Missing the point in the debate about abortion: An open letter to my MP, Marc Garneau


Dear Marc Garneau MP,

Recently Stephen Woodworth, a Conservative MP, has made a push to open a debate about when it is that human life begins. He wants parliament to consider granting personhood to foetuses. This is surprising for a couple reasons: First, this is a very transparent attempt to re-open the debate on abortion (something that Stephen Harper promised would not happen) and second, a debate on the issue of the personhood of foetuses seems to miss the point in the issue of abortion completely.

I don’t know what sort of training in ethics you have had in your career as a space-man, but among philosophers, there is a reasonably famous argument by Judith Jarvis Thomson, which I have linked to. I recommend that you read it in full.

The argument is based on a thought experiment. You imagine that you wake up one day, having been attached against your will to the kidneys of a famous unconscious violinist, and you are told that if you disconnect yourself at any time, the violinist will die.

“Tough luck. I agree. but now you’ve got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person’s right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him.”

Thomson, JJ, “A defense of abortion,” Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 1, no. 1 (Fall 1971)

You can probably see how the argument goes from there. She argues that even if it is conceded that a foetus is fully a person (not just a human being, but a person who has a serious moral and legal claim to a right to life), abortions may still be morally permissible in certain cases, and laws against abortions would be inappropriate. I am reasonably convinced by this line of reasoning, and think that Thomson offers a fairly nuanced framework for thinking about this issue.

Since the debate has been re-opened, I have heard a great deal of noise and bother about whether or not a foetus is a legal person. I have yet to hear any MP’s ask the question about whether or not this matters. A debate seems unavoidable at this time, so could you propose that parliament asks whether the personhood of foetuses matters to the issue of abortion, instead of asking whether foetuses are people? I look forward to your response.

Best regards,
Benjamin Carlisle MA (Biomedical ethics)

Cc: The Rt. Honourable Stephen Harper, Stephen Woodworth MP, Niki Ashton MP


    title = {Missing the point in the debate about abortion: An open letter to my MP, Marc Garneau},
    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
    author = {Benjamin Gregory Carlisle},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2012-04-26,
    url = {https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2012/04/26/missing-the-point-in-the-debate-about-abortion-an-open-letter-to-my-mp-marc-garneau/}


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "Missing the point in the debate about abortion: An open letter to my MP, Marc Garneau" Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 26 Apr 2012. Web. 24 Mar 2018. <https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2012/04/26/missing-the-point-in-the-debate-about-abortion-an-open-letter-to-my-mp-marc-garneau/>


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2012, Apr 26). Missing the point in the debate about abortion: An open letter to my MP, Marc Garneau [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2012/04/26/missing-the-point-in-the-debate-about-abortion-an-open-letter-to-my-mp-marc-garneau/

15 responses to “Missing the point in the debate about abortion: An open letter to my MP, Marc Garneau”

  1. Marc Garneau says:

    Thank you for your open letter. Let me say from the outset that I am against the re-opening of this issue by a Conservative backbencher. It is indeed a blatant manoeuver by Stephen Harper to appease many members of his caucus and to give visibility to the issue while at the same time telling us that he will vote against it; trying to have your cake and eat it too. He’s not fooling anyone.
    Secondly, I am pro-choice for my own set of reasons. I have thought deeply about the issue over the years and come to my own decision about it. Of course, I respect the right of others to disagree with me.
    I also do not agree that the issue of legislating on abortion is unfinished business for Canada. I believe that Canada has actually adopted a wise approach on this very sensitive matter.

    While others have articulated their reasons for supporting or not supporting or partially supporting abortion, I will not propose a debate on the issue you propose for the very same reason I don’t want Mr. Woodworth’s motion to be adopted: because I do not believe it will result in anything that I would consider “constructive”.

