The under-rated “famous violinist” defense of abortion

The view taken by the Catholic Church, and other anti-abortion extremists, that a single fertilized human egg cell is a person, has always struck me as bizarre. Well, since I was old enough to think about the issue anyway. And I’ve realized for just as long that there isn’t going to be a magic moment post-coception where the fetus suddenly becomes a person. That means I’ve had something like this position on abortion pretty much since I began thinking about the issue, though I’ve gone through periods of being uncomfortable with late-term abortions.

However, I’m embarrassed to say that until recently I never got the force of another important argument in defense of abortion, which was put so eloquently by philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson with her “famous violinist” thought experiment. Here’s the thought experiment:

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. The director of the hospital now tells you, “Look, we’re sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you—we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. 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.” Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says, “Tough luck, I agree, but you’ve now got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person’s right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him.” I imagine you would regard this as outrageous…

This is a way of illustrating that the fact that a fetus is attached to a woman maters for the morality of abortion. Even if you grant that fetuses are persons, this still makes for a very important difference between aborting a fetus (especially one that isn’t old enough to have any chance of surviving outside the womb) and killing a 1-year-old.

To drive the point home, it’s worth thinking about what it would really mean for government policy if we seriously thought abortion was the same as infanticide. If a woman expressed a sincere desire to commit infanticide, the government would intervene to make sure she doesn’t succeed, rather than merely telling her infanticide is bad and threatening to punisher her after the fact.

In that case, however, you can prevent the death of the child simply by having child protective services take it away. In the case of a woman who had expressed a sincere desire to have an abortion, on the other hand, to prevent this “murder” with the same degree of confidence, you’d have to lock her up until she delivered. And that’s what you would do, if you really thought locking up a would-be murderer for several months was the only sure way to prevent the murder.

Of course, the prospect of locking up women who express a desire to get abortions is rather horrifying. It wouldn’t merely be about stepping between her and a child, it would be forcing her to use her body for the child’s support for a number of months. And that underlines just how much of a difference pregnancy makes.

Now, if you accepted this argument but also had the crazy view that personhood begins at conception–personhood, not life, contra the “pro-lifers,” lots of things that aren’t people are alive–if you also had that crazy view, that might lead you to some strange conclusions. You might think that abortion should be totally legal before the fetus reaches viability, but afterwards it should be legal to induce labor early with the requirement that efforts be made to save the fetus. But I don’t have to worry about that, because I don’t think fetuses are people.

  • prochoice

    This is NEW to you?
    If I ever jumped to the idea, that our age old (1970´s)classics are new to bloggers and/or atheists, I´d deluged you with it (at least the Englishlanguage ones, to translate German (from 1920´s)would be too time-consuming.
    If you can read it: Friedrich Wolf, Hermine Heusler-Edenhuizen (the first female ob/gyn), Wilhelm Mensinga…
    on women´s health and reproductive issues, and
    Karl-Heinz Deschner 9 binds of “Criminal history of the church” – catholic, that is.
    Max Stirner on general philosophy, some translated.

    And you ARE right, the violinist argument was my all-time favourite also.

    • Celeste

      I had never heard of this argument either. Thank you for the references! I’ll have to check them out.

  • Brian Gonynor

    This argument came up in ethics class while I was at university; I found it a less compelling defense of abortion rights than most people seem to. First, it’s not a perfect analogy. Pregnant women do have restricted mobility, can’t drink or smoke, mood swings, bizarre diets/vomiting, etc. But it’s hardly as bad as being trapped in a hospital bed day in and day out for nine months. These days, most of them go to work into the third trimester. On the other hand, the foetus is a far less realized “person” than the violinist, more of a cadet person or potential person.

    But to use the analogy we have, while the state would be seriously overstepping its bounds to FORCE someone to sacrifice a period of their life to save Joshua Bell, it would remain the right thing to do. It would similarly be wrong for the state to keep an “organ database” and compel strangers to give up their kidneys to people needing a transplant. However, if one’s cousin needs a kidney, their family will think they’re a jerk if they don’t go through with it. Imagine how grateful the violinist and their family would be if you agreed. Imagine the satisfaction you would feel attending free concerts at Carnegie Hall for the rest of your life and receiving an ovation from the gallery before the performance. You’d have made a friend for life, whereas refusing – while it is your right, and while it was unfair that you alone had to make this choice – would make you look selfish. Imagine watching the violinist’s funeral on TV a few weeks later, the hate mail you would receive from classical music aficionados, the guilt you might feel doing anything enjoyable during the next few months, knowing it came at the price of someone else’s life.

