During my freshman year in the university, I took a core course (General Studies – Values of Health and Sickness) with a module on the defense and opposition of abortion.
Abortion is a controversial subject that often leaves the overly religious and cultural on the opposition, free-thinkers on the defense, and indecisive humans dangling somewhere in between.
The lecture materials were essays that at first seemed ambiguous to me, a girl who had eyes only for poetry and fiction, but reading them enlightened me; I discarded the religious ban on, and unlearned cultural beliefs about abortion. I embraced critical thinking.
Class discussions were the most memorable part of taking this course; they were interactive, argumentative, and usually grew into a row that disrupted the learning flow. Everyone had an opinion they wanted to say, assert, or force down the classes’ throat.
The department devised a plan to satisfy the students’ yearn for sharing their viewpoints; an assignment was to be typed and submitted before the semester exams began. This way, students were given a chance to write their stance without coming at one another in the classroom, and even get compensated – the assignment had an aggregate of 15 marks.
The assignment was a summary of the essay, “A Defense of Abortion”, written in 1971 by Judith Jarvis Thomson.
Judith Jarvis Thomson is an 88 year-old American moral philosopher and metaphysician famous for the essay to be summarized.
In this essay, Judith employs storytelling and comparison to gain a better insight to the relativity of abortion to some other life choices that could require a scrutiny similar to the one abortion is bound to; the purpose of this is to give the reader a ride down the lane to visiting their own hypocrisy.
She starts by reasoning with the arguments against abortion as if deterring from the purpose of the essay; she microscopically examines, then moves on to disintegrating them before ultimately fishing out loopholes, debunking these arguments. Her vivid imagery readily elicits thought, making the essay distinct and the most widely consulted in all of contemporary philosophy.
Here is the edited version of the summary I wrote four years ago:
SUMMARY OF THE ESSAY
Many people oppose abortion based on the supposition that the foetus is human from the onset of conception. Defenders of abortion rely on the premise that the foetus is not a person, but a bit of tissue that becomes a person at birth.
Suppose we grant that the foetus is a person from the moment of conception, then we will have to acknowledge its ‘right to life’ since every person has this. In the same vein, we must recognize the woman as a person with the same right, coupled with an exclusive right to decide what happens in and to her body. In instances where these rights conflict, shouldn’t we then weigh them to determine which is more morally justifiable to protect? We might as well consider cases in which the foetus’ right to life diminishes; such as ones where the woman had no voluntary participation in the existence of the foetus, or her health is at stake.
People who oppose all abortions except those done to save the mother’s life hold the notion that anyone’s rights should fade away as it gets harder to accord to them. That is, an unborn child should have the right to the mother’s body except in cases where housing it poses threat to her life or health.
When an unborn child threatens the woman who houses it, she has the right to defend her life against it even if it involves its termination. A third party (who can perform abortion) may agree to abort the pregnancy, or not; it is a matter of choice.
But, this is morally unacceptable; whether or not a man has a right to a thing should not be dependent on how easy it is to provide him with it.
“…it is rather shocking that anyone’s rights should fade away and disappear as it gets harder and harder to accord to them.”
In cases where an unborn child poses no threat, there is a need to examine the views of people on “the right to life”; some see it as the right to be given the bare minimum needed for continued existence (what if this “bare minimum a man needs for life” is something he has no right to?) and some, as the right not to be killed. Having a right to life does not guarantee having either a right to be given, or allowed continuous use of another person’s body even if one needs it for life itself. Therefore, a foetus may have no right to the continuous use of a woman’s body.
An unborn child who came to be through rape has no right to use the mother’s body, therefore aborting it is not deprival of what it has a right to, hence, not an unjust killing. Rather, it is a callous, indecent or a self-centered act. In some situations where the foetus has a right to the woman’s body – where she voluntarily had a sexual intercourse, knowing she could get pregnant — abortion can be said to be unjust. Not all abortions are unjust.