    Deciding how we view the question of abortion presents each of us with one of the most difficult issues that humans have to consider. For many, it is not so much a legal question as it is a moral one(although the legal dimension, if we accept it, is the only one that can drive legislation).
    Ultimately, we all have to live with ourselves and the position we have personally adopted. We cannot pass the buck on this one. Once we have made our own decision, we must live with it and while some may crusade to change the minds of others, they cannot presume that only they know the truth

  2. Hi – I stumbled upon this and it caught my interest.

    Coming from the Christian perspective, I would say that the Bible condemns murder and refers to the unborn as children/babies. Besides that, from the biology perspective, it’s hard to argue that the fetus isn’t considered a human from the moment of conception.

    Basically, I want to understand the ‘pro-abortion’ viewpoint better. Many aspects seem inconsistent to me. For example, by your support of the current Canadian system, you seem to argue that abortion should have minimal regulation. Yet to bolster your point of view you provide Thompson’s thought experiment regarding being forced against your will. As far as I can see, this would only apply to abortions post-rape rather than abortions to select gender, mental capacity, physical capacity, etc. Furthermore, the possibility of adoption is available in the real world. To add to the thought experiment, it is comparable to someone wanting to take your place to keep the violinist alive.

    So maybe you can help me have a better idea on where you’re coming from.

    First off, have you read the article recently published in the journal of medical ethics by Giubilini and Minerva called ‘After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?’ Do you agree with the authors conclusions?

  3. Murph E. says:

    Please read to the end of the Thomson article. She addresses the objection you raise in the article itself.

    Also, I would be interested to see where in the Bible abortion is discussed. Please give me the chapter and verse(s). As far as I can see, what you are describing is not a Christian position on the matter, but one that is informed by right-wing politics rather than the Bible.

  4. Will do. Sounds like an interesting article.

    And if you’re looking for a verse that specifically discusses abortion, of course there is not. There are also no verses discussing murder with a firearm. As I’m sure you can imagine, the consistent Christian must not stop at this surface-level analysis.

    The Bible clearly refers to unborn humans as children. Genesis 25:22, Exodus 21:22, Ecclesiastes 11:5, Hosea 12:3, Luke 1:39-44, Matthew 1:18-20, and so on. This point, I might add, is confirmed by the wonderful advances in modern science that allow us to understand that human life is present at the moment of conception.

    Next, the Bible teaches that God is Creater and Owner of all people. Psalm 100:3, Exekiel 18:4, Isaiah 64:8, 1 Cor 6:19-20 to name a few refernces.

    God also has exclusive prerogatives over human life (Deut 32:39, 1 Sam 2:6) and forbids the shedding of innocent blood (Exodus 20:3, Leviticus 18:21, Deut 19:10, Proverbs 6:16-19). God has a high view of children (Luke 18:16) and commands us to defend the weak and helpless (Psalm 82:3-4, Proverbs 31:8-9, Matthew 25:31-46).

    With all these in mind, a Christian has a solid Biblical foundation for rejecting abortion and the killing of an unborn child.

    Hope that helps. Now about that article in the Journal of Medical Ethics, are you familiar with it? I find them to be consistent in their worldview – leading to a disastrous result. I’m wondering how (or if) your worldview is different.

  5. Murph E. says:

    Speaking of surface-level analyses, you have not understood Thomson’s argument if you think that all that is needed to establish the wrongness of abortion is to prove that a foetus is a human. In fact, her argument starts by assuming that a foetus is a human with a serious right to life and argues on that basis that abortions are permissible.

  6. Took a look at that article, thanks for referring me to it. It’s always helpful to hear another perspective.

    You are completely right, merely proving that a fetus is a person is not even the beginning of the debate.

    I guess it comes down to the different worldviews/presuppositions. In the Christian worldview, abortion is wrong because of what God has commanded as I mentioned above. It is not merely that a fetus is a human, instead it is based upon God’s law and His words.