    If anything, the analogy supports my own idiosyncratic views on the subject, which are not popular with my fellow atheists. I consider abortion to have the same status as adultery. That is to say, unethical but somewhat understandable in many cases; very understandable and even justified in many other cases; and unenforceable for practical reasons. The arguments in favor of abortion rights I find most compelling are those pointing out the horrid consequences of actually making it illegal – giving birth by compulsion, scared young women tossed into jail, back-alley operations with rusty instruments, and invasive procedures to gather evidence. I find such arguments form a conclusive case against making abortion illegal, but that fact alone doesn’t make the practice desirable or commendable. Consider the consequences if adultery were made illegal – millions of parents thrown in jail, divorce enforced by law, dragging private matters into court. They, too, are far worse than the behavior such a law would attempt to prevent. But that doesn’t make adultery commendable, it merely means that it should not be illegal.

    Another parallel between adultery and abortion is that, as I said before, both practices are “very understandable and even justified in many other cases.” We are all familiar with the traditional “exceptions” in the case of abortion – rape, incest, protecting the mother’s life, an nonviable foetus, potential for a severe disability, etc. One can also point to a number of cases where adultery is justified, or even commendable – spousal neglect or abuse, rebellion against a marriage of politics or convenience, retaliation for similar offense by one’s spouse, and so on. This truth presents another reason to avoid laws prohibiting either practice, since enforcement would involve setting up a state committee to determine the justified from the unjustified cases, which would entail a massive breach of privacy and unwarranted expense. I don’t mean to come off as less than empathetic here – we’re all selfish at times, myself included, and it’s quite easy to understand why a woman facing an unexpected pregnancy would choose the easy way out, or someone in a stale marriage would seek a quick fling on the side. But if you canvassed people in their later years, with the benefit of hindsight, I don’t think you’d find many women who’d say “I wish I’d aborted Jessica and finished grad school,” or many people who’d say “I really should have cheated on my wife more – now it’s too late!”

    In conclusion, abortion could only be made illegal through massive state intervention in people’s private lives and direct compulsion of citizens, and therefore should be safe and legal. But if human life is valuable, then bringing the foetus to term and giving birth to a healthy baby is a virtuous act that should be encouraged and appreciated, just as saving the violinist would be. I think the best course for the government to take would be to render abortion less necessary by mandating maternity leave, covering the full cost of pre-natal care for all citizens, creating a nationwide guaranteed adoption program and subsidizing contraception of all types while leaving abortion safe, legal, and available. However, this ‘third way’ is probably out of reach due to the poisonous debate that has raged these past few decades. As the two camps further polarize their positions, we have come to two opposite views on the status of the foetus. The one side claims that it is a fully realized human being with rights equal, or even superior, to those of the mother. The other side claims that the foetus is a non-entity with zero value, or even negative value, a kind of parasite. I, frankly, find both of these views ridiculous. This paradigm forces young people forming their worldview to become either anti-woman, or anti-foetus, when we should be in favor of both. I would give up nine months to save the violinist, if only I could do it. And I think many of you would, too.

    Thanks for reading, I would welcome replies. -BG

    • anat

      The fetus that is aborted isn’t Jessica. Potentials aren’t the same as actuals. The woman who might have aborted might have had some other child (maybe even named her Jessica) under conditions more of her choosing. And the woman who would have aborted and went on to have a good life likely wouldn’t have agonized over how wonderful things would have been had she chosen to bring the pregnancy to term, though both women may have toyed with the alternatives and how different their lives would have been. That many people can make whatever choice they made work doesn’t mean the alternative choice isn’t equally valid and moral.

      (And the woman who had Jessica and ended up on welfare, or trapped in a bad marriage or otherwise ended up in an unhappy situation may wonder about the alternative more often than the one who ended up happy. And similarly for the woman who chose to abort.)

      The violinist scenario does play out in real life, and we don’t demand people to follow through. People on bone marrow donor registries aren’t forced to go through if they change their minds, even if they are a very rare perfect match to a potential recipient. This is several orders of magnitude less intrusive than the violinist scenario (or the pregnancy scenario) yet we respect people’s body autonomy that much. Even though not-donating marrow kills a definite person while abortion at most kills a possible person.

    • anat

      BTW, many women who have abortions do not feel guilty or sorry about it. See for example I’m not sorry.

      Back in my early 20s I had a ‘pregnancy scare’. If it had turned out to have been a true pregnancy I would have aborted it without hesitation. And gotten on with my life. I see no reason to agonize over such a choice once made and followed through. It impacts nobody else. As opposed to your adultery scenario, which impacts at least 2 other people.

    • Celeste

      We are all familiar with the traditional “exceptions” in the case of abortion – rape, incest, protecting the mother’s life, an nonviable foetus, potential for a severe disability, etc. One can also point to a number of cases where adultery is justified, or even commendable – spousal neglect or abuse, rebellion against a marriage of politics or convenience, retaliation for similar offense by one’s spouse, and so on.

      This analogy is positively abhorrent. The only time adultery could be considered “commendable” would be in a country where divorce is illegal or divorce can only be initiated by one of the spouses (usually the husband). In most countries, this is not the case. In all of the examples you cited of “commendable adultery”, the adultery isn’t commendable at all, simply petty. Divorce is commendable in those situations.

