Abortion Is NOT Murder: Judith Thomson’s Violinist

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Thumbnail for A Defense of Abortion, arguing that abortion is not murder.

Note: this is a transcript for my video, “Abortion Is NOT Murder: Judith Thomson’s Violinist”

Years ago, when I rejected Christianity and became an atheist, something interesting happened. Although I was comfortable without God in my life, it took me quite a while to change my position on abortion- which, at least anecdotally, seems to be the experience for lots of ex-believers. I sought out debates on the topic, I read works of philosophy to get away from the political noise, and concluded that- if progressives are to win this argument, they MUST begin with personhood. In other words, they need to establish, first and foremost, that a fetus is NOT a person, and that it does NOT have the same inviolable right to life like most persons do. I knew, of course, that personhood was just ONE point of contention in the philosophical literature, but, to me, it felt like it was the biggest point- the most important point- the only point.

Recently, however, I’ve begun to suspect that this insistence on the personhood argument might be little more than a vestige of my former Christianity. After all, I’d read a number of brilliant pro-abortion arguments that conceded personhood, but still went on to make their case. I would simply tune these arguments out, and there was really no good reason why- until, of course, I looked back into my own religious past, and saw what I was in fact doing. I seemed, in short, to have accepted the Christian idea of ensoulment- that every human, or potential human, has a right to that which God has given, now sublimated into an apparently secular argument that I felt was necessary to make.

But what if personhood is NOT necessary? What if- as the philosophical literature suggests- we can CONCEDE personhood to the anti-abortionists, and STILL come away with a compelling argument for abortion? Further, IF we successfully argue from the position of bodily autonomy, we do MORE than make good on a political claim. We can also put to rest yet another hooded remnant of religious thinking, and bring the focus back on human beings making ethical choices in the only moral system we’ve ever really had.

Prior to going any further, I want to briefly discuss thought experiments, and why philosophers use them.

On first glance, a thought experiment might seem strange and even downright exotic, but that’s actually the point. By eliminating emotional triggers – such as the word “fetus” – a philosopher can get you to respond strictly to the logical content of an argument, as opposed to whatever baggage you might be tempted by. Of course, some thought experiments ARE badly constructed, and do not capture the relevant parts of reality in the way they think they do, but THIS is what’s up for debate: and not merely the fact that a thought experiment has been invoked.

Alex Sheremet in front of Not Your Liberal logo, arguing why abortion is not murder.

Perhaps the most famous thought experiment related to abortion is Judith Thomson’s Violinist, which is part of a longer essay titled “A Defense Of Abortion”. This might very well be the most well-known essay in modern philosophy, generating controversy, acclaim, as well as so much misunderstanding that I feel the need to answer a few of the most common critiques by video’s end.

First, however, let us move through the essay, point by point, so we know exactly what Thomson is arguing, what she is NOT arguing, and the possibilities this line of inquiry opens up for the question of abortion.

She begins her essay thus:

Most opposition to abortion relies on the premise that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception. The premise is argued for, but, as I think, not well. Take, for example, the most common argument. We are asked to notice that the development of a human being from conception through birth into childhood is continuous; then it is said that to draw a line, to choose a point in this development and say “before this point the thing is not a person, after this point it is a person” is to make an arbitrary choice, a choice for which in the nature of things no good reason can be given. It is concluded that the fetus is, or anyway that we had better say it is, a person from the moment of conception. But this conclusion does not follow. Similar things might be said about the development of an acorn into an oak trees, and it does not follow that acorns are oak trees, or that we had better say they are. Arguments of this form are sometimes called “slippery slope arguments” and it is dismaying that opponents of abortion rely on them so heavily and uncritically.

I am inclined to agree, however, that the prospects of “drawing a line” in the development of the fetus look dim. I am inclined to think also that we shall probably have to agree that the fetus has already become a human person well before birth.

An illustration of the slippery slope arguing when arguing that abortion is not murder.

Now, what can we conclude from all this? First, Thomson grants a fetus personhood, as well as a right to life. She does not deny either point, and even went on to argue both after the essay’s publication. Her issue- as we will see- is NOT with a fetus’s right to life, but whether THIS right to life supersedes all other rights. Furthermore, she defines the right to life more technically- it is, in HER definition, nothing more than the right to NOT be killed unjustly- which, if you think about it, is really how we all define the right to life in almost every circumstance.