The essay proceeds by using the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35) to infer that it is hypocritical it is to say that abortion is not an “unjust killing” in circumstances such as pregnancy due to rape, or when the mother’s life is in peril, but an “unjust killing” in entirely different cases. This is like creating separate laws for the “Minimally Decent Samaritan” and “Good Samaritan”— highly unjust and improper.
“… in no state in this country is any man compelled by law to be even a Minimally Decent Samaritan to any person… by contrast, in most states in this country women are compelled by law to be not merely Minimally Decent Samaritans, but Good Samaritans to unborn persons inside them. This does not by itself settle anything one way or the other, because it may well be argued that there should be laws in this country as there are many in European countries – compelling at least Minimaly Decent Samaritanism. But it does show that there is a gross injustice in the state of law.”
Away from arguments on rights, it may be said that the foetus is not just a mere person, but one for whom a woman has a special responsibility because she is its mother. But, we have no responsibility towards a person unless we have assumed it implicitly or explicitly. If the parents make no attempt to be rid of the pregnancy, then it can be said that they have taken responsibility for it, and given the foetus rights which they cannot deny it when it becomes difficult to continue housing it. But if they have considered or tried terminating the foetus, they do not have a special responsibility for it; they have the choice to either assume responsibility for it or not. And if being responsible for it means making large sacrifices, they may refuse.
Conclusively, this essay argues that abortion is not morally impermissible, but does not that it is always permissible. It does not give a general yes or no to abortion. It recognizes that there are some cases where carrying the child to terms only requires the mother’s being a Minimally Decent Samaritan, which is a standard everyone ought to attain.
“…for example, a sick and desperately frightened fourteen year-old school girl, pregnant due to rape, may of course choose abortion, and (that) any law which rules this out is an insane law. And it also allows for and supports our sense that in other cases resort to abortion is even positively indecent. It would be indecent of a woman to request an abortion, and indecent in a doctor to perform it, if she is in her seventh month, and wants the abortion to avoid the nuisance of postponing a trip abroad.”
The bulk of this essay argues for abortion whilst assuming the foetus to be human from the time of conception; an abortion done in the early trimester(s) is definitely not the killing of a person.
You are the snuff your mother sniffs when
life taunts her nostrils.
When your feral father appears at dusk
to perform a rite at the junction of her loins,
You are the spell that rolls off her tongue into the air
to become a whirlwind that casts him out of her home.
You- a strip of lightning she swirls round her
till she is a glowing ball perched on the
laps of darkness.
You are her song of hope,
the prick she pierces fear with till it bursts,
exudes its essence, and evaporates.
You are her madness,
the gibber she chants as she dances etigi
on the dais of your laughter;
the face in the crowd she smiles at–
when the show is over– as she genuflects
at the resound of applause in her head.
I woke up to this heap daily during school closure.
It would be an exaggeration to say the news of the industrial action was more shocking than 50 volts of electricity jolting one’s body, but the surprise was mortifying. No one would have thought that after being kept from academic activities for eight months, another episode of the strike — the antecedent of the cessation of school work — was closer than the next eclipse.
For the first few weeks after school closure, I carried sadness with me everywhere like a birthmark, and wore smiles only when I was trying to avoid being questioned about how I was- if I was fine; was the strike getting to me?
Once, my mum heard me crying in my room. She seldom displays affection, so for a moment the tears stopped when she climbed up my bed, curled on to me, and asked what was wrong. Her voice undid my composure; another session of wailing began.
I told her I was tired, that I felt helpless and clueless. I didn’t know what to do with myself this time, feigning happiness and okay-ness was not a thing I wanted to do all over again in the next few till-school-resumes months. Her sermons did not come as a surprise; in fact, I had braced myself the moment the sound of her footsteps neared my room.
At the end of her sermon, she admonished that I find joy in the midst of my overshadowing sorrow. She left, and once more, I had the room all to myself. More tears.