      …it’s quite easy to understand why a woman facing an unexpected pregnancy would choose the easy way out, or someone in a stale marriage would seek a quick fling on the side. But if you canvassed people in their later years, with the benefit of hindsight, I don’t think you’d find many women who’d say “I wish I’d aborted Jessica and finished grad school,” or many people who’d say “I really should have cheated on my wife more – now it’s too late!”

      You think abortion is easy? Do you have any idea of the emotional consequences of an unplanned pregnancy? The guilt and shame that gets placed on a woman by society? Not to mention the financial hardship since abortion usually isn’t covered by insurance. None of the choices available to a pregnant woman are easy and to claim otherwise is to let your male privilege show.

      Also, you’re right, most women won’t look back and say “I wish I’d aborted that child”, but they WILL often say, “Thank goodness I had that abortion”.

      You seem to think that “virtuousness” should be the deciding factor for a woman, so that she can hold her head up in society, but you’re forgetting one major thing: It’s no one else’s god damned business. No one but the woman and her doctor get to know what her decision was (and her parents if she’s underage in some states). What you’re basically advocating here is that the woman should base her decisions off of peer pressure.

    • ema

      But if human life is valuable, then bringing the foetus to term and giving birth to a healthy baby is a virtuous act….

      Does the “human life is valuable” also apply to the woman? Because if it does, then terminating a pregnancy is virtuous.

    • Gwynnyd

      The dichotomy should not be framed as being between having a baby or an abortion. The primary choice should lie in getting pregnant or not. Perhaps the ideal scenario would be one with freely available reproductive health care in a culture that did not put a stigma on using birth control or, as a last resort in case of contraceptive failure or unexpected circumstances such as rape, an abortion as early in the process as possible.

      • Gwynnyd

        What if the music lovers were discovered *in the act* of hooking up the violinist to me? Maybe only part of the two-way blood connection had been made when I woke up and said, “What are you doing? stop!” Would I have the moral imperative to let them *finish* hooking him into me just because they had started the process before I became aware of it? Surely, it would be OK to stop them from completing the hookup if I didn’t consent to the procedure.

      • Stacy

        The dichotomy should not be framed as being between having a baby or an abortion. The primary choice should lie in getting pregnant or not.

        But now you’re framing sex as a simple choice between getting pregnant vs. not getting pregnant. Which is the way anti-choicers frame it. But that ignores the fact that women are sexual beings, who have sex for all kinds of reasons, and sometimes do it without contraceptives (or with contraceptives, and the contraceptives fail).

        And when that happens, women should not be unwilling donors (and donors for beings who, unlike famous violin players, are insentient).

    • Forbidden Snowflake

      But if human life is valuable, then bringing the foetus to term and giving birth to a healthy baby is a virtuous act

      Of the characteristics that human life has that makes us consider it valuable (or, let’s say, more valuable than that of fish), which ones, if any, does a fetus share?

      • Paul

        You are a man. Shut the **** up. JUST SHUT THE **** UP. You have no right to say a god damn thing on this issue. You do nothing but jizz a load and that is all. THIS IS NOT YOUR BODY SO THEREFORE YOU CAN STFU.

        • Chris Hallquist

          “You have no right to say a god damn thing on this issue.”

          As my grad school buddies used to say: false.

        • The Other Weirdo

          Hmm… Can’t tell if Poe or an actual opinion.

    • Paul

      Please see comment above

    • Ibby

      The main point of the analogy has been lost in the details. The primary point is this: you can’t force someone to endure the physical and psychological burden of sustaining another life just because that person has a right to live. Even if we accept that an embryo is a person, one person’s right to life does not override another person’s right to bodily autonomy.

      You could change the analogy to someone who’s not strapped to you, but who requires your daily care (which is a much less taxing ordeal than pregnancy and childbirth, btw). It still wouldn’t be okay to make you care for this person just because he needs to live.

      Causation doesn’t matter here. Even if you were somehow responsible for this person’s dependency, you can’t be forced to care for him. Imagine if we applied that to real-life situations – if you accidentally injure someone, can you be forced to personally care for that person? What if you caused someone to have kidney failure? Can you then be forced to donate one of your own?

  • jaranath

    I think the defense you’ll frequently run into with this analogy is that it’s entirely involuntary, whereas unwanted pregnancy is still very often viewed as partially voluntary. That is, as a known potential consequence of sex. Couple that with our continued cultural insanity over sex and the ubiquity of slut-shaming in debates on abortion and other reproductive issues, and you get what will be seen as a compelling argument to many. Then there are the more libertarian types who somehow see abortion as an evasion of personal responsibility (not sure why, I think it’s hypersensitivity to anyone “getting away with something”).

    I don’t think it’s entirely bogus to assign consequences from willful risk, but I think it’s bollocks in the specific case of abortion.

    Brian, I agree with anat’s comment, but I’d also like to ask: Why do you see abortion as unethical? You hint at this with rejecting a “fetus as parasite” perspective, but I’d like to know more.