    To be honest, I had a hard time following Thompson’s worldview. She keeps insisting on rights of certain individuals over rights of another but provides no foundation for these rights. Is this just her opinion? And if so, why should I agree with it? She starts to provide a foundation for morality by discussing that the mother ‘owns’ her own body and therefore has more rights than the visiting fetus. By the end of the article, that foundation is thrown out the window when she mentions that ‘Minimally Decent Samaritanism’ must be upheld. Why is that? The only reason she gives is that she deems that to be right. Again, in the worldview without God as the ultimate authority, why should her opinions have any bearing on me? Inconsistencies seem to abound.

    Finally, she ends off by arguing against the right to secure the death of the unborn child. However, this is exactly what late-term abortions are. The abortionist must physically terminate the fetus inside the uterus because if the child were delivered, it would surely survive. These types of abortions are legal in Canada. Do you agree with that?

    And you’ve never answered my question regarding the other article I mentioned. Thoughts?

  7. Murph E. says:

    In answer to your question, No I have not read the article you mentioned.

    You continue to call your position the Christian one, but your position, that abortion is impermissible, is not Christian per se. By “Christian,” in this context, I mean “determined by principles given in the Bible.” Allow me to explain.

    Thomson is not trying to “provide a foundation for morality” at all in this paper. If you think that’s what she’s doing, you need to read the paper again. You have misunderstood it. She has a much less ambitious goal. In this paper, her main goal is to make an argument by analogy and then defend it. She is not interested in foundational meta-ethics.

    She’s saying that the case of the violinist is analogous to the case of a pregnant woman, and draws out some of the consequences of such an analogy. In the course of this project, yes, she refers to certain rights.

    Let’s consider some of the rights that are invoked by Thomson. She assumes that the violinist (and by analogy, the foetus) has a serious right to life. This is a right that everyone agrees on. She does not go into the details of whether this right flows from the commands of God, or what the ultimate foundation of this right is. For the purposes of the argument at hand, that doesn’t matter, since everyone agrees on it (for whatever reason).

    Thomson argues from a set of basic moral assumptions—moral assumptions that are common to Christians—to her conclusion that abortion is permissible (although as you noted, it is not a right to secure the death of the foetus). That is to say, the set of moral assumptions that Thomson makes is one that is completely compatible with the set of moral assumptions that a Christian might get from her Bible.

    So I’m afraid that you can’t dismiss this argument by saying “it comes down to the different worldviews/presuppositions.”

  8. I would encourage you to check out the article. It is a very popular and controversial article recently published and very relevant to your field of study.

    I think I did a decent job of demonstrating that my position is the only consistent Christian position that follows the teachings of the Bible. I’m unable to see how a Bible-believing Christian could support the killing of an unborn child for any reason.

    I recognize that Thompson isn’t arguing for a basis for morality, but all arguments exist in the context of a governing worldview and must be examined in that context. With that in mind, I reject Thompson’s argument because 1) her worldview (and proceeding arguments) is inconsistent and 2) her analogy does not accord with reality.

    That the fetus has a right to life is not something that everyone agrees upon. History has been a good indicator that some people will reject the right to life of various people groups. Of course, I think this is wrong and I have an objective standard to support that conclusion. Thompson provides none. Thompson is also inconsistent in her application of her proposed rights. As I mentioned above about the ‘Minimally Decent Samaritan’, she will affirm and reject rights depending on her feelings. Basically, this paper boils down to an inconsistent opinion piece, not rooted in objective fact.

    Secondly, this analogy simply does not accord with real life. I’m not sure of anyone that would describe pregnancy as suddenly and without warning being confined to a bed, hooked up to a stranger for 9 months. Furthermore, this analogy has little to do with the vast majority of abortions in Canada – economics, gender selection, physical capability selection, and mental capability selection. The only application I could possibly see from this thought experiment is rape. Even if I were to agree with Thompson’s inconsistent arguments, I would not support late-term abortions, abortions to select gender, abortions to select cognitive or physical ability, or abortion for financial reasons. Considering that Canada does not regulate any types of abortions, why are you not supporting motions that will regulate this murder of unborn children? Even within the thought experiment provided by Thompson, this is an embarrassment to our country. We should be ashamed that people from other countries commonly come here to abort a female fetus simply because they wanted a male.

