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January 22: Roe v Wade and Judith Thomson

Lawrence Bush
January 22, 2010

judith-jarvis-thomsonThe U.S. Supreme Court’s 7-2 Roe v Wade decision, giving American women the right to terminate a pregnancy, was decided on this date in 1973. The majority based their decision on a constitutional right to privacy that the justices inferred from the Fourteenth Amendment. Their decision overturned restrictions on abortion in 46 states. A little more than a year earlier, Judith Jarvis Thomson published “A Defense of Abortion,” which argued through a series of “thought experiments” that even if we recognize a fetus’s personhood, its right to be born does not overwhelm a woman’s right to control her own body and her own life. Her article became one of the most widely reprinted modern philosophical essays. Thomson, a philosopher at MIT since 1964, was born in 1929 to a Jewish father and a Catholic mother who met at a socialist summer camp; she officially converted to Judaism at age 14.
“You wake up in the morning and find yourself... in bed with... a famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours... in nine months he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.” —Judith Jarvis Thomson

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.