    • Celeste

      I’d just like to add that the counter-argument of “…whereas unwanted pregnancy is still very often viewed as partially voluntary. That is, as a known potential consequence of sex.” is that it assumes that all parties involved in the sex had proper sex education. However, with the constant promotion of abstinence-only education and the persistence, especially among teens, of myths surrounding sex and pregnancy, the fact is that a lot of young people do NOT know that pregnancy is a consequence of sex.

    • gwen

      I don’t know about that, I took sex education in HS, and went to the library to satisfy my curiosity, but a girl I occasionally walked to and from school, had a baby and had NO idea what she did to get pregnant. Presumably she had sexual intercourse, but for some reason her mind had not connected the two. I thought she was kidding, but unfortunately she was not, and apparently it had not been explained to her AFTER the baby’s birth either….

  • Lyra

    I don’t really like this analogy, in large part because my answer to the question, “Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation?” is yes. Now, we can talk about whether or not the person should be legally required to stay hooked up to the violinist, but I would still view the decision to cut off the violinist as very immoral.

    And to be honest, the situation may be even more dire than that. Let’s take a more real world scenario and say that we have a pair of conjoined twins, one of whom could live on his/her own, and the other of which needs to stay conjoined to live. The independent twin decides that he/she doesn’t wish to use his/her body to support the other twin any longer. He/she wants to go in and have the dependent twin medically cut off from him/her. Would we allow the independent twin to go in for a medical procedure that would cut off the second twin? If we thought that the life of the independent twin was in danger from being conjoined, I imagine the answer would be yes. But if the independent twin’s life WASN’T in danger? I imagine that our legal and medical system would say no, even if this meant not just 9-months-of-connectedness, but a rest-of-their-lives connectedness.

    So, yeah. I think the whole, “the fetus is not a person” is pretty important in the whole argument.

    • Celeste

      I don’t really like this analogy, in large part because my answer to the question, “Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation?” is yes.

      I would disagree here because a person, such as myself, already has moral obligations that they need to fulfill in life and by being forced into this position, they are now unable to fulfill those other obligations. For instance, who will raise the children I voluntarily brought into this world while I’m tied to this violinist? I am responsible for them and they need me. I am NOT responsible for the violinist. My own morals and values were not taken into consideration by the kidnappers and I therefore have no moral obligation to them or the violinist.

    • Lyra

      I would also argue that we, as a society, are morally obligated to assist you in meeting your pre-existing responsibilities while you were attached to the violinist. It would be incredibly immoral for anyone to demand that you stay attached to the violinist and then declare that you need to figure out how to make that work on your own. You are no less entitled to assistance that will ensure the well being of yourself and your children than the violinist is.

      And I do think you are responsible for the violinist, because I think people are responsible for each others well being. This is part of the reason I support things like universal healthcare, food stamps, welfare, as so forth: we are responsible for the people who need healthcare, food, shelter, and so forth, even if we did not choose for them to be in need, and we did not have any control over their being in need.

      But this may just come down to a difference in how we view people’s responsibility to each other.

      • Celeste

        If I had voluntarily decided to help the violinist, I would agree with you. But this was done by force. There is a huge difference. We do help out society as a whole through our taxes, but only within reason. We do not allow the government to take our every dime and leave us bereft. Also, people have the autonomy to choose to go above and beyond by also contributing to charity. This forced “moral imperative” is not moral at all because it leaves the person bereft of their autonomy.

      • anat

        There is a huge difference between supporting another financially and with the use of one’s body. Your analogy doesn’t apply.

      • Lyra


        I don’t see how your post addresses my point. Saying, “Action X is immoral, I will attempt to convince you not to do it, and I will judge you poorly if you insist on doing it,” is not denying anyone of their autonomy. Being able to pass moral judgements on the actions of others is part of our autonomy. As I said before, a discussion as to whether or not one could legally cut off the violinist is different than if it would be moral to do so.


        It wasn’t an analogy. The only place I came close to analogy with was the conjoined twins. If you have information about how the court would rule in that instance, I would be very interested in hearing about it. I have not been able to find any such case.

    • anat

      Parents of conjoined twins sometimes elect to separate them, at the potential expense of the lives of one or both. The medical establishment usually goes with whatever the parents choose. I don’t see why the obvious choice is not to follow a request to separate if it comes from one of the twins rather than from the parents.

      • Lyra

        Yes, parents often do separate conjoined twins. But the ONLY instances I can find of such cases involve one of two circumstances:

        1) Both twins are expected to survive the surgery.

        2) One twin is expected to die after the surgery, but both twins would die without the surgery.

        If you can find a circumstance where you had two conjoined twins that were healthy together, but one would die if the two were separated, and then the two WERE separated, I would be surprised. I have not been able to find such a case.

        • Anat

          Of course the difference between conjoined twins and the violinist’s case is that the twins have equal claim to their shared life-support system (a body or two, depends how one looks at it), whereas in the violinist’s case the violinist is parasitizing the host’s body. So the host’s claim to the use of the body comes ahead of the violinist’s.