  9. Murph E. says:

    If you’re going to ignore a well-reasoned argument on the basis that your interlocutor has a “different worldview,” you might as well just admit that all you’re saying is, “Thomson is wrong because she doesn’t agree with me,” which—I’m sorry—doesn’t hold much weight with me.

    Yes of course analogies don’t “accord with real life.” That is, in fact, the very reason why we use them. It’s because real life is complicated and less clear-cut. So we use an analogy to a case where we have clearer moral intuitions—one that is similar enough to the real life case in the morally relevant aspects. That’s how an analogy works.

    And Thomson writes up a nice little argument in her paper (which you seem to have skimmed over) where she defends the use of the analogy from people who would say that it only applies in cases of rape. She concludes that if you are willing to say that rapes are morally different, then you are committed to the position that whether a person has a serious right to life is a function of whether or not that person was conceived by rape—and I don’t think that’s a position anyone would want to be committed to.

    Please, read the paper before getting angry and responding. You have seriously misunderstood and mis-represented Thomson in every single post. I’m starting to wonder if you’re being deliberately dishonest—not a very Christian way to argue, if you ask me.

  10. As I said above, I do not reject Thompson’s argument because her worldview is different. Rather, because it is inconsistent. There is an important difference there.

    Thompson’s rape discussion is referring to those people who are against abortion, but make an exception for rape. She reveals the implications of that view. I actually agree with her here.

    What that discussion does not mention is how this thought experiment could possibly be related to anything but rape. This was my point above.

    I hope I don’t come off as trying to be dishonest. I am sincerely trying to interact with all aspects of Thompson’s argument.

  11. Murph E. says:

    You have misread the paper. The paragraph on rape is directed at people who have exactly the objection that you raise, namely, that the analogy seems to be best applied to the case of rape, and for that reason it might not apply to other cases.

    She writes, “Surely the question of whether you have a right to life at all, or how much of it you have, shouldn’t turn on the question of whether or not you are a product of a rape.”

    So the implication is, if the analogy applies to the case of rape, then it has to work for other cases as well, otherwise, one is committed to the position that foetuses who are the product of rape have less of a right to life than other foetuses.

    You seem to be having a really hard time understanding the conclusion that Thomson comes to. In the end, she does not endorse the position that all abortions are permissible. Rather, she argues that in the same way that there are limits to what a person could be required or expected to do for the benefit of another human being—even to save that human’s life—there are similarly limits to what a female person could be required or expected to do for the benefit of a foetus—even to save that foetus’ life.

    And in the same way that no reasonable person would call you a non-Christian if you elected to un-hook yourself from the violinist, I think that it is not un-Christian to apply the same standards to a woman and a foetus.

  12. At the end of the day, her argument falls upon whatever she decides to be minimally decent samaritanism. No matter what she decides that to be, she is saying that some fetus’ have more of a right to life than others. This, along with the fact that she has no foundation for her proposed rights, is why her argument is inconsistent.

    It is completely Christian to follow and uphold the clear teachings of the Bible.

  13. Murph E. says:

    This may be why you think she is being “inconsistent”: Her argument isn’t about the rights of foetuses at all. She is arguing exactly the opposite of what you’re taking her argument to be. She says that the permissibility of abortion does not turn on whatever rights foetus may or may not have, but rather that the focus of our moral concern should be on the duties that we have to other people. This is why she does not provide a foundation for the rights of foetuses. She explicitly assumes from the outset that foetuses are fully human with a legitimate claim to a right to life.

