August 3 Symposium on the 40th anniversary of Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion”

Tomorrow, August 3, I will be at the University of Colorado in Boulder participating in a symposium on the 40th anniversary of Judith Jarvis Thomson article, “A Defense of Abortion,” published in 1971 in Philosophy and Public Affairs. (For more on the symposium, go here. It is open to the public.) What makes Thomson’s argument so important is that she grants to the prolifer his most pivotal premise, that the pre-born human is a person from conception, but nevertheless concludes that abortion is in most cases morally permissible.

Thomson characterizes the prolife argument in this way: “Every person has a right to life. So the fetus has a right to life. No doubt the mother has a right to decide what shall happen in and to her body; everyone would grant that. But surely a person’s right to life is stronger and more stringent than the mother’s right to decide what happens in and to her body, and so outweighs it. So the fetus may not be killed; an abortion may not be performed.” Thomson then introduces us to her famous violinist analogy. In it you are asked to imagine that you have been kidnapped and rendered unconscious by a vigilante gang of classical music aficionados who have surgically connected you to an unconscious violinist for whom you are alone anatomically suited to be his organic dialysis machine until he fully recovers nine months later. You awake and are told that the violinist will die if you unplug yourself from him. Thomson argues that even though the violinist has a right life, you nevertheless have a right to unplug yourself from him. This allows her to make the point that even if a person, X, has a right to life, that right by itself does not entitle X to coerce another person, Y, to provide bodily aid and sustenance to X, even if such assistance is necessary to keep X alive.

You can read Thomson’s article here. In addition to chapter 7 in my book Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice (Cambridge University Press, 2007), the following are publications of mine that offer critiques of Thomson’s argument as well as similar ones:

  • craig

    The violinist analogy falls flat, for two reasons.

    First, under ordinary circumstances the pregnant mother is directly culpable for the child’s gestation. The violinist analogy would only be on point in the case of rape, and the abortion lobby is demonstrably unwilling to limit abortion to cases of rape.

    Second, the pregnant mother’s condition is in no way unnatural, seeing as how its existence is necessary to propagate human existence. Society as a whole has an interest in protecting the survival of all its members, and thus it makes sense that the ordinary means of human reproduction be protected in law. Society has no less interest in conscripting women to tolerate the nine-month burden of pregnancy than it has in conscripting men to defend society against invasion.

  • BobTanaka

    That analogy not only fails, it backfires. In that situation you *wouldn’t* have the right to unplug yourself from the violinist. Regardless of the fact that it isn’t your fault that you were connected to him, or that the connection is unnatural and invasive (neither of which is true in the majority of pregnancies), the situation still is that unplugging him would be deliberately ending an innocent person’s life, which no one has the right to do regardless of how inconvenient the person is.
    It still comes down to “nine months of inconvenience for me” or “death for you.” With all sympathy for the difficulties of pregnancy, they are nowhere near on the same level.

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  • Dry Creek Boy

    Haven’t read Thomson’s essay, but it seems to me that a more honest analogy would be not classical music afficionados who are perfect strangers that kidnap you, but immediate family members (perhaps estranged) who plug you into a dialysis machine for another immediate family member.

    I’m surprised the argument is such a benchmark. That the life being taken is one’s own child surely must be part of the argument, and if philosophy is so blind as to be inarticulate of the special duties parents owe their children then of what use is it? Pro-choicers would do better just to deny an unborn child’s personhood and be done with it.