Pulling the plug on the violinist argument for abortion

For all pro-lifers have done to debunk the “bodily autonomy” argument for abortion—the idea that abortion is merely exercising a pregnant woman’s absolute right to revoke her unborn son or daughter’s “permission” to use her body whenever, however, and why-ever she wants—it occurs to me there’s one aspect of it we’ve been neglecting.

The violinist argument comes from Judith Jarvis Thomson’s 1971 Philosophy & Public Affairs essay “A Defense of Abortion,” which “grant[s] that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception,” yet justifies its destruction anyway by drawing an infamous analogy:

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.”

From this harrowing scenario, we’re meant to realize that killing a fetus is no more objectionable than unplugging yourself from the violinist would be.

In response, pro-lifers usually run down the many differences between pregnancy and Thomson’s scenario, including but not limited to (a) parents naturally owing more to kin than they do strangers, (b) a fetus’s natural right to the natural process gestating him or her, (c) the difference between withholding aid as opposed to directly applying lethal force, and (d) the fact that to be truly analogous to the vast majority of pregnancies, the kidney donor would have had to both cause the violinist’s kidney ailment and hook himself to the violinist.

All of that is true and valuable. It’s also more than a little revealing that pro-aborts have to conjure up a situation so convoluted and implausible just to make abortion seem reasonable.

But I can’t help but wonder if we’ve been negligent in leaving one of Thomson’s central premises unscathed. She relies on readers’ natural recoil against the thought of being drafted into the role of a human dialysis machine to make them emotionally uneasy with denying abortion to women. It’s a clever move—who wouldn’t be horrified?

But as we’ve explored so many times before, there’s a difference between personal feelings and objective justice. So if we’re meant to seriously entertain the violinist scenario as a meaningful ethical guide, then we have to ask: would unplugging yourself really be just?

The call would be easiest if the violinist deliberately had you kidnapped and hooked up. He targeted you and is intentionally stealing from you for his own benefit without your permission and against your will. Pull the plug on the creep.

But what if, to bring things somewhat closer to the fetus he’s representing, the violinist isn’t at fault? What if he was unconscious the whole time and played no role whatsoever in the Society of Music Lovers’ actions? Certainly the Society should be punished harshly for their crime against you, just as a rapist would be, and you’d be entitled to damages.

But the violinist is no more to blame than a baby conceived in rape would be. Once he’s been made dependent on you to live, and you know that disconnecting would kill him, do you really have that right?

I’m not so sure the answer is the unqualified “yes” the bodily-autonomy crowd assumes. Granted, I’m not sure it’s a “no” either, but I am sure of this: choices where death is on the table demand something better than just taking the first easy out we can find. I’m sure that finding ourselves in situations where there’s no ideal outcome cannot be a license to discard ethics entirely.

And I’m sure that the world pro-aborts are trying to build as they bitterly cling to bodily-autonomy absolutism, one where the primary objective in all moral dilemmas is rationalizing the most desirable outcome, is one none of us should want to live in.

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