Spend any amount of time talking about abortion, and you’re likely to hear a variation of the following scenario:
You wake up one morning in bed next to a famous Violinist, who has been connected to you surgically by the Society of Music Lovers. The Violinist has a fatal kidney ailment, and without your bodily support, he will die. The doctor at the hospital informs you that after nine months, the Violinist will have recovered to a point he will no longer need your body for support.
Now, you have a choice to make. You could stay hooked up to this Violinist, and it may very well be good of you to do so, but is it just for the law to compel you to do so? Most people would say no, which raises a further question: What about a woman who becomes pregnant? Is it just for the law to require her to stay attached to a person to sustain their life against her will?
The above scenario is a paraphrase of an argument first made in an essay by philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson in 1971, titled “A Defense of Abortion”. The argument has gone on to appear in countless forms, and has been updated and defended by philosophers such as Eileen McDonagh and David Boonin.
Thomson’s argument is strong for a couple of reasons. First, she asks the reader to put themselves in the position of a woman facing an unplanned pregnancy, something everyone, pro-life or pro-choice, should be willing to do. It’s easier to see abortion as a sort of abstract topic without actually thinking of how we would feel if we were to find ourselves in the same position.
Second, and perhaps most importantly, Thomson reframes the argument over abortion by conceding a central element of the pro-life argument: The unborn entity in question could very well be a valuable member of the human family, a “person”, as Thomson argues.
And it doesn’t matter. In the view of Thomson(as well as McDonagh and Boonin) just because someone is a human being with intrinsic value in virtue of their humanity, that does not give them the right to use the body(or bodily tissues and organs) of another person to sustain their own life. This line of argument has become very popular in online as well as in-person discussions over the past year, with pro-life arguments dismissed offhand as ultimately irrelevant. A common assertion online goes like this: It doesn’t matter if abortion kills a life, because no one has the right to use your body without your consent.
Thomson’s argument, and others in the same manner, succeed if the analogies employed can demonstrate the moral principles at play in the decision to get an abortion are similar or the same to the other analogous scenarios.
Unfortunately, the argument is rife with problems, several of which will be listed here.
For starters, it could be said the argument proves more than it should. Let’s change the scenario a bit.
Suppose you wake up one morning, in bed next to an unconscious Violinist protégé. However, this time, you’re the one receiving bodily support for a fatal kidney ailment. A doctor walks into the room, and tells you that you had passed out from kidney failure, and a mad scientist, seeking an opportunity, had kidnapped the Violinist and you in order to conduct an experiment to prove unconscious humans can be used as living Kidney Dialysis machines. The doctor says the police found you and the Violinist in this situation and brought you to the hospital, where you have been for several weeks now. The Violinist should wake up any day now, and when he does, the doctor tells you, he will have final say in whether or not you stay connected to him. The doctor also informs you the condition in your kidneys is only temporary, and should last roughly another 9 months, at which point you can safely be separated from the Violinist. However, since it’s his body you’re using without his consent, he has the final say in whether you stay connected to him.
Do you have any obligations in this scenario? Suppose the doctor tells you that you can let the medical staff separate you from the Violinist, but it involves disembowelment of your body(due to the crude nature of the connection between you and the Violinist); or, the medical staff can let you take a lethal dose of poison so you can die quickly without having to undergo the separation process while you are still alive. Suppose the doctor tells you, over your complaints, that you really have no say in the matter; since it’s the Violinist’s body you’re dependent on, he gets the final word on whether you live or die. A few hours later, the Violinist awakens, and tells the doctor he has made his decision, and because you’re being connected to him will destroy his career as a musician, it’s only fair you be disconnected from him even though that means killing you.
Do you have an obligation to die in this case? If the answer is no, then it seems Thomson’s argument doesn’t do the intuitive work it’s supposed to in justifying abortion. After all, if the unborn are valuable human beings(something Thomsons is willing to concede for the sake of argument) then it must follow that some valuable human beings(persons, as Thomson states) have an obligation to die on behalf of someone else.
However, if the answer is yes, another question arises: Why is it I may not, under any circumstance, secure another person’s bodily support to keep myself from dying, but I may secure their death when I am not in danger of dying myself?
It seems more intuitive to suggest the opposite: You may find yourself in scenarios where you must use your body to sustain someone’s life; you still don’t get to kill them for being dependent on you.
Chris Kaczor makes a similar proposal(1). Suppose in Thomson’s scenario, the Violinist wakes up and decides he would much rather be connected to a different person, maybe one who is more interesting and nicer to look at. May he justly disconnect himself from you even if doing so would kill you? Right away Thomson’s argument starts to seem less appealing on closer examination.