        • Lyra

          Why do the twins have equal claim to the organs? My understanding as to how this kind of thing would happen would be if one twin has some vital organ or structure that the other twin does not have. Thus, I would think that if we used the above mentioned logic, the independent twin would be justified in saying, “This is my organ, and you are only able to use it because you are hooked up to it.

          • Anat

            If the organs are clearly of one twin then it isn’t a case of conjoined twins but a case of a parasitic twin, where indeed separation can be forced, even against the parents’ will. Cases vary, the degree to which circulation is separate or shared varies.

  • Sapiens

    David Boonin (skillfully) utilizes a version of this argument in a debate with Peter Kreeft. Click Here.

  • robertbaden

    A possible consequence of jumping out of an airplane is smashing into the ground. That doesn’t mean we don’t allow skydivers to use parachutes.

    • jaranath

      Of course, we would if jumping from airplanes was frowned on in scripture, seen as “dirty” by our culture, and (for some reason) men always bounce at sea level while women always splat.

  • Todd W.

    The violinist analogy, as presented, only applies to a pregnancy which was forced upon a woman against her will. While I do think the analogy is valid for this circumstance, I also think the abortion debate tends to focus an inordinate amount on these extremely rare cases.

    Let’s say that, instead of being kidnapped and hooked up to the violinist, you had chosen to enter a sort of reverse raffle. You and 99 others were each given $5,000 and in exchange, you agree to a 1/100 chance (if your name is drawn) of being hooked up to the violinist for 9 months. Is it still wrong to force you to stay hooked up?

    Not a perfect analogy, to be sure, but closer to the circumstances of the vast majority of abortions.

    • Anat

      Todd, see the bone marrow registry example. Of course one should be allowed to change one’s mind at any moment, regardless of prior consent. It would be nice of the host to attempt to find an alternative solution, but that shouldn’t be required.

    • Ibby

      Anyone who has an unplanned pregnancy had pregnancy forced against her will. It doesn’t matter if she consented to the act that caused it. If you accidentally injured the violinist and caused his illness, would that make it okay to then strap you down and force you to sustain his life for 9 months?

  • josh

    I’m pro-abortion but I don’t think the violinist analogy works. I think you are ethically obliged to keep the violinist alive rather than kill him for your own convenience. Similarly for adult conjoined twins, one twin cannot ethically kill the other in non-life-or-death situations. The fact that the violinist’s partner was put in the situation against his/her will doesn’t really change anything. It could be equally true that this was against the violinist’s will. Would he now have the right to kill the donor to preserve his own bodily autonomy?

    You can also take the slippery slope both ways in the thought experiment: Would it be right for nine years, or if you were completely confined to bed?
    Would it be right to kill the violinist if it was nine seconds? What if the only inconvenience was a slight itch from an implanted transceiver that was used to time a heart implant in the violinist?

    Or, if one is hung up on the THEY took MY kidney but its MINE aspect: suppose the violinist was shrunk and transported inside your body, Inner Space style. Is he part of your body because he’s inside it? Or what if he uses a minute amount of oxygen gleaned from your blood cells?

    Basically, I don’t think the universe is set up to provide us with clear and happy resolutions to all conceivable moral dilemmas. I want to live in a society that leaves abortions legal (and not particularly frowned upon), but not one where we have no ethical obligations to others but those we choose.

    • Anat

      The fact that the violinist’s partner was put in the situation against his/her will doesn’t really change anything. It could be equally true that this was against the violinist’s will. Would he now have the right to kill the donor to preserve his own bodily autonomy?

      Huh? The violinist is parasitizing the host, not the other way around. Killing the host does nothing for the violinist, the violinist is dead either way. Therefore I don’t see how the reverse claim to bodily autonomy even makes sense.

      You can also take the slippery slope both ways in the thought experiment: Would it be right for nine years, or if you were completely confined to bed?
      Would it be right to kill the violinist if it was nine seconds? What if the only inconvenience was a slight itch from an implanted transceiver that was used to time a heart implant in the violinist?

      It is wrong to impose on the host’s body anything without the host’s consent. Not even for a second. If the imposition is small enough and short enough chances of consent are high, but consent should be sought. That’s what institutional review boards are for. That’s how we do medicine in western civilization. If one acts in an emergency without proper consent one might be able to get away with a short and minor imposition, but it’s a gamble. If the host complains or presses charges the doctor might be in deep trouble.

      • josh

        He’s not dead either way. The violinist could kill the ‘host’ and keep the kidney, or possibly just restrain the other person. He is now in the position where the ‘host’ is trying to kill his body, clearly a violation of bodily autonomy and then some, so you could argue he now has a right to kill in self-defence. Also don’t ignore the conjoined twin case where neither party has a stronger claim to possession of some body part. If you
        treat a fetus as a full-blown person that is arguably a closer parallel.

