Dr. Judith Jarvis Thomson published an article titled, “A Defense of Abortion” in 1971 that, to this day, remains a classic abortion argument by advocates.
The Princeton University Press published the philosophy professor’s piece in their first-ever issue of Philosophy and Public Affairs.
The article has been reprinted so often, it is the most popular essay in all of contemporary philosophy, by many estimations. On the topic of abortion, it remains a classic on the abortion-advocate side. Given its popularity, one can make the case it is the best apology for abortion the culture of death can posit.
So what was her argument?
Prepare to be underwhelmed…
“You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist [who] has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment… The Society of Music Lovers… kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. … To unplug would be to kill him. But never mind, it’s only for nine months.” (1)
There you have it. The best apology the abortion advocates have to offer.
How do you respond?
Sure, it may look a little intimidating. After all, the analogy has someone’s livelihood interlinked to another. If the latter bails out, then the former will die.
Further, Thomson goes on to argue that no one would say you would be morally obligated to remain hooked up to the violinist. You have the moral right to discontinue the connection, we can all agree.
Similarly, she argues, the impregnated mother can choose to end the life of her fetus within her, if she does not desire to give birth. She should not be obligated to preserve his life any more than the life of the violinist.
Open and shut case?
No, not in the least.
A RESPONSE TO THOMSON
Much ink has been spilled analyzing, defending, and rebuking Thomson’s essay over the years. I am not going to claim to have an original thought here. I stand on the shoulder of giants, as GK Chesterton would say.
Nature of the Act
To unplug from the violinist would be justified in the name of self-defense. The kidney dialysis hookup was done against your will, it is harming your freedoms, and so you have the right to withdraw. By unplugging, you are not directly killing the violinist. Instead, he dies from his kidney disorder.
However, to have your preborn child removed would not be justified. For a child to develop within a mother’s body is completely natural, and is not an act of aggression on his part. Thus, the mother has no need to defend herself.
To have the child removed would mean a direct act of killing the baby—and murder is never justified.
Intention of the Act
When you unplug from the hookup, you know that the violinist will soon die. However, this is not your intention. Your intention is to free yourself from an unjust aggressor—a good intention. The death of the violinist is foreseen, but it is not willed.
This gets to what is called the Principle of Double Effect. This occurs when one action results in two or more outcomes. One can be willed and the other(s) not.
That said, one can never morally do an evil act so that good may come from it. So this principle can get a bit tricky.
Abortion, on the other hand, does not even compare. Intentionally dismembering an unborn child is an evil action. When done in the name of “freeing” a woman from the child, it still can never be justified. Again, no one can do an evil act so that good can come from it.
Circumstance to Get There
In Dr. Thomson’s analogy, you get hooked up to the violinist without your doing.
Whereas, women do not become impregnated by accident. They produce sex cells within their bodies that, when mixed at the appropriate time, can be combined with male sex cells, so as to produce preborn children.
The vast majority of pregnancies occur because a woman or young girl willfully engaged in an act in which can naturally result in a pregnancy. If she did not will to become pregnant, then she should not have engaged in the act that could result in her becoming so.
Now, I know people will bring up women who conceive against their will, as a result of rape. To read more on why abortion, even in the event of rape, is not morally justified, please read my prior posts here and here. To summarize the argument, look below at what the nature of the relationship between the new mother and her preborn child.
The Right to Life
Sure, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor presupposes that the violinist has a right to life. That’s why it seems to be a dilemma for you to withdraw the tubes from yourself. She is assuming the violinist has a right to life.
What Dr. Thomson fails to do is apply this same ethic to the preborn child. Granted, before she gives her famous violinist analogy, she does concede the humanity of the unborn, although she does not herself believe it (2). Instead, she thinks her defense of abortion is so strong that even if the unborn is human, it makes no difference.
So, while she recognizes the humanity of the preborn child, she dismisses his right to life.
In reality, the fact that child is a human being makes all the difference in the world. No one has a right to murder another human person.
The Relationship Is Not Equivalent
Every society in all of human history has recognized the unique relationship between a mother and her baby. This is because the splendor of this remains written into our human nature.
Dr. Thomson seeks to toss out that universally-regarded distinction, in her advocacy for abortion.
In her fictitious story, you and the violinist are strangers to one another. Thus, your obligation to him remains minimal.
Whereas, the relationship between a mother and her baby endures as an intimate one throughout human history. In fact, all mothers have a duty to make the necessary sacrifices to ensure her child is born as healthy as possible.
To say a mother has the moral right to have her child dismembered in the womb destroys this intimate relationship on which all of human society is built.
The duty to keep the violinist alive does not rest on your shoulders, as you don’t know the man. But if that violinist were your son, I think we can all agree you would rethink your desire to unplug.
Alright, I would love to hear from you on this one.
Were you aware of Dr. Thomson’s landmark essay?
Do you have another argument against her?
Or, do you think my response misses key points and that Thomson deserves more credit than I am giving her?
Please sound off below!
1. Judith Jarvis Thomson, “A Defense of Abortion,” in The Rights and Wrongs of Abortion, eds. M. Cohen et al. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1974), p. 4.
2. Ibid., p. 4.