Why Judith Jarvis Thomson and Margaret Little Are Wrong about Abortion and Why Abortion Is Wrong

Published by Dialogue, the official journal of Phi Sigma Tau, the International Honor Society for Philosophy


Judith Jarvis Thomson and Margaret Little both conclude that abortion is permissible, and they both address the issue from within a similar framework, that of duty/responsibility (which will be used interchangeably throughout this essay), but they focus on somewhat different arguments. Jarvis Thomson begins her case by granting fetuses a right to life but then questions the circumstances where the duty to guarantee that right begins and finds that pregnant women are not obligated to give up their bodies for the fetus’ use, whereas Little, who adds to this argument, also considers the nature of intimate duties and finds that there is no justification for forcing an intimate relationship upon another person. In this essay, I first reconstruct Jarvis Thomson’s “People-Seeds” thought experiment, Little's supporting arguments, and Little’s analysis of the responsibilities that come from relationships; then, I argue that they both get wrong the duties that conception puts upon couples and that Little gets wrong the applicability of intimate duties. Following that, I then consider a counterargument Little has against my position on duty and refute it with an examination of the value of human life, within which I also consider and refute a counterargument Jarvis Thomson has about the nature of fetal life, concluding my own comprehensive argument against abortion.

Jarvis Thomson first notes that it is difficult to say at what point a fetus becomes a human person but that “we shall probably have to agree that the fetus has already become a human person well before birth” (47). Accepting then, for the sake of argument, that a fetus is a human person from the moment of conception, she proceeds to design her thought experiment to challenge the assertion that a fetus has some claim to a woman’s body, or, correspondingly, that a woman has a duty to share her body with a fetus, by nature of her having partially caused its existence. She dismisses the notion that any pregnancy begins with an invitation to the fetus to use the woman’s body, stating, “it is not as if there were unborn persons drifting about the world, to whom a woman who wants a child says ‘I invite you in’” (57). And so, she then considers whether such a claim or duty can result without an invitation, modifying this idea of “drifting unborn persons” into “people-seeds.”

“People-seeds,” she analogizes, “drift about in the air like pollen, and if you open your windows, one may drift in and take root in your carpets or upholstery” (59). If you want your windows open but do not want accidentally to start growing people-seeds, you could cover your windows with screens, though there is a chance they will not always be effective. In this analogy, opening the window represents sex, installing screens represents using contraceptives, and the people-seeds’ taking root represents conception. Jarvis Thomson believes this example triggers the intuition that the people-seeds do not have a claim to the house; therefore, a woman does not have a responsibility to share her body with a fetus. She also rejects the possible responses that if a woman does not want children she should not have sex (“sealed windows and doors”) or should get sterilized (“bare floors and furniture”) because “by the same token anyone can avoid a pregnancy due to rape by having a hysterectomy, or anyway by never leaving home without a (reliable!) army” (59).

Little also addresses the invitation/ consent question by arguing that sex does not make women responsible for what could be conceived because “consent just does not travel across parties” from consenting to sex with a man to consenting to be “occupied” by the fetus (303). She then, similarly to Jarvis Thomson, looks to the boundaries of the right to life, notices that the intimate nature of gestation necessitates a unique calculation between life and “bodily autonomy” (299), and proceeds to consider the sort of relationship necessary to generate intimate duties. She argues that “responsibilities to share one’s very body, like responsibilities of the heart, are paradigmatic of those that are relationship-based” (306–7) because both responsibilities are intimate and she believes that intimate duties accrue from intimate relationships. The closer a relationship you have with someone, the more responsibility you have towards that person or the more demands this person can expect you to fulfill.

As an example, she claims that, intuitively, people believe a man who has acted socially as a child’s father has more of a duty to donate his kidney to the child than the biological father who has not been around much. This is because the responsibility to be open to developing a relationship, say with a biological relation, is different from the duties one assumes once that relationship is established. Applying this foundation, Little thinks “it is a general virtue to be welcoming of germinating human life that comes one’s way” (309), but, “for purposes of the woman’s integrity” (310), if a woman does not choose to enter into a relationship with the fetus, or does not conceive of their relationship as intimate, she does not assume the intimate duty to gestate.

