A response to Judith Jarvis Thomson’s violinist argument for abortion

Cross-posted from ProLifeNZ

In 1971 American philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson published a paper on abortion that was destined to become entrenched in pro-abortion folklore as a robust defense for the moral permissiveness of killing unborn human beings via abortion.

Her essay, A Defense of Abortion, contains one of the most infamous analogies ever used to try and justify the killing of innocent unborn human beings, and it is still regularly regurgitated in first year philosophy and ethics classes all over the world.

Most frustrating of all is the fact that the logical deficiencies in Thomson’s essay are very rarely challenged (which, I think, actually become more and more pronounced, and start to pile up on one another as the essay progresses).

The end result of all of this is that in a lot of circles Judith Jarvis Thomson’s essay has been given an almost infallible authority as a concrete and foolproof moral justification for the act of abortion.

Today’s Friday Life’s column is intended to be the first in a series which will explore Thomson’s essay, and provide rebuttal to the various aspects of the reasoning it espouses.

Today I want to look at the most often quoted portion of A Defense of Abortion, something that is usually referred to as the ‘Violinist argument’, or something similar, but before I start that I want to say something about philosophy, because I have serious doubts about whether Judith Jarvis Thomson’s violinist analogy is actually a legitimate exercise in philosophy.

You see, philosophy is a science, and as such an engagement in philosophy is an engagement in the search for truth, and to achieve this important end, philosophy needs to start by being grounded in reality.

Something just doesn’t sit right with me about a search for philosophical truth which doesn’t start with the real, but instead starts with a fictional fabrication that has only the most passing of resemblances to the real situation that it claims to be presenting the truth about.

This is exactly what Thomson does when she starts her defense of abortion not with the actual situation of a human pregnancy, but instead with an analogy about a kidnapped person being attached to a world famous violinist (and from there she enters into other analogies, each increasingly more bizarre and even further removed from reality than the first one was).

I struggle to see how someone engaged in the material sciences would have much credibility if they started by espousing totally fictional analogies about events that aren’t actually grounded in the reality of the very scenario they claim to be proposing important scientific truths about.

In my humble opinion, this lack of the real as a starting point is where Judith Jarvis Thomosn’s essay first starts to unravel (and actually struggles to meet the standards required of authentic philosophy), and it seems to me that her argument ends up becoming circular because it depends on her first fictional story of the violinist being totally analogous to human pregnancy and abortion to actually support its later conclusions.

So, without any further ado, here is Judith Jarvis Thomson’s violinist analogy…

“You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. 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, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. … To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it’s only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.”

Thomson, obviously, is using this fictional analogy as a comparison to pregnancy, and she then goes on to argue that just as the violinist has no right to use your body in this way, neither does an unborn baby have the right to use it’s mother’s body in this way – therefore, according to Thomson, there is nothing wrong with aborting a baby.

So what is wrong with Thomson’s reasoning?

Well I think there are actually several glaring problems:

1.  The violinist scenario involves a non consensual act (kidnapping, etc), so straight away it does not compare to any consensual act of sexual intercourse that results in pregnancy.

In effect, because Thomson’s analogy only applies to non-consensual acts,  straight away it does not have relevance to the vast majority of sexual acts which result in a pregnancy that is ended by an abortion.

If a couple engage in the very act that is known to be the most effective method of conceiving a new human life they can hardly claim that any resulting pregnancy was forced upon them.

In effect, they consent to the possibility of pregnancy by consenting to the sexual act itself – which is a whole other issue that I don’t really have the time or space to unpack here.

Now, some will immediately try to counter this by proposing that if a couple engage in contracepted sexual relations then any pregnancy that results is forced upon the couple (because their use of contraception was an attempt to opt out of pregnancy), and as such they have the right to reject such pregnancies (via abortion).

In response to this, I always first point out that the mechanisms of conception and pregnancy are actually laws of nature, more particularly laws of human biology, and they are fixed laws (baring some sort of impairment which causes infertility or other failures of these biological certainties).

I then use the following analogy to show that a desire to cheat the law, prior to being caught out by the law, is not enough to morally justify any attempt to reject or undo the force of the law once it comes into effect.

