a natural claim upon her parents to care for her, regardless of whether her parents wanted her.” Why would her location or stage of development negate that?

In quoting another ethicist, Beckwith writes, “So, the very thing that makes it plausible to say that the person in bed with the violinist has no duty to sustain him; namely, that he is a stranger unnaturally hooked up to him, is precisely what is absent in the case of the mother and her child.”

The “unplugging the violinist” scenario, though more sophisticated than most abortion-rights arguments, nevertheless fails as they all do to justify killing the unborn. But if its underlying view of “voluntary” parental responsibility were to take hold, Beckwith warns that “the protection of children and the natural bonds and filial obligations that are an integral part of ordinary family life will become a thing of the past. This seems too high a price for bodily autonomy.”

(1) Francis J. Beckwith, Politically Correct Death: Answering Arguments for Abortion Rights (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993)