A Response to the Violinist Argument

This is the post excerpt.


In her seminal essay, “A Defense of Abortion,” Judith Jarvis Thomson contends that, even if fetuses are persons, the choice of abortion can nevertheless be grounded in a woman’s bodily rights. In this paper, I will argue that a counterexample Thomson uses to support her conclusion elides relevant characteristics of pregnancy and abortion. Sustained consideration of those characteristics undercuts her case against the principal anti-abortion argument. I will also argue that more recent versions of the bodily rights argument made by Ian McDaniel and Kristen Hines are similarly unpersuasive.

Thomson’s strategy is to defend the permissibility of abortion by refuting the boilerplate anti-abortion argument. She summarizes this argument in the following manner: (1) all persons have a right to life; (2) the unborn human being is a person; (3) therefore (from 1 and 2), the unborn human being has a right to life; (4) a person’s right to life outweighs the mother’s right to decide what happens in and to her body; ergo, (C) abortion is impermissible. Thomson grants, for the sake of argument, that the prenatal human being is a person with a right to life. Instead, she attacks (4). She does so by criticizing formulations of the right to life that would bolster this premise in order to clear the ground for a version that undermines it (Thomson 48).

According to one prospective definition, the right to life is merely the right not to be killed. Under another definition, the right to life includes a right to be given the bare minimum needed for continued survival. Thomson seeks to undermine both interpretations by means of a bizarre but intriguing thought experiment. Suppose you awake one morning to find yourself hooked up to an unconscious violinist suffering from a terminal kidney ailment. The Society of Music Lovers has abducted you and plugged the violinist’s circulatory system into yours so that your kidneys can be used to extract the poisons from his blood. The director of the hospital expresses his regret for what the Society of Music Lovers has done to you against your will, but maintains that to unplug you would be murder. You need not worry, though, for you will only have to remain plugged in for nine months, by which time the violinist will have made a full recovery and can be safely separated from you (Thomson 48-49).

The notion that you would be morally required to remain plugged in is absurd. The right to life cannot be a right not to be killed, for it would not be wrong to unplug from the violinist, even though this will kill him. Nor can the right to life include a right to be given the bare minimum needed for continued life, for you are under no obligation to stay attached to the violinist. Unplugging from the violinist is a form of killing, but it is not unjust killing because he did not have a right to use your body. It follows that the right to life is best understood as a right not to be killed unjustly. So, (4) is in need of defense. To show that abortion constitutes unjust killing, one must first show that the fetus has a right to use the mother’s body to sustain itself.

Thomson raises important points that opponents of abortion must address. However, she overlooks aspects of pregnancy and abortion that weaken the applicability of the violinist counterexample to abortion. An analogy is apt only to the extent that it is relevantly similar to the situation it is meant to illuminate. Though the violinist counterexample was not intended to be an analogy, in treating it as an analogy a number of points emerge that can be used against Thomson.

For example, even if it were true that the pregnant woman has no obligation to support the fetus, it wouldn’t necessarily follow that she has a right to directly kill it. Consider the violinist hypothetical again, but with the unplugging replaced by a means of separating yourself from the violinist that directly assaults his body. Imagine, for instance, that instead of unplugging from the violinist, you were to poison, crush, or dismember him. When the thought experiment is adjusted in this way, our intuitions shift. So the strength of the analogy depends partly on what method is employed in the abortion.

Is abortion more like unplugging or more like direct killing? In the vast majority of abortions, the fetus is directly killed, whether as a means or as an end, not simply detached from the mother’s body. This fact alone suffices to rule out nearly all abortions as immoral. But could abortion be justified if performed in a way more comparable to unplugging (perhaps via an abortifacient like RU-486, which turns off the pregnancy hormone and detaches the fetus from the woman’s uterus)? The answer to that question depends, as Thomson shows, on whether the fetus has a right to be sustained by its mother’s body.

The violinist clearly does not have the right to be sustained by your body. However, being kidnapped and hooked up to an unconscious violinist is not really analogous to the typical pregnancy. In the violinist example, you bear no responsibility for the violinist’s dependent condition; in the typical pregnancy, on the other hand, the biological parents are responsible for the fetus’s dependent condition. When you have sex you participate in an act that you know might result in the creation of a dependent human being. Consequently, having sex generates an obligation on the part of both the mother and father to feed, clothe, and shelter any human being they might bring into existence.