        There is no possibility of asking for consent in this example or abortion. Neither the fetus nor the violinist chose this position, and so cannot ask for consent from the other person. Review boards are as irrelevant to this discussion as the decisions of a group of Republican congressman. Bare in mind that their can be a distinction between what one should do, and what should be made illegal.

        You seem to want to place the slightly vague concept of bodily autonomy as an ultimate right which trumps all other considerations. I don’t see it that way. We routinely imprison people, restricting their bodily movement. We prevent psychotics from harming themselves. We give injections to children. A rough standard is “I can do what I want with my body, UNTIL that action harms another.” For a weird case like the violinist, we’ve suddenly come to that UNTIL exception.

        • anat

          While the violinist didn’t choose hir illness nor the parasitic relationship with hir host s/he can’t survive without it, at least for a while. The situation where the violinist steals the kidney can only happen because the violinist parasitized the host in the first place. (And the conjoined twins situation fails precisely because the two are equals – except for parasitic twins, of course, as opposed to the mother/fetus situation or the host/violinist situation.)

          No, it isn’t the principle of bodily autonomy and it isn’t me placing it so highly. It is the principle of bodily integrity – one which isn’t violated by incarceration but is violated by, say, taking a blood sample without consent. It is odd that anyone can think another being should be allowed to take over much of your metabolic output like that when we don’t allow much smaller intrusions, even when they may potentially save the life of another, even if there is no other choice. If it is legitimate to kill a potential marrow recipient because the potential donor isn’t willing why isn’t it legitimate to kill a fetus because the mother isn’t willing?

          • josh

            The violinist didn’t choose the situation, so it’s not theft, nor did he actively ‘parasitize’ anyone. And what exactly do conjoined twins ‘fail’? Note that I support abortion rights based on the idea that the mother and fetus are not equal in personhood. However, the twins and the violinist/host pair are. I don’t think you want to argue that the violinist temporarily needing the other to live is central, that would imply that whoever is more vulnerable has the lesser claim, which would be rather perverse.

            I didn’t introduce the term bodily autonomy. If you want to replace it with bodily integrity that’s fine. (Not saying there couldn’t be a difference in your usage, just that you need to carefully define the distinction and explain why it matters). You’re placing that highly above everything else, which doesn’t really change my view. Again, there’s the issue of whether you should consent to a blood sample to save a life, and the separate concern of whether a third party should compel you to if you don’t consent. Under the right circumstances, I would take a blood sample without consent to save a life.

            I’m aware that puts me on a slope to more difficult situations with forced organ donations and such. But I don’t care in the least about ownership rights to metabolic output, I care about quality of life. Obviously organ donation, pregnancy, etc. can have a big impact on that but I think it is silly to privilege a proxy like metabolism.

        • Anat

          OK, we are running into trouble with the nesting.

          Again, it isn’t me who is placing such a high value to being able to control what happens to anything that is from one’s skin and inwards. This is how we treat individual’s bodies in other contexts. I’m fitting both pregnancy and the violinist scenarios so they are consistent with what we do in other situations. I have shown with the organ donation situation that we are willing to accept the death of definite people as the price of preserving people’s ownership of their bodies. So why not in these two scenarios?

          • josh

            Yeah, nesting… I’ll try to keep it short.

            Remember that those two scenarios are different to me since I don’t consider a fetus a definite person, so to speak.

            You are placing a high value on bodily control, unless you are arguing that society at large does but shouldn’t. (Again, we imprison bodies, prevent suicides, take urine samples, require medications/chemical castration in certain circumstances so I’m not sure there is a consistent principle here.) Legally, I think you have a fair argument that abortion and letting the violinist die are consistent with current practice. Of course, we also accept the death of definite persons as the price of preserving ownership of a kickass Benz, so make of that what you will.

            I think an abortion opponent who supported letting the violinist die would argue that the fetus and the mother have equal claim to their bodies and to shared organs. To them, unlike the violinist, it is a natural relationship and I suppose they would argue that the mother has a responsibility to the child that is not there for a random stranger.

            For myself: imagine a society where every healthy person was expected to periodically give blood, and it was regarded roughly as we regard paying taxes. People who refuse are perhaps fined, or jailed, or refused medical treatment of their own, or maybe just viewed with opprobrium like racists and legal scammers. I have a hard time viewing that as some kind of dystopia clearly worse than our current system. Maybe I just don’t have the kind of body horror instinct some people have.

        • Anat

          josh, sure, IRL I don’t consider the fetus a person. OK, I don’t consider an embryo or early fetus a person at all, a late fetus or a young infant may or may not be persons. A two year old, who can express hir will and make explicit choices is definitely a person. I’m hazy about when precisely personhood starts. The violinist example clarifies to me that the question is irrelevant.

          There are pragmatic moral reasons to allow abortion even if one finds the idea abhorrent. Experience shows that delegitimizing abortion leads to unsafe abortions rather than stopping the practice. On the other hand, many women who have safe abortions go on to have children later. So allowing abortions saves lives while disallowing them takes lives away.