Duties from Conception

Both Jarvis Thomson and Little argue that women do not consent to or invite fetuses to share their bodies and that a duty to share their bodies does not result without consent/invitation merely from the act of conception. Jarvis Thomson’s “drifting unborn persons” illustration seems to have the same purpose as Little’s case that consent does not travel across parties; they both observe that when engaging in sex, the fetus does not yet exist, so there is no party to be invited or to consent at all. But even if a fetus is produced through sex, because it was not part of the initial agreement, Little does not see how it could then be assumed to have any claims from that agreement.

The problem with this perspective is that it separates responsibility for cause from responsibility for effect. If I make an agreement with a friend to combine a lit match and a stick of dynamite in his house, it is not as if he can claim the resulting explosion and destroyed house was not part of our agreement. And just because sex may not be as likely to result in conception as ignited dynamite is likely to explode does not mean that people do not still invite the risks by engaging in the act; my friend and I would still have consented to a destroyed house even if we were trying to light dynamite that had been soaked in water. Consent/invitation can apply to things that do not yet exist if they could be created as a consequence of some action. To address Little’s wording, she is, I think, correct that consent does not travel across “parties,” but, as she and Jarvis Thomson point out, the fetus does not yet exist and so is not a third party trying to join in on a previous agreement; rather, it is a completely new entity created as a direct result of that agreement. Actions have consequences, especially the act of creation.

Jarvis Thomson’s “people-seeds” thought experiment, however, is meant to explain how, while sex may have consequences, those consequences are not the responsibility of the participants. Her position relies on viewing sex as having a different purpose than the creation of new life; opening one’s window is akin to engaging in sex for enjoyment, and a people-seed drifting in is an unwanted consequence (an unanticipated one too if screens have been installed). She also proposes an adaptation of the “people-seeds” analogy where instead it is a burglar who enters through the open window, the point being that, clearly, people are not responsible for every consequence of their actions.

However, the reason Jarvis Thomson is right about the woman’s not being responsible for the break-in is that the burglar is the one responsible. An open window is not an invitation to burglars, who, as they have autonomy, are responsible for their own wrongful act of trespassing. The people-seeds are not autonomous and are not responsible themselves, so they can be thought of as a force of nature akin to, say, a hurricane. Hurricanes are not morally responsible for the damage they cause, but people are responsible for the risks they take in the event of a hurricane. For example, it would not be justifiable to open one’s window during a hurricane just because “the room is stuffy” (Jarvis Thomson, 58), and if one were to do so anyway, one would be responsible for the damage and injury that results. Additionally, as with the soaked dynamite, even if I took the precaution of, say, fitting my friend into a suit of armor to protect him as I opened the window, if a small twig flies through the hole in his visor and blinds him, I am still responsible.

Jarvis Thomson’s “people-seeds” thought experiment does not accurately portray the reality of sex because it uses a typically trivial act, that of opening a window, in place of one that has important consequences with duties attached. If the world were engulfed in a constant hurricane, opening one’s window would not be so trivial or commonplace; likewise, sex should not be engaged in casually or merely for pleasure when it comes with the risk of people-growing. Jarvis Thomson dismisses abstinence as a solution by comparing it to potential ways of preventing pregnancy from rape, but as in the case of the burglar, in cases of rape, the woman is not the one responsible and, therefore, does not have a duty to take such drastic precautions as having a hysterectomy or hiring a personal army, nor to grant the resulting fetus the use of her body. In cases where sex is a deliberate, consensual act, though, both man and woman are responsible for its serious consequences, and “sealed windows and doors” or “bare floors and furniture” are really the only ways for either to avoid risking this responsibility.

Origin of Intimate Duties

Little’s objection to this form of argument over consequences and duty is that it does not take into account the type of duty being discussed. She says gestation “is an intimacy of the first order — it is even more intimate than donating an organ, for it involves an intertwinement and on-going occupation” (309), and for this reason, it can only be a moral duty if it comes from an intimate relationship. Due to the lesser obligations people have to enter into relationships compared to the obligations from within relationships, and because the fetus is a new, unconscious entity who cannot be consulted about the relationship, the conception of the nature of the relationship must be left up to the woman, and her determination is what makes her responsible for gestation or not.