In his paper, “Nudging the Responsibility Objection,” Gerald Lang provides further support for this line of thought. He invokes a scenario in which a number of people are gathered for a party on a dock. One guest accidentally bumps into another, knocking him into the water. The guest who has plunged into the water cannot swim and will drown if no one rescues him. It is plausible to conclude in this case that the nudger acquires a special obligation to rescue the drowning guest. Similarly, it is plausible to hold that a woman who engages in sexual intercourse voluntarily is partly responsible for the resulting pregnancy, even if it was not intended or desired (Lang 58). If you are responsible for someone’s being in a vulnerable and dependent state, then you plausibly acquire a special obligation to continue to come to his aid (Lang 63).

Our child support laws are grounded in the intuition that parents have an obligation to care for their progeny. We intuitively grasp that the father’s obligation to his offspring stems from the fact that he engaged in an act which he knew could result in the creation of a human being. A single sexual mistake is sufficient to create a legally enforceable obligation on his part to pay potentially vast sums of money in child support (Pavlischek 348). But if mothers have no non-voluntary duties to their children, then this should hold true for fathers as well. It would entail that fathers should not be legally compelled to pay child support to the women they impregnate unless they explicitly choose to take responsibility for their children. This is ludicrous. The intuitions about parental obligations that undergird our child support laws are far more plausible than the unfettered autonomy which Thomson presupposes. We know that fathers have duties to their children. By the same logic, we can know that mothers have duties to their children.

Human biology is such that fetal human beings require a woman’s body for their continued survival. Because a fetus’s mother is the only person in the world who can provide this service, her duty to provide basic care to her offspring conceived through voluntary sexual intercourse encompasses an obligation to carry the fetus to term. Her bodily rights do not outweigh the right of her offspring to use her body for continued life. In fact, this obligation to give of one’s body if necessary to sustain one’s offspring exists even after birth. Imagine a woman who goes on vacation with her baby to a remote cabin stocked with enough food to sustain her for the duration of her stay there, but without any baby formula. The lack of baby formula in the cabin means that the only way to nourish her baby is to breastfeed, but she finds breastfeeding unpleasant and experiences it as an infringement on her bodily autonomy. Would she be justified in “unplugging” the baby from her breast and allowing it to starve on the grounds that she is not obligated to use her body to sustain the life of another? Of course not. And she could be legally held accountable for refusing to breastfeed in this circumstance.

In his article, “The Responsibility Objection to Abortion: Rejecting the Notion that the Responsibility Objection Successfully Refutes a Woman’s Right to Choose,” Ian McDaniel attempts to salvage the bodily rights argument. McDaniel grants the force of the killing vs. unplugging objection, conceding that even if the bodily rights argument is successful it can only justify cases in which the fetus is removed from the woman’s uterus and then dies as a result of its own body’s inability to sustain its life (McDaniel 297-299). But he notes that, given that we do have various means of removing the fetus from the woman’s body without directly killing it, this objection shows only that we should change the way we perform abortions, not that we should cease performing them in most cases. The bodily rights argument stands or falls on whether a woman has a duty to sustain the life of the fetus she carries. McDaniel thus seeks a way to exonerate the woman of a duty to sustain the life of her fetus that can withstand the objections levied against Thomson’s paper. To this end, he draws a distinction between causing a person to be in a vulnerable and dependent state and causing a person to exist with the result that they are in a vulnerable and dependent state. The former generates a responsibility to come to the person’s aid, the latter does not.

McDaniel then presents an updated version of Thomson’s violinist example intended to demonstrate the moral significance of this distinction. Imagine that you are a doctor and a famous violinist has come to you to be treated for a potentially terminal disease. The only known treatment is a drug that, unfortunately, is known to have the side effect of inducing an equally life-threatening kidney condition in several years time. Oddly enough, it just so happens that you are the one person on earth with the right blood type to save the violinist’s life when he contracts the kidney ailment. If you remain hooked up to the violinist for nine months, allowing him the use of your kidneys, his kidney condition will be permanently ameliorated and his life preserved. You treat the violinist with the drug, thereby extending his life, and as expected, a few years later he develops the kidney ailment (McDaniel 293-294). In short order, the violinist’s attorney calls you at your office to instruct you to put your affairs in order and prepare to spend the next nine months attached to his client. Would you really have a moral, let alone legal, obligation to spend the next nine months as bodily life support? Your treatment caused the violinist to exist at this point in time with the result that he is dependent on your body for continued survival. Even so, you certainly are not obligated to allow him the use of your kidneys.