Imagine that a man decides to go on a long trip in his car, and that he wants to travel at dangerously high speeds for the entire journey. Obviously the traffic laws do not allow a person to do such a thing, so the driver invests in highly specialized police radar detection systems and information about all the police patrols on his route. He then travels, at dangerously high speeds, on less patrolled roads in order to avoid being caught by police.

However, part way through his journey he speeds past a totally unexpected police patrol car, and is pulled over and charged with dangerous driving.

It would be silly to suggest that a driver in this situation then has the right to reject any legal penalties for his actions because he didn’t actually want to get caught out by the law in the first place, or because he did everything in his power to avoid being caught out while he was engaging in the act of speeding.

I would argue that similar principles apply when you are trying to cheat the laws of nature (which are actually far less forgiving than any human legal code and law enforcement agent!)


2. Thomson’s analogy in no way reflects the true reality of the bond between mother and unborn child.

In Thompson’s violinist fantasy the violinist is a cold, distant and completely unrelated stranger (in fact, in many ways they have become a predatory monster), but in the real world an unborn baby does not share such a sterile relationship with its mother, instead it literally shares a ‘flesh of my flesh’ connection with her..

The unborn baby is never a predator, or a parasite who has invaded the female body for it’s own sinister motives – in fact the unborn baby, being the most innocent of innocent, has no capacity whatsoever for evil intent.

And even when a baby is uninvited (the situation of rape) it is still an innocent dependent, not a self-seeking parasite.

The bond an unborn baby shares with its mother is nothing like that of a cold and distant stranger, instead it is one of the most intimate and lasting bonds of profound connectivity that can ever be shared by two human persons.

As one philosopher has already pointed out, one of the key flaws in Thomson’s analogy is that it confuses a service provider/service user type relationship with a familial maternal one.

In effect, Thomson falls prey to the Materialist error by turning an aspect of human physicality, pregnancy, into a mere act of machine like functionality, where one party takes from the other, or services the other.

The problem with all of this is that it doesn’t reflect the true reality that the unborn child is an innocent living human being, and as such it has certain inalienable rights that are not disposable merely on the whim of another party, even a party as close and important as the unborn child’s own mother.


3. Thomson presents a very egocentric view of rights, one which lacks the important and complementary grounding in the notion of responsibilities.

In effect, what Thomson is arguing here is that there is no such thing as the right to be in a womb, or to have your life sustained, or protected at cost (even small cost) to another person.

Sure, according to her scheme, a mother can choose to allow an unborn baby to continue having access to her womb, and a mother can choose to sustain and protect that child at cost to themselves, but her scheme is also very clear in its proclamation that this is not an obligation that can be expected of the mother, as the baby has no such right as the right to be in a womb, or to be biologically connected and sustained by its mother.

In effect this is a variation of the same error (mentioned earlier) of confusing the mother/child bond with a service provider/client type relationship.

What Thomson does is completely ignore the (cardinal) human right, the right to life, and instead she treats pregnancy as an issue of property/tenancy type rights, or consumer type rights, etc.

In effect, this false vision of pregnancy leads Thomson to argue that because there is no such thing as the right to be in the womb, or the right to get life sustaining care from another person, then an unborn baby isn’t entitled to be afforded life as an absolute and inalienable human right (via remaining in the womb and biologically connected to the mother for nine months).

The problem with this reasoning (apart from the obvious flaw that it also justifies the killing of new born babies, toddlers, the disabled, the elderly, or anyone else who depends on the care of another for their continued existence) is that it is utterly anti-human because it is completely disconnected from the notion of community, solidarity and responsibility to the other.

You see, it is actually technically correct to say that there is no such thing as the ‘right’ to have care from another person, and there is no such thing as the ‘right’ to be in a womb, but there is such a thing as the right to life – and all innocent human beings are entitled to this right no matter what their creed, colour, age, size, or current state in life happens to be.

And this is the key point which Thomson’s argument completely ignores, and upon which it starts to crumble in on itself.

Firstly, an abortion isn’t merely the disconnection of a mother from an unborn child (as Thomson’s violinist analogy proposes), instead it involves the direct killing of an innocent unborn child.

If we use Thomson’s analogy about the violinist, an abortion isn’t just a matter of unhooking yourself from the violinist, instead it is the equivalent of having someone take a pick axe and stab the violinist to death.