The problem with this argument is that intimate duties do not necessarily come from intimate relationships (even if they most often do); therefore, there is no principle necessitating that a woman’s conception of her relationship to her fetus overrules the duties from cause and effect. To adapt one of Jarvis Thomson’s other thought experiments, say I kidnap a violinist and through some gruesome procedure make her life dependent on “intertwinement and on-going occupation” with me. We are complete strangers to each other, certainly without any intimate relationship to conceive of, and yet, through my actions, I do accrue an intimate duty to remain connected to her to keep her alive. The same holds true for the act of creating life.

Furthermore, Little’s separation of duties before and after a relationship is established is a recognition that duties come from choices of action and that some choices and actions lead to more duties than others. Sex is a choice of action, a particularly intimate one I might add, that can lead to conception. Again, there is no principle Little espouses that would prevent an understanding of sex as an intimate relationship between partners that results in intimate duties toward their creation, such as gestation. In fact, Little’s argument is a good case for only engaging in sex when one is in an intimate relationship.

Little’s Counterargument

I believe I have so far demonstrated where Jarvis Thomson’s and Little’s arguments fall short of justifying abortion — because conception is an act that carries with it responsibilities and because intimate duties, like gestation, do not only come from intimate relationships as decided by the woman, but again, come from the act of conception. Little, however, has a rebuttal to my argument about duty that I have yet to address. She likens the risk of conception to the risk of getting lung cancer from smoking and points out that assuming the risk by performing the act does not then translate into consent for a particular type of treatment, “surgery rather than palliative care,” or “consenting to gestate rather than abort” (303).

To bring this framework against my own analogy, Little might say that, in the event of the previously discussed dynamite explosion, the damage caused would be the responsibility of my friend and me but that the way to deal with that responsibility is not necessarily to live with a destroyed house. Likewise, if we are injured, our responsibility for our own injuries does not preclude us from receiving medical aid. Little wants to think of abortion as an option of treatment for the self-induced condition of pregnancy, an option that fulfills one’s duties just as well as other options. However, this counterargument does not work if one assumes that fetuses have the same value as all human lives, a premise I do hold and one that I will justify and then explain how it nullifies Little’s point.

Most people assume that human lives are valuable, and those who do not so assume either act as if they do or are locked in prison. It is thus evident that everyone has a natural duty to respect and to preserve this value, most imperatively by not ending the lives that possess it. This value could either be intrinsic to humans as a species or could come from qualities humans possess, such as reason, free will, etc. If value comes from the first case, then fetuses are obviously equally valuable to any fully grown human, but I do not think this suits most people’s intuitions. If, say, a choice had to be made to save the life of either a permanently vegetative person or a perfectly healthy person (and if no choice were made, all human life would be eliminated), I believe most people would assume the permanently vegetative person has less of what makes life valuable and choose to sacrifice that person. So, it is in the second case, that is, from qualities humans possess, that value should be sought; at first, this seems to pose a problem for the evaluation of fetuses since they have more similarities to vegetative people than conscious, fully grown people. However, notice how the intuition about the above choice between lives changes if the vegetative person’s condition was not permanent and this person were instead in a nine-month-long coma. The choice between someone with all of life’s value and someone who will soon inherit all of life’s value is at least much more difficult, if not impossible, to make. Consider also the fact that newborn babies possess not that much more of what makes life valuable than fetuses do, and yet destroying newborns is called “infanticide.”

Jarvis Thomson’s Counterargument

Jarvis Thomson, while agreeing that it may be arbitrary to draw a line between conception and birth where something that is not a person — and therefore does not have the value of a person — suddenly becomes a person with that natural value, nonetheless argues that this does not mean a person exists from conception. “Similar things,” she says, “might be said about the development of an acorn into an oak tree, and it does not follow that acorns are oak trees, or that we had better say they are” (47). Following from this, Jarvis Thomson might say that my example of choosing between two lives is a false analogy because abortion does not involve two people (or two trees); rather, it involves a fetus and a person (an acorn and a tree).