    As for the clear teachings of the Bible on this issue, there are none. The best you could do is to point out Scripture that gives the following principles:

    God is the Creator and Owner of all people
    Psalm 100:3, Exekiel 18:4, Isaiah 64:8, 1 Cor 6:19-20

    God also has exclusive prerogatives over human life
    Deut 32:39, 1 Sam 2:6 (these verses are a bit of a stretch, I think)

    God forbids the shedding of innocent blood
    Exodus 20:3, Leviticus 18:21, Deut 19:10, Proverbs 6:16-19

    God has a high view of children
    Luke 18:16

    God commands us to defend the weak and helpless
    Psalm 82:3-4, Proverbs 31:8-9, Matthew 25:31-46

    I will gladly grant you the truth of all these principles. For the purposes of her argument, I think Thomson would even do the same. It’s still a long jump from those basic principles to the complicated position that you’re trying to say is the Christian one, namely that abortion is impermissible in all cases. To make such a jump, there’s a few premisses missing there, at the very least.

    So let’s assume the truth of all the above principles you derived from the Bible. Still, this has absolutely no bearing on the argument that Thomson is making.

    Even given the fact that God has created all people, that He has exclusive prerogative over human life, that he forbids the shedding of innocent blood, etc., it is still the case that unplugging oneself from a violinist in the case as described would not be a murder. And if this is the case, then by analogy, there are cases of abortion which are equally permissible, on the Christian account.

    You mentioned that you are uncomfortable with this because you take the motivation for abortion for many people to be sex selection or other trivial considerations. Thomson, I think, would agree with you. Aborting a foetus because it is a female rather than a male would be abhorrent on her account, in the same way that it would be wrong to take the position that you would unplug yourself from a female violinist but not a male one.

    In fact, your sensitivity to considerations such as the motivation for the abortion indicate that your moral intuitions align more closely with Thomson’s account than with the position you are advocating. If the real focus of moral concern were with the rights of the foetus or the commands of God, criticising abortion on the basis of sex selection would be like criticising a theft on the basis that the stolen money was to be used frivolously, rather than because it violated the rights of the victim.

    As for upholding the clear teachings of the Bible, God clearly commands that we advocate and protect the rights of those who are not in positions of power. This, I think, includes the rights of women. Consider the fact that your hard-line position on abortion may be an offense to God.

  14. Well then, I hope to see you writing letters to the government advocating for abortion regulation.

    As I have said, this analogy has nothing to do with real life. Why can’t we just talk about this issue as it actually is? An individual becomes pregnant and doesn’t want the baby (for whatever reason), so it is terminated. Strange that you have to come up with all sorts of fanciful tales to avoid the obvious.

    If you truly believe that the principles in the Bible lead you to a position that advocates abortion, nothing I could possibly say would ever convince you.

  15. Murph E. says:

    Okay, I’m up for that. Let’s talk about this issue as it actually is. Since you ended your last comment with an ad hominem attack (I thought Christians were supposed to take the moral high ground?), I’ll start mine with something that looks like an ad hominem, but actually isn’t if you read it through to the end:

    I don’t know who you are, but I would be willing to bet real money that you’re not a woman. The reason that we use the analogy in the argument is because there’s something really morally suspect when a man takes such an extreme view on something that can never happen to him.

    You will never have to worry about being raped and being forced (either through legislation or the bullying of well-meaning Christians) to bring the rapist’s baby to term. You will never have to worry about medical complications in pregnancy that threaten your own life. Put simply, the burden of human reproduction is not evenly balanced between the sexes. This may be why you have such a skewed view on the subject, and why you’re mis-reading your prejudices into the Scripture and calling them the “clear teachings of the Bible,” when the only thing clear about them is that they’re not Biblical, as I have demonstrated above.

    Put another way, it’s really easy for you to say, “you have to keep the baby even though it will kill you,” when you know that you will never have to be in that situation yourself because you are a man. (Before you get angry and compose a response about why it doesn’t matter that you’re a man, please read the next paragraph. I will tie this observation about your genitals into the argument at hand, I promise!)

    This is one of the motivations for Thomson’s analogy. Being hooked up to a violinist in the manner described in the paper is incredibly unlikely, but certainly possible for a man to experience, whereas becoming pregnant is not possible for a man. I know you said a couple times that the analogy has nothing to do with real life, but you’re wrong about that. It is not just a “fanciful tale”—it is a very well-crafted piece of reasoning designed to expose hidden sexism and to be used as a tool for circumscribing some of the morally relevant issues at hand.

    Saying that the violinist thought experiment has nothing to do with real life, just because there’s no one running around hooking people up to violinists is like saying that division or addition have nothing to do with real life, since you don’t see addition or division signs appear in “real life” when you put one apple and another apple together. They are just mental tools that exist only on paper, but we still use them to circumscribe problems and come up with rational solutions. If you only want a non-reflective gut-level analysis of the problem, you can certainly ignore the analogy, but if you actually want to consider what’s right, you actually have to do some thinking. Sorry, but the “my ignorance is as good as your knowledge” line may fly in certain circles, but it’s not gonna get you far here.

    That is why we use the analogy. We are being “scientific” in our examination of this issue, in a sense. By this I mean that in using the analogy, we control for one confounding variable—the sex of the person supporting the violinist/foetus. I’m not sure what you mean by calling it “strange,” but if you can think of a more rigourous way to do this, I’m open to suggestion.

    Basically, Thomson is throwing down the gauntlet and saying, “if a man is allowed to detach himself from a violinist, then it’s up to you to explain why a woman can’t be detached from a foetus,” and then she gives a number of differences that are possible candidates, rejects them and explains some of the consequences of her view. It’s not that hard to follow, and your refusal to engage with the thought experiment makes me think that you can’t think of a good reason, but don’t want to admit it.

    So in the end, the challenge is this: if you can’t give a morally relevant reason why there is a difference between a man disconnecting himself from the violinist and a woman doing the same to a foetus, then you might as well just say, “I get to do it and women don’t because I have a penis, so I make the rules.”

    As for writing letters to the goverment asking for regulation, there is (thank goodness) a gap between what is immoral and what is illegal, and this is a good thing. For example, while it is good for all sons to visit their mothers on their birthday, it would be a severe encroachment of our freedoms for the government to pass a law requiring all sons to visit their mothers on their birthdays.

    Returning to the analogy, you can imagine that a person might, in some cases, be excused for detaching himself from the violinist, but in other cases, you might think it’s reprehensible. If the only reason for detachment is that the saving of the violinist’s life would interrupt one’s travel plans, then yes, surely that is wrong. But if a person needed to go to work the next day to provide for his family who would otherwise be in a bad financial position, it is totally understandable that he might detach himself from the violinist he never offered to help. You can see that the morally relevant difference in these cases is the degree to which a person’s freedom is encroached, not the rights of the violinist or the decrees of God.

    You can also see that it is really hard to come up with hard-and-fast rules by which we make this sort of judgement, as to at which point it is permissible. The issue is fuzzy, grey, indistinct, and it should not be surprising to find that we don’t get an exact answer for the question, since our moral intuitions are so conflicted about it.

    If being involuntarily attached to violinists was a common enough event that it drew the attention of law-makers, I think we would not want them to make a blanket ban on it, or even to regulate it very closely, since the degree to which a person is willing to put himself out, even to save the life of another person, is something that should be left to our own consciences.

    I may be willing to put myself out for the life of someone else, but if there is someone who is less lucky than me, and on whom many other people rely, he may not be in a position to selflessly stay in bed, hooked up to a violinist for 9 months, as nice as that would be for the violinist.

    I’m sorry, but it is not obvious to me that a a blanket prohibition on abortion is right, or even that it’s Biblical. The principles based on Scripture that you have outlined do not support such a hard-line stance, and just saying it’s “obvious” doesn’t make it so. Perhaps the reason why “nothing you could ever say would convince me” is because you’re wrong?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Tag bag

Recent comments

Old posts

All content © Benjamin Carlisle