She then proposes her first 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 now you’ve 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, which suggests that something really is wrong with that plausible-sounding argument I mentioned a moment ago.

To many, however, this argument works ONLY in the case of rape. After all, let’s consider the analogy. You are KIDNAPPED- that is, you are not engaging in consensual behavior with known consequences. I do not myself buy that this thought experiment applies only to rape, but at minimum, it seems to me that it absolutely demolishes the idea that we CAN’T make exceptions in the case of rape. And if after considering the “Little Violinist,” we DO make an exception in the case of rape, this implies- at minimum- that a fetus (which is of course an innocent player in all this) is not in fact the KIND of person that we think it is. In other words, there is at least one situation in which bodily autonomy trumps life.

The question, again, is whether or not one may be killed unjustly- and the answer is No, but ONLY when it is in fact unjust. Let us keep this distinction in mind as Thomson follows up with yet another thought experiment.

Suppose you find yourself trapped in a tiny house with a growing child. I mean a very tiny house, and a rapidly growing child–you are already up against the wall of the house and in a few minutes you’ll be crushed to death. The child on the other hand won’t be crushed to death; if nothing is done to stop him from growing he’ll be hurt, but in the end he’ll simply burst open the house and walk out a free man. Now I could well understand it if a bystander were to say. “There’s nothing we can do for you. We cannot choose between your life and his, we cannot be the ones to decide who is to live, we cannot intervene.” But it cannot be concluded that you too can do nothing, that you cannot attack it to save your life. However innocent the child may be, you do not have to wait passively while it crushes you to death Perhaps a pregnant woman is vaguely felt to have the status of house, to which we don’t allow the right of self-defense. But if the woman houses the child, it should be remembered that she is a person who houses it.

Given that support for Roe v. Wade in America is at an all-time high, it seems unnecessary, now, for Thomson to have even made this argument. [fly in image of poll] Yet she wrote this essay before the court case was decided, and argued this point, in particular, because as right-to-lifers were beaten back in the philosophical literature, they were left grasping at straws. Alright, they said. The mother has a RIGHT to an abortion in some circumstances. But it does not follow that she is entitled to have someone ELSE perform this abortion for her. After all, if SHE has a compelling interest in her own bodily autonomy, that’s fine, but no one else does- and, therefore, any third party which intrudes cannot use that defense when killing the unborn.

But Thomson has an answer for this, too. She says:

But this cannot be right, either. For what we have to keep in mind is that the mother and the unborn child are not like two tenants in a small house which has, by an unfortunate mistake, been rented to both: the mother owns the house. Certainly, this lets us see that a third party who says “I cannot choose between you two” is fooling himself if he thinks this is impartiality. If Jones has found and fastened on a certain coat, which he needs to keep him from freezing, but which Smith also needs to keep him from freezing, then it is not impartiality that says “I cannot choose between you” when Smith owns the coat. Women have said again and again “This is my body!” and they have a reason to feel angry, reason to feel that it has been like shouting into the wind. Smith, after all, is hardly likely to bless us if we say to him, “Of course it’s your coat, anybody would grant that it is. But no one may choose between you and Jones who is to have it.”

This shows that ‘impartiality’ is little more than a semantic game, but it does something else too. It emphasizes the idea that, above all, we are dealing with the notion of who owns what, and whether self-ownership trumps other rights, and to what degree. The anti-abortionist might still argue that, Yes, maybe the coat analogy holds, but more pertinently: what if all that’s needed for life is something so minor- say, a tiny scrap of Smith’s coat- that supplying this bare minimum ought to be required? What IS a bare minimum, anyway, and if we more properly define such minimums, do we THEN re-evaluate what bodily autonomy means?

In some views having a right to life includes having a right to be given at least the bare minimum one needs for continued life. But suppose that what in fact IS the bare minimum a man needs for continued life is something he has no right at all to be given? If I am sick unto death, and the only thing that will save my life is the touch of Henry Fonda’s cool hand on my fevered brow, then all the same, I have no right to be given the touch of Henry Fonda’s cool hand on my fevered brow. It would be frightfully nice of him to fly in from the West Coast to provide it. It would be less nice, though no doubt well-meant, if my friends flew out to the West Coast and carried Henry Fonda back with them. But I have no right at all against anybody that he should do this for me.