Abortion is more than just a mere withdrawal of services or withdrawal of life sustaining treatments to a human being you are ‘attached’ to, which is all that Thomson’s violinist analogy entails, instead abortion involves the direct and deliberate killing of another human being who happens to be ‘connected’ to its mother at the time.

The act of a mere ‘disconnection’ is definitely not the same thing as an act of willfully taking another innocent party’s life.

Secondly, any act of ‘disconnection’ of the unborn baby from it’s mother before viability, something which Thomson’s scheme involves, is an act which directly robs the unborn child of their right to life.

In effect, what Thomson is trying to do is reason her way to the proposition that just because a certain right(s) doesn’t exist for an unborn child (the right to be in the womb, or the right to get life sustaining care from another person) then this means that you have no responsibility to act with a respect for an unborn child’s other rights, in this case their right to life.

Which of course is pure nonsense.

Let me give you another example of this terribly flawed reasoning at work to show you just how selfishly evil it is:

Imagine you are driving to work, and you are on the way to an important meeting there, but you suddenly come around a bend in the road to see that a pedestrian has started to cross without looking, and they are now directly in the path of your vehicle.

Now, unless you brake and veer off the road, which will, at the very least, make you late for your important meeting, and at the worst will result in some minor panel damage to your car and cause you to miss your important meeting altogether, then this pedestrian will be hit and killed by your vehicle.

In such a situation, you couldn’t simply run down the pedestrian and kill him, and then later say to the police: ‘look, there is no such thing as the right to be in the middle of the road, and there is no such thing as the right not to be hit by a car, so therefore I ran down the pedestrian and killed him, because veering off the road to let him live would have caused a major inconvenience to my life.’

If you did do such a thing you would rightly be arrested and charged with the very serious offense of deliberately killing another innocent human being, and your actions would be vilified by all people of goodwill.

Yet, this is exactly the same sort of reasoning that lies behind Thomson’s violinist argument, which, as I said earlier, is self-centred (in the extreme), and lacks all notion of responsibility to others, of human solidarity, and of human community.

Instead Thomson reduces pregnancy to the level of mere function, the baby to the level of a predator or parasite, and under her scheme abortion simply becomes the acceptable cessation of a process (pregnancy) via the withdrawal of services.

But of course, anyone with half an ounce of intelligence and commonsense knows that this is an evil sophistry which denies the true reality of conception, pregnancy, motherhood, maternal bond and the great dignity and worth of every unborn human being, and the inalienable rights they are entitled to.

Hopefully this initial and brief response to the Judith Jarvis Thomson’s essay, A Defense of Abortion, has been useful.

For the next installment of this response to Thomson’s arguments, I hope to examine some of the blatant (and at times unbelievably simple) mistakes and flaws of logic that riddle the rest of her infamous essay.

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  • Benjamin Greumach

    Good article

  • Dave The Happy Singer

    Bad article

  • Brendan Smith

    A damn good refutation of Thompson’s callousness. The problem that many, including myself, have pointed out over the years is that for an anology to be an accurate portrayal of a real world situation, it must cover EVERY one of the factors. Thompson does not do this, the violinist does not meet the necessary criteria to be considered in the same category as the innocent unborn child.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=761373356 Kiara Pirola

    This brings me back to the days of Ethics 100! The first impression I ever got from reading Thompson’s works, was ‘well, she has clearly never been pregnant herself!’ The violinist is so far removed from the metaphysical reality of pregnancy that it is entirely useless.
    A very wise woman I knew observed that as soon as a woman discovers she is pregnant, her whole identity and being changes. She is now ‘mother’. Abortion doesn’t make you ‘un-pregnant’ and it certainly doesn’t reverse that change of being, hence women who under-go abortions routinely experience intense grief, they are not having a melanoma cut out, they are experiencing the loss of a child.
    This I think is fundamental point that Jarvis (and others) struggle with with the metaphysical impact of pregnancy on a woman, mainly because people ignore it.

  • John

    I urge people to read Thompson’s full essays. The quotes in this refutation of her essays’ are taken out of contest and are fairly misinformed. I encourage everyone who would rather think of her essays through the eyes of someone else read the full length argument and see how little this article values fair reporting.

    • RPL

      Does the above article misrepresent JJT’s article, and if so, in what way? Thanks

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