McDaniel argues that this revised violinist example has implications for abortion. If your responsibility for the violinist’s existence with the result that he is dependent upon your body does not create an obligation to remain attached to him, a pregnant woman’s responsibility for the existence of a fetus with the result that it is dependent upon her body does not override her bodily autonomy (McDaniel 294). Hence, (4) is incorrect.

But accepting McDaniel’s distinction leads to absurd consequences. For example, if it is true that a mother is responsible only for the existence of the fetus and not its dependency on her, then, though it may be wrong for a pregnant woman to use drugs because of their effect on her own well-being, the wrongfulness of her drug use would not in any way be magnified due to its harmful effect on the well-being of the fetus she carries. If she has no duty to sustain the fetus’s very life, then how could she have a duty to refrain from participating in activities that could impair its future well-being? She may be responsible for the existence of the fetus, but she bears no responsibility for its vulnerability to harm as a result of her drug use.

Furthermore, as in the case of Thomson’s original violinist example, there are factors here that are disanalogous to pregnancy. Unlike the mother of a fetus, you are not responsible for the violinist’s existence as such, but only for the violinist’s being healed. You did not bring the violinist into existence in a needy condition, but rather generously extended his existence by remedying his antecedent neediness, a condition for which you were not responsible. Conversely, the parents of a fetus do bring a person into existence in a needy condition. The coming to be of a fetus and its coming to be in a vulnerable, dependent condition are concurrent. It is therefore dubious to distinguish between responsibility for the existence of a fetus and responsibility for its neediness.

A thought experiment may help to illuminate the dissimilarity. Imagine that there is a special room with a baby making machine. If you push a button on it you have an intensely pleasurable experience, but every so often pushing the button also causes a baby to come out the chute at the bottom. A man who wants to have the pleasurable experience but doesn’t want a baby decides to push the button anyway and a baby happens to come out this time. Following McDaniel’s principles the man could claim that he is only responsible for the baby’s existing with the result that it is in a vulnerable and dependent condition. It is not his fault that the baby cannot survive on its own. But it is obvious that he can’t just walk away and leave the baby to starve to death. Why? Because he knowingly engaged in an act he knew had a chance of producing a vulnerable and dependent child. Proponents of the bodily rights argument will have to make their case on other grounds than those offered by McDaniel. I turn now to one such attempt.

In her article “How to Understand a Woman’s Obligations to the Fetus in Unwanted Pregnancies,” Kristen Hines argues that responsibility for the existence of a needy fetus does not necessarily entail a moral obligation to assist the fetus. Hines sets forth two conditions that are jointly sufficient to obviate one’s duty to assist a person whose neediness one has caused. The first is the cost of assistance. If the burden of providing assistance is severe enough, one may not be obligated to render this assistance. The second is that one took precautions to avoid the undesirable consequence that was the foreseeable result of one’s action. If one was careful to minimize the likelihood of such an outcome, one’s duties will not be as stringent (Hines 243-244).

Applying these principles to abortion, Hines argues that if the cost of pregnancy is high enough and steps were taken to prevent pregnancy from occurring, then a woman will not have a duty to carry the pregnancy to term. She asks us to imagine a scenario in which a college-aged woman has an unwanted pregnancy. Suppose that she used two different types of contraception, both of which failed, and suppose also that, although this young woman will give the baby up for adoption, the psychological and emotional stress of carrying and giving birth to the child will cause her to drop out of college. As a result of dropping out of college she will be forced into minimum-wage jobs, none of which will provide her with enough income to meet her basic needs. The entire trajectory of her life will be altered for the worse because of the unwanted pregnancy. Hines concludes that, in a case like this one, the cost to the mother is high enough that she does not have an obligation to carry the fetus to term (Hines 245).