          I don’t think I can communicate with anyone who opposes abortion because we are on very different wavelengths. We are horrified by different things. Arguments from legality are more likely to be based in common ground.

  • Patrick

    I’ve always thought the violinist scenario was pretty terrible. It only speaks to people who believe that morality is determined by evaluating absolute rights. It has no convincing power for anyone else. I don’t believe in absolute rights, so…

    • Anat

      I’m not sure what you mean by absolute rights or lack thereof. Care to clarify?

      • Patrick

        The only thing the argument proves is that most people, when questioned about an ABSOLUTE right to life that overrides ALL other person’s rights to do as they please, will conclude that there exists some point where you are no longer obligated to do something against your will in order to preserve the life of another. In fact, if you read the argument as originally phrased, that’s all the argument claims to prove. That’s why it ends with the slippery slope argument, where the speaker attempts to take the person who agrees that you’re obliged to remain connected to the violinist for nine months, and ups the ante to 9 years, then to the rest of your life.

        The problem is that unless you think that morality has to be a matter of absolute “rights,” this doesn’t have any convincing power. Lets say I think that people have some obligation to do what they can to save the lives of others, but not an infinite obligation. If I think that, then there’s nothing inconsistent about me thinking that 9 months is reasonable, but that 9 years is too long.

  • Pen

    Actually, one of the real problems with the violinist analogy is that the victim is free to hate the violinist’s guts and resent him to all eternity. This is a disastrously unhealthy way for a woman to feel about her offspring even in the case of adoption. Even if the child is adopted, what if there is a point where he/she traces the birth mother and discovers nothing but hatred and resentment for what was forced on her. And for women, it’s rather like the interpersonal relationship catastrophe that follows rape. It’s really hard after a rape to form a positive sexual relationship with men. It’s really hard after a forced pregnancy to form a positive parenting relationship with children. If you end up never being able to look at another violinist without vomiting, well, you still shouldn’t have been subjected to that, but meh!

  • Aliasalpha

    I have a few questions

    Is the violinist complicit in this crime or was he unconscious the whole time? If the latter, how does he feel about the involuntary life support guilt-slavery arrangement? Now that I re-read it, the society of music lovers & kidnappers are only said to have kidnapped YOU which rather implies consent from him. In that case fuck him, he can die, complete with a complimentary punch in the face.

    Is he convalescing the entire time or am I going to be dragged on stage so he can perform?

    Are we splitting his income fairly since he’s completely dependant on me during this period? What about my job, is it concert hall one day, computer lab the next?

    Probably the most important one, what happens when I need a shit? Do I need to drag the violinist to the bathroom? What happens if we both need one simultaneously?

  • One Brow

    –if you also had that crazy view, that might lead you to some strange conclusions. You might think that abortion should be totally legal before the fetus reaches viability, but afterwards it should be legal to induce labor early with the requirement that efforts be made to save the fetus. But I don’t have to worry about that, because I don’t think fetuses are people.

    Since that is close to my position, I’m curioous why you think it is strange.

  • Anri

    One clear way in which the analogy fails is that we recognize – with good reason – that a child, born or not, is not a fully-fledged person with all of the rights possessed by adult people. We also recognize that parents have a greater control over the fate of children than non-parents. This level of control starts out almost entirely complete, and lessens.

    An example would be spanking a child. You may – so long as you are not overly forceful about it – legally spank your own child. You can, under certain circumstances, set up provisions by which you give others the right to spank your child – a school disciplinary setting, for example. I am not aware of any way in which you can legally spank an unwilling adult, or set up a situation in which others are allowed to spank them (again, assuming they are unwilling).

    The legal concept that a parent’s control over an unborn child extends even to ending the life of that child is simply a continuation of an already-extant legal concept.

    The fact that this example rests on emotional appeal rather than good argumentation can be shown by altering the situation to be hooked up to a death row inmate, or the despotic leader of a totalitarian state. We would be rightfully appalled at the concept of a head of state with a disease bringing in unwilling subjects to filter his blood for him, at the cost of their temporary freedom, and possibly their future quality of life.
    To make the analogy more accurate (thought still deeply flawed), the dependent person would have to be a total stranger, any one random person out the world’s population.

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  • Bob the Chef

    I agree with many here. The analogy is flawed. You have to be very careful with analogies. Often times they begin with “well, if you just grant me this, and maybe this and this, then I can prove this.” Except that the “this” imports a number of unjustifiable premises that conveniently make your “proof” work.