But I propose another thought experiment: Suppose you are the leader of a team of astronauts who are leaving Mars and one of your crew members has accidentally been left behind. She has enough equipment to survive until the next mission can pick her up, save for a method of producing oxygen. You happen to have an acorn that can grow into an oxygen-producing oak tree (it has been genetically engineered to grow extremely quickly) and a capsule you can use to launch it back to the planet from your orbiter. Without the oak tree, your crew member will die, so it seems obvious that you have a duty to send her the acorn even though the acorn is not the oak tree and it cannot produce oxygen, demonstrating that, despite the differences between them, the acorn has the same value as the oak tree: in this case, the value of a human life. Likewise, despite the differences between fetuses and persons, fetuses have the same value as persons. You would still have a duty to send the acorn, I might add, even if the fuel spent on the capsule would add nine months of hardship to your return journey.

An acorn is a potential oak tree, and a fetus is a potential person; potentiality carries with it the value of actualization. Another way to think about this that is more directly connected to abortion would be to ask what should be done if, during every conception, men also get pregnant, that is, something begins growing inside them that in nine months can be removed to become an independent being. These beings are xenomorphs from the Alien movies, and they will kill everyone they encounter. It would not be right, given the loss of life that would result, for a man to be able to choose not to abort the xenomorph for any reason. It would be unreasonable for him to say that he gives consent to the xenomorph to the use of his body and, therefore, that he can choose to let it be born. It would be unreasonable for him to say that he considers himself to have a very intimate relationship with the xenomorph and, therefore, that he can choose to let it be born. This is because, even though while inside his body it is not yet a perfectly designed killing machine, it will, if undisturbed, become one. The value of the xenomorph fetuses is in the negative because of the valuable human lives they will take, whereas the value of human fetuses is in the positive because of the fully-grown human beings they will become.

The value of fetuses nullifies Little’s counterargument. Someone who assumes the risk of cancer by smoking does not assume a responsibility to get a particular type of treatment; cancer cells do not have value. It does not matter how they are eliminated (unethical methods of procuring treatment aside) so long as they are eliminated. One does have a duty, however, all extenuating circumstances considered, not merely to give up and let oneself die, nor to hasten one’s death, because of the value of one’s life and the responsibilities one has accrued to others throughout that life. Fetuses, unlike cancer cells, do have the value of a human life; thus, if the options to fulfill the duty one assumed from conception are either to preserve that valuable life or to destroy it, morally, one does not have a choice. Women do assume a specific duty “to gestate rather than abort” (Little, 303) from conception because of everyone’s natural duty to respect and to preserve the value of human life.

To restate my comprehensive argument succinctly, we are all responsible for our actions and their consequences, and we have obligations to fulfill our responsibilities in particular ways when those particular ways fulfill other responsibilities. Concerning abortion, men and women are responsible for the life they create when engaging in voluntary sex, and women have an obligation to fulfill their responsibility by not getting an abortion because not getting an abortion fulfills their other responsibility to respect and to preserve the value of human life. Men are not let off the hook either, as some might protest; men have an obligation to fulfill their responsibility by taking care of their children and their mother. Some might also protest that these are unequal duties, but whether that is true, if morality were only obligatory if everyone had the same circumstances, then morality would never be obligatory, which, ipso facto, would erase the concept of morality. Abortion is such a controversial subject because it deals with actions that can dramatically alter one’s life, the responsibilities in it, and one’s view of duty versus free choice. But acting morally is ultimately, by definition, better for everyone, including oneself. And taking up the responsibility of having one’s child rather than having it aborted is certainly better for everyone, including oneself.

  • Little, Margaret Olivia. “Abortion, Intimacy, and the Duty to Gestate.” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 2, no. 3 (1999): 295–312. www.jstor.org/stable/27504096.
  • Jarvis Thomson, Judith. “A Defense of Abortion.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 1, no. 1 (1971): 47–66. www.jstor.org/stable/2265091.



Essayist, poet, screenwriter, and comer upper of weird ideas. My main focus will be on politics and philosophy but when I get bored, I’ll write something else.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Tyler Piteo-Tarpy

Essayist, poet, screenwriter, and comer upper of weird ideas. My main focus will be on politics and philosophy but when I get bored, I’ll write something else.