In May I registered for a digital marketing training which would hold in June, facilitated by TechNitro – an initiative of some tech enthusiasts who are students of LAUTECH. I got selected. On a sultry afternoon, I had an episode I would rather not talk about. Hurriedly, the next day I packed my bags and left for school to tend to my battered soul away my mum’s worry, and attend the workshop.
The workshop was a month-long. There was an event on the first day – an introduction to the tech world and talks on career prospects in the tech space by two guest speakers.
The first classes were introductory and fun. The tutor, who was also my friend – we had met at a conference in Lagos in February and effortlessly got along – had a vast experience as a digital marketer; there was no struggle in delivering his lessons and being understood.
It was a class of about twenty students. The population startled me the first time. Students must have realized how much the globe was leaning towards technology, and that there is an increasing probability each day that a first-degree graduate with no fore-knowledge of certain technologies is an equivalent of a high school graduate in the labour market.
One evening, at the middle of the training, a student sent a picture he had designed to the Whatsapp group (this student had been attending the Graphics Design class) and I was stunned. Seeing how much a person could do by attending only few classes made me take my classes seriously.
When the training was about to halt, the tutor split the class into groups, four people in each, and gave us distinct tasks. I was the only girl in my group, and almost immediately assumed the post of the group leader as my team members were passive at first.
Three meetings- that was all it took to complete our assignment and submit it. After four more classes, the training was over, and there was a project defence on the last day.
My friend and I entered an essay competition organized by The Courtroom Nigeria– it was required that the essay is written by two people; it was argumentative. We were among the fourteen winning participants.
The Courtroom Nigeria is a campus newsletter written by undergraduates dissecting controversial issues in their universities (and the country) worthy of massive attention. Being a part of its new generation felt great. However, I cannot say the same for my partner, as his countenance was without enthusiasm anytime the subject surfaced.
On the first day, we toured the headquarters of The Nigerian Tribune in Ibadan. The Human Resources manager, our tour guide, was a middle-aged woman, dark-skinned and on a thin line between fat and not fat. In the editorial, we were spoken to by the chief-editor, and surrounded by computers and journalists. There were three giant machines in the printing room. The operator, who told us about the processes of printing newspapers and operating the machines, was a man in his late forties. For a while, as he talked, I wondered if he got the burn on the left side of his face in this room.
A seminar was held on the second day. The founders of The Courtroom Nigeria told us about the birth of the newsletter and their writing experience.
The outgoing members of The Courtroom, University of Ibadan schooled us on writing, and an On Air Personnel at Splash FM, a radio station in Ibadan, handled a session on research and how-to of interviews.
A few days after the workshop, I collected sadness from where I had hung it, washed and sun-dried, and then donned it. I had nothing to do; I locked myself in my room most days, leaving it only to do chores or eat.
At some point, it dawned on me to seek internship at places where I could work as a content writer. The search began- I put up a status on my Facebook timeline about needing a temporary job, since my school could resume anytime. I also registered on sites that were middlemen between potential employers and jobseekers. I sent a number of cover letters, my resume attached, applying as content writer. I went for an interview at an estate management company in Lagos, but didn’t get the job.
I didn’t give up. Early September, an old acquaintance — who would later become a great friend– saw my post on job-hunt and told me about a vacancy at the NGO where she volunteered. I wrote a cover letter and sent my resume to the mail address she provided.
I got a reply the second night- my resume “doesn’t meet the eye” but I should come for an interview the next day. I reworked my resume this night until I felt it was good enough to land me the job.
The next day, I had a hard time getting to the location of the organization; Google map could only help a bit.
The office was a white space with a welcoming ambiance. In it were a shelf of books, a wide table, three chairs, and printing machine. The founder of the NGO was a dark-skinned bespectacled young man.
The anticipated interview which had left my body tense turned out to be a chat; one enlightening, searching, and revealing.
I could volunteer as a content writer, he told me at the end of what must have been a three hours’ discussion. This moment would be what I remember as the onset of a journey of discovery, exploration, and mind-expansion.