    I’m not sure anyone has proved when personhood begins. That presupposes a hefty amount of metaphysical assumptions which those who support abortion have not furnished. They merely hypothesize that neurons are necessary for personhood, that a particular configuration of neurons is necessary for personhood and that humans beings are reducible to biological matter, therefore, abortion prior to these conditions isn’t murder if murder is killing a biological being endowed with personhood. I don’t even know what significance personhood in these minds could mean. Not only don’t we have an answer of when personhood begins within this framework of assumptions (some say well after birth, which of course would justify overt infanticide), but even the assumptions are flaky. You have to ask what the moral status of ignorance in these situations is as well. Furthermore, to say that someone is a potential person makes an assumption that has to be payed attention to (and I fully expect the something like a “blueprint” analogy here which, again, is flawed). Namely, the fetus must have within itself the potential to be a particular person. The development of this person is fully determined, and barring interference, will be realized as it potentially already is. Meaning, the potentiality of this particular person, while it doesn’t exist actually, exists potentially which is actualized successively from conception until death. So potentiality is not some realm of mental possibility, but must be a potentiality within the fetus itself. One might call this an ontologically dormant kind of personhood. Second, an argument those against abortion also give is not merely about the aborted, but the aborting party and the culture it breeds. The acceptance of abortion entails deep psychological conceptual changes which may not be entirely obvious, but which nonetheless are inevitable. The respect for life becomes necessarily undermined , and in small increments, the culture follows suit. A kind of instrumental view of human beings ensues (frankly, we already have that few, given our sexual morality).

    Also, adultery is never commendable. That’s absolute rubbish. It’s so obviously wrong, I won’t bother feeding those few who persist to suggest such a thing. Rationalize all you want, but your dance won’t keep you from death.

    Lastly, the famous violinist was, as was pointed out, hooked onto me against my own will and my own good. The common good is one which doesn’t involve reducing the good of some for the benefit of others. Allowing him to continue using my blood is possibly an act of supererogation. But again, the analogy is completely off. Pregnancy is not analogous. At the very least, pregnancy in the vast majority of cases involves willful acting in a way that leads to it, even if somehow these acts were done in complete ignorance of the consequences (which is hard to believe, and if real, so rare it’s irrelevant to the discussion).

  • Maverick Christian

    I don’t think the argument is nearly as good as it first appears. As I argue in in my article on Abortion and the Famous Violinist, two things that are missing in Thomson’s thought experiment contrasted with the case of pregnancy are (a) that the victim is the son or daughter (there do appear to be at least some parental duties to children); and (b) a bodily inconvenience more akin to pregnancy. To illustrate why those differences might matter, consider the following scenario. A mad scientist infects a mother with a virus that causes bodily inconveniences identical to pregnancy for nine months, after which she will become immune to the virus. The mother knows that the mad scientist has a serum capable of curing her immediately, but the scientist won’t give it to her unless she kills her newborn son. Is it morally permissible for the mother to kill her son to get the cure? I think most people, pro-lifers and pro-choicers alike, would answer in the negative.

    Thomson’s argument from her famous violinist thought experiment thus appears unsuccessful in light of this better analogy (asking whether it is morally permissible for a mother to kill her newborn son to immediately cease her pregnancy-like inconveniences).

  • DoesNotMatter

    I don’t think the point here is being carried out far enough. That’s why some people seem to miss it. If it is alright for someone to be forced to serve as a life support system – regardless of relationship or inconvenience – what else can a person be forced to do to maintain the life of another? Most of us have two kidneys but really only need one. Can we be forced to give up one to save the life of another? What if that other person is one of our own children or a parent? Can we be forced to donate blood or plasma in times of disaster? Can we be forced to take someone who is freezing to death because they are homeless into our own home? Must I share food from my cupboard with the hungry or raid my own closet to clothe the naked? Think about it. Do you want the government forcing YOU to do what is “right” from your personal possessions?

  • Warbo

    Why a violinist?

  • Warbo

    I find a lot of good arguments addressed here on this thread that challenge this philosophy, and I have some more of my own, but there’s one specific point I’d like to make on this.

    First of all, the hard truth. Yes, you have a responsibility to let the violinist live. It’s absolutely deplorable that you were put in this situation without your consent and so by all means, sue the pants off the Society of Music Lovers. In the meantime, sit out the nine months, get some reading done and don’t murder they guy you’re hooked up to.

    “But what if it’s forever” you may ask. Well, good question. That’s not like pregnancy, is it? But what’s the difference? The difference is that if this arrangement is permanent, then you aren’t ‘curing’ the violinist, you’re sustaining him indefinitely, which means the violinist’s illness in terminal. Fetuses aren’t. Where an unborn infant’s life is before them, the violinist’s life is behind him. That’s a very different position to be in.

  • Vandergrift01

    Last time I checked, without rape, no one kidnapped a pregnant woman and plugged her into anything. If it was the first time someone had ever BEEN pregnant, maybe the violinist argument would have a chance. This pregnancy thing has been going on for a LONG time and is pretty well understood. We know what causes it and everything. SMH

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  • Ibby

    An important point that’s not being expressed: even if we accept, arguendo, that an embryo is a person, locking up a would-be murderer is NOT acceptable in society. If someone is entrusted with a dependent and has expressed desire to harm the dependent, you take away the dependent. There is no legal recourse that allows you to lock the caretaker in with the dependent and force them to care for someone against their will.

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