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.


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