Does “The Violinist” Hypothetical Prove the Defensibility of Legal Abortion?

I. The Violinist Analogy
Judith Jarvis Thomson presents a hypothetical in her book, A Defense of Abortion, which she thinks proves the moral justification of abortion. It’s called “The Violinist,” and here’s how she presented it:

“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 now is 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?”

On face, this may seem like a good parallel to abortion, and a pretty compelling argument, but upon closer examination, the argument really breaks down. The link I mentioned above briefly presents some of the logical flaws.

  • For starters, the hypothetical presupposes no consent – 99% of pregnancies occur from consentual sex, so we’re in a rare case already.
  • Also, extremely few pregnancies result in a woman being bed-ridden for 9 months.

So the scenario Thomson presents is analogous, at best, to an extremely rare case. But it also ignores the relationship between the parties. From both a biological and legal perspective, mother/child relationships create a bundle of rights and responsibilities. Right now, there are too many people to count on the brink of starvation. You and I have the capacity to provide them with food – or at least, some of them. But the law doesn’t hold us accountable for child abuse for every kid who dies from our failure to act. In fact, if you’re at a friend’s house, and see their child on the brink of starvation, and do nothing, many states don’t require you to do anything. But if that kid is your own child, starving in your house, you’re absolutely liable for letting him or her die. Again, that’s strictly from a legal perspective. The moral duties owed to your child, your friend’s child, and the starving masses, are at least as high, and likely substantially higher.

But the action – unplugging the tubes – isn’t analogous to abortion at all. In the violinist case, you remove the food and drink you were providing him. That might be analogous to a premature birth. The only form of abortion which works the way that Thomson describes here, by removing food and drink without actively killing the child, would be the (generally-unintentional) abortions caused by certain forms of chemical birth control: by making the uterine lining less sticky, it leaves the fertilized egg unable to implant, and the days-old child starves to death. But that early in the pregnancy, you never realize you are (or were) pregnant. So there’s just no co-occurrence of: lack of consent + assuredness that 9 months will be spent bedridden + available abortion which removes food and drink without actively killing the fetus. But if the violinist hypothetical asked, instead, “is it permissible to shoot the violinist so he stops using your tubes?” the answer is a clear no. In the case of the violinist, your action isn’t intended to kill him. In the case of abortion, it is, and many forms of abortion function only by first killing (that is, it’s murder and then expulsion from the womb).

Finally, a strong case can be made that, morally, you do (as the only human being on earth who can save this violinist’s life) owe some sort of obligation to keep him alive. After all, the value of his life is surely worth more than 9 months of your free time. It’s an inconvenience, and you can sue the Society of Music Lovers for damages, but taking an action which kills him (even unintentionally) because it’s inconvienent to you is morally wrong. This turns on the distinction between refusing to provide help and removing help already being provided. Not providing a sandwhich to a starving man may not be sinful (after all, there are tons of starving people in the world). Not providing to a starving man you’ve made contact with is more likely to be a sin. And taking your sandwhich away from a man who’s begun eating it (knowing that taking it from him will kill him) is almost definitely a sin.

Edit: Gina said… “Sounds like rationalizing to me.”

It certainly does sound that way. The fact that she even feels the need to create the hypothetical seems like an implicit acknowledgement that there’s something very off about killing a being you know to be a living human. The argument acknowledges that the fetus is a human being, and tries to explain how killing that human being is okay because of all the other times we allow human beings to die. While many pro-choicers stick to the delusion that the fetus is a “clump of cells,” (which is true, inasmuch as of our physical bodies are a composed of cells), Thomson’s argument makes murder defensible.

And not just for abortion, either, although that’s how she intends it. The argument can easily be commandeered for other areas. If you can justify killing someone for using “your” resources (be it your liver, your sandwhiches, etc.), you’ve opened the door to permitting almost every genocide in history. Remember, for example, that the Nazi Germans initially cited the need for Lebensraum (“living space”) for the invasion of Poland: that is, that the Poles were on what should be considered German land, and that the Germans needed it to survive. Or consider the impact that being material-rich has on a country’s peacefulness: it turns out, countries with lots of natural resources are more prone to violence and warfare, as they fight (both amongst themselves and against foreign powers) to acquire, preserve, and defend those resources – look to the Middle East. We’ve excused our tendency towards the sword in the name of “those are our resources!” for millenia. Thomson’s argument is just a very particularized form of the same.

2 Comments

  1. I think it’s such a false argument it would not stand – as it didn’t with you – any type of serious analysis. I guess they can’t come up with anything better because it’s simply hard to defend their position.

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