A plane ticket, a drop of plans, many hours spent to help another? Surely THIS is intrusive, and can’t be considered a genuine minimum for the bare necessity of life. If anything, it can be construed- at best- as an asymmetrical tax, with a huge responsibility and moral imperative placed upon just one person, and nobody else. So, what now?

Take the case of Henry Fonda again. I said earlier that I had no right to the touch of his cool hand on my fevered brow even though I needed it to save my life. I said it would be frightfully nice of him to fly in from the West Coast to provide me with it, but that I had no right against him that he should do so. But suppose he isn’t on the West Coast. Suppose he has only to walk across the room, place a hand briefly on my brow – and lo, my life is saved. Then SURELY he ought to do it- it would be indecent to refuse. Is it to be said, “Ah, well, it follows that in this case she has a right to the touch of his hand on her brow, and so it would be an injustice in him to refuse”? So that I have a right to it when it is easy for him to provide it, though no right when it’s hard? It’s rather a shocking idea that anyone’s rights should fade away and disappear as it gets harder and harder to accord them to him.

The anti-abortionist might again argue that, Yes, maybe the coat analogy holds, and maybe being given the bare minimum to life does not itself trump bodily autonomy, but still- what if a woman goes out into the freezing cold, without a coat, knowing full well the consequences? Surely we ARE responsible for what we do or don’t do, and the evils we might invite upon ourselves? If a woman engages in consensual sex, knowing what might happen, does not consent also imply a consent to repercussions? Thomson deals with this question in a final thought experiment:

Again, suppose it were like this: people-seeds drift about in the air like pollen, and if you open your windows, one may drift in and take root in your carpets or upholstery. You don’t want children, so you fix up your windows with fine mesh screens, the very best you can buy. As can happen, however, and on very, very rare occasions does happen, one of the screens is defective, and a seed drifts in and takes root. Does the person-plant who now develops have a right to the use of your house? Surely not–despite the fact that you voluntarily opened your windows, you knowingly kept carpets and upholstered furniture, and you knew that screens were sometimes defective. Someone may argue that you are responsible for its rooting, that it does have a right to your house, because after all you could have lived out your life with bare floors and furniture, or with sealed windows and doors. But this won’t do–for by the same token anyone can avoid a pregnancy due to rape by having a hysterectomy, or anyway by never leaving home without a (reliable!) army.

An illustration of people-seeds in Judith Thomson's A Defense Of Abortion
And, of course, this is exactly what so many conservatives advise- do not have sex, wait until you are thirty or forty if you must, and if you are a person who simply doesn’t want children- if you hate children, or can’t handle children, psychologically, well, tough luck. Your choices are either to remain an involuntary celibate, or to send your child off to become the ward of a welfare state these same conservatives are attempting to dismantle.

That said, I do not wish to leave you with the impression that Judith Thomson’s arguments have been universally accepted. They’ve received pushback from laypeople, they’ve endured controversy in the philosophical literature, and so it’s worth it spending the rest of this video looking at what others have said.

The most common objection to Thomson’s essay comes from those who don’t find her seed-people analogy very compelling. Now, this takes various forms, depending where you find it, so I’ve written up a synthesis of these objections into one argument, which goes like this:

As analogous as the seed-people thought experiment seems to be, it doesn’t quite capture the fact that people do go out into the world with full knowledge of consequences, and in many cases MUST take responsibility for these consequences. They are negligent, for example, if they engage in a behavior that might hurt others, or do not follow some established protocol for minimizing risk. Yet this thought experiment is written as if it adequately captures every such instance, when- at least intuitively- we know that this is not the case.

Before I rebut, I must admit that this objection does make a correct assertion. It is true that there are consequences for the behaviors we engage in, and it is true that both the law and society more broadly ARE set up to deal with or otherwise enforce responsibility for some of these consequences. That is undeniable.

However, this is only true in SOME cases- because in others, it is just as obvious that no contract would ