The fetishization of life prompts a timely examination of our rights

The abortion debate might be just what we need to re-examine what rights, life, and the right to life really mean.

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Consider this slightly modified version of a famous thought experiment by the late MIT philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson:

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Suppose you wake up one day and find yourself connected by a series of tubes to an unconscious person. You learn that the person’s friends and family members have kidnapped you and hooked you up because the unconscious person needs to use your organs to survive. You also learn that the unconscious person is entirely innocent because they have always been unconscious.

However, if you disconnect, the unconscious person will die. But if you tolerate this situation for nine months, you can be detached and the unconscious person can then live alone.

Are you morally obligated to stay connected? How about if it will take nine years instead of nine months, or if you’ll be stuck with and to your unwitting partner for the rest of your life? Are you then morally obligated to stay attached?

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Thomson concludes that most people would find it “outrageous” to answer in the affirmative. Of course, as she acknowledges, it would be an act of moral kindness to stay attached. After all, the unconscious person is not responsible for your predicament and he has the right to life.

But you also have rights, including the right to decide what happens to your body. To declare that you are morally obligated to remain attached is to ignore your rights, to assert that his right to life always and everywhere trumps your right to control your body.

It’s not hard to see that Thomson used this thought experiment as a rough analogy for abortion in rape cases. And the value of the experience is that it effectively avoids getting bogged down in debates about the beginning of personality, because it accepts without argument that the fetus is a person.

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In doing so, he suggests that it might be morally acceptable, in certain circumstances, to intentionally cause a person’s death even if that person poses no mortal threat. The thought experiment proved hugely influential, including among many pro-life groups, which in some cases dropped their demands for anti-abortion laws without exception.

And since the abortion debate is primarily about laws rather than morals, let’s consider this within a legal framework. While Thomson was writing an article on ethics, his concern was limited to moral acceptability and moral obligation. But we know that the criminal law permits many behaviors that we find morally unacceptable because the blunt instrument of the law is often ill-suited to combat such behavior.

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Suicide – or at least attempted suicide – was once a criminal offence. Adultery is not a crime except in some US states, although the laws are rarely enforced. And we have recently realized that criminalizing illicit drug use only compounds the problems caused by drug use itself.

So when we consider Thomson’s thought experiment in a legal context, we can ask ourselves: should the state compel you, under penalty of criminal penalties, to remain tied down for the rest of your life? If it was scandalous to answer the moral question in the affirmative, it seems even more absurd to answer the legal question in the same way.

It is therefore curious that these abortion laws without exception seem to be back in force. News of the leaked U.S. Supreme Court draft decision ostensibly overturning Roe v. Wade highlighted the fact that at least 17 states currently have “trigger” laws with no exceptions — laws that will go into effect if the Supreme Court issues a final judgment.

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The presence of these laws suggests that proponents believe that the right to life always takes precedence over any other right. This is not about respecting life but about fetishizing it, treating it with obsessive devotion and preserving it at all costs.

This fetishization of life is present in other contexts entirely separate from the abortion debate. Witness cryonics proponents, who insist that it’s better to be frozen until there’s a cure for what “killed” you than to admit your life is over. or the transhumanists, who are eager to download their consciousness into a computer.

Given this epidemic of fetishization, the abortion debate might be just what we need to re-examine what rights, life, and the right to life really mean.

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