Scott Klusendorf highlights another problem with Thomson’s scenario: It assumes the natural relationship between a mother and child who are naturally connected(something that has occurred literally billions of times in the course of human existence) is no more significant than the relationship between two strangers who have been unnaturally connected to each other.(2) However, why should anyone accept this proposition? Thomson assumes women have no obligation to their children unless they specifically consent to be mothers, but why believe this? Motherhood(and fatherhood) have to be based on something deeper than mere willpower. As Helen Watt notes, the maternity ward in your local hospital doesn’t randomly assign babies at will; they make sure babies go home with the parents who conceived and gave birth to them. It seems like a matter of common sense to say biological relationships do matter to a degree.
This can be highlighted if we change the Violinist scenario slightly. As Scott Klusendorf also asks, what if a woman wakes up connected to her own child? What if a woman woke up to find herself connected to her three year old daughter? Would disconnecting seem as reasonable? Suppose a five year old wakes up to find herself connected intravenously not to a total stranger, but to her own mother. Does she have an obligation to die so her mother could be freed of the burden of being connected to her a second time? Would it be fair for a doctor to say to her essentially the same thing said in the above scenario? “Sorry sweetie, but unless your mother decides she wants to stay connected to you, you will have to die.”
We would likely think of such a mother(and the doctor) not as a hapless victim, but as a moral monster.
We instantly recoil from this sort of narcissistic thinking, and we are right to be bothered by it. So what does that tell us about abortion? The view of abortion proposed by Thomson starts to look a lot less palatable when we think of the relationship as one between a mother and child, not a helpless victim of unethical medical experimentation.
As Helen Watt observes,
“However, if the fetus is already a person, then the fetus is already a child: the child, perhaps, of quite specific people, whether or not they will raise it as their social child. It is far from clear that a child may be deliberately killed simply to avoid raising or relinquishing him or her: what would we say about a man who killed an infant on these grounds? Perhaps the man has been left ‘holding the baby’ in an isolated area and is afraid of having to care for the child long term. But does that justify infanticide?” (3)
As an aside, the Bodily-Rights argument employed by Thomson also assumes the act of unplugging is merely just that: Unplugging, sort of like removing a plug from an electrical outlet. However, what if unplugging involved disemboweling the Violinist? This would make the analogy more similar to the way abortions are performed(and even then, abortions tend to be even more grisly, often resulting in full dismemberment of the unborn human being). Consider the following quote from abortionist Warren Hern in his medical textbook Abortion Practice(pg. 144) regarding the “Calvaria Sign” during early Second Trimester abortions:
“As the Calvaria (skull) is grasped, a sensation that it is collapsing is almost always accompanied by the extrusion of white cerebral material from the external os (bone)”
As Francis Beckwith points out, calling abortion merely the withholding or withdrawing of support would be like smothering someone with a pillow then saying all you did was withhold oxygen from your victim.(4) The actual nature of abortion procedures need to be addressed if abortion is to be ethically defended. As Helen Watt also points out, when it comes to abortion, we’re not merely disconnecting, but actively(not to mention lethally) invading the body of another human being for our own ends.
“Causing harm by intentionally invading the body of another seems particularly hard to justify in the case of innocent people whose bodily space we normally think of as inviolable. Such invasions cannot be equated with mere failure to aid, or even active withdrawal of aid…If my own bodily borders must be respected-one reason why it was wrong to connect me to the violinist in the first place-why not those of the innocent human being to whom I am connected? Can I undo the wrong of bodily invasion which caused our two bodies to be linked together by carrying out a wrongful invasion myself-indeed, a far more harmful invasion-of the body of another innocent person?”(5)
Lastly, it bears mentioning that what helps make Thomson’s argument seem reasonable is the she frames pregnancy as if it is an unnatural, one time occurrence rather than the most common of all human life experiences. Think about it for just a moment: While not every human being will provide bodily support to another person(ie be pregnant), every human being who has ever lived has received bodily support.
What this means is Thomson(and Boonin and McDonagh) are framing pregnancy as an extraordinary occurrence, meaning one that is at odds with common human experiences. How often do people wake up to find themselves connected to stranger musicians through no fault of their own? Or being compelled to donate organs or bone marrow to complete strangers, for that matter?
Suppose we lived in a world where every single human being spent a period of their life connected to another person in the same way Thomson portrays pregnancy. Imagine humans, at two years of age, attached themselves to a parent. This happens millions of times per year, in every culture, and has occurred throughout all of recorded history. Would requiring parents to stay connected to their children for the duration of time necessary for them to live seem more reasonable if this was how every human being spent a portion of their life, especially at the most helpless stage of life? It would seem so, and it would seem that demanding to be disconnected from one’s own child in this circumstance would need a much stronger justification than is typically assumed in bodily rights arguments for abortion.
(1). Kaczor, Christopher The Ethics of Abortion 3rd ed. 2022. pg. 165
(2). Klusendorf, Scott The Case for Life 2009 pg. 188
(3). Watt, Helen The Ethics of Pregnancy, Abortion, and Childbirth 2016 pg. 38
(4). Beckwith, Francis Politically Correct Death 1993 pg. 133
(5). Watt, pg. 37