But Hines can only reach this conclusion by implicitly assuming that fetuses do not have the same moral status as postnatal human beings. Meeting one’s obligations to one’s children sometimes requires tremendous sacrifices–lack of sleep, new sources of stress, and limited time to pursue one’s interests are often among them. Parenthood can even frustrate one’s ability to realize aspirations central to one’s identity and life plan. For example, I may aspire to be the next Hemingway and desire to spend the bulk of each day honing my craft by reading and writing. But if I am a father and have a job, then my duty is to keep that job so that I can support my children. Parenthood by its very nature imposes obligations that one cannot opt out of, even if one finds them inconvenient or burdensome. Therefore, assuming that fetuses are persons, the high costs of an unwanted pregnancy cannot justify abortion anymore than the high costs of parenthood could justify smothering or abandoning one’s four-year-old child.

One might respond that robust duties to care for one’s postnatal child exist only because one implicitly consented to care for him or her by carrying the pregnancy to term rather than procuring an abortion. Infanticide and child neglect to avoid the burdens of parenthood would thus be wrong, but abortion would not be. But this cannot be right. Imagine a mother who wanted an abortion but was unable to afford one. She gives birth and takes the baby home with her only because she did not have the means to procure an abortion. Moreover, in this society, for whatever reason, people are not willing to adopt. Though the mother did not consent to care for the baby, it would clearly be wrong for her to abandon the baby in the woods or allow it to starve to death in its crib. The source of her responsibility must be that she voluntarily engaged in an act oriented to the creation of a vulnerable and dependent human being. If fetuses are persons, as Hines is willing to grant for the sake of argument, then abortion to avoid the burdens of parenthood simply cannot be justified.

Further, Hines’ argument that using contraception can exonerate one of responsibility to one’s offspring is indefensible. We typically do not assume that the fact that one took steps to make the foreseen result of an action less likely absolves one of moral responsibility if that result does occur. A drunk driver who causes deaths should be held responsible, even if he or she tried to prevent it by drinking Red Bull to stay alert and taking an alternate route with fewer cars on the road. If my friends and I decide to play a game of pickup baseball next to my neighbor’s window and I end up breaking the window, I would have a responsibility to compensate my neighbor for the broken window even if I was trying to bat in the opposite direction. And contraceptive failure does not discharge a father from the duty to pay child support. We are generally responsible for the foreseeable results of our actions even if we try to avoid them.

Consider the baby making machine example again, with a few minor tweaks. Imagine the baby-making machine has buttons on it, corresponding to different types of contraception and their effectiveness. Perhaps it has a “pull-out” button that barely reduces the pleasure, but doesn’t significantly reduce the likelihood that a baby will come out, a “condom” button which reduces the pleasure the most, but only leaves a 1% chance of a baby, and other options of intermediate pleasure and effectiveness. Even if you push one of the buttons that reduces pleasure to minimize the risk of a baby’s coming out, if a baby ends up coming out anyway you would manifestly still be responsible for it, for you engaged in an act that you knew might result in the creation of an inherently needy infant.

In conclusion, neither Judith Jarvis Thomson’s bodily rights argument nor the modified versions of her argument given by Ian McDaniel and Kristen Hines can withstand our best and most rigorous moral reasoning. Their criticisms of (4) are unpersuasive in cases of voluntary intercourse, which constitute the overwhelming majority of pregnancies. Therefore, the bodily rights objection to the basic anti-abortion argument does not succeed.


Works Cited

Hine, Kristen. “How to Understand a Woman’s Obligations to the Fetus in Unwanted Pregnancies.” Journal of Bioethical Inquiry 10.2 (June 2013): 239-247. Print.

Lang, Gerald. “Nudging the Responsibility Objection.” Journal of Applied Philosophy 25.1 (2008): 56-71. Print.

McDaniel, Ian. “The Responsibility Objection to Abortion: Rejecting the Notion That the Responsibility Objection Successfully Refutes a Woman’s Right to Choose.” Bioethics 29.4 (2015): 291-299. Print.

Pavlischek, Keith J. “Abortion Logic and Paternal Responsibilities.” Public Affairs Quarterly 7.4 (1993): 341-361. Print.

Thomson, Judith Jarvis. “A Defense of Abortion.” Philosophy and Public Affairs Autumn 1971: 47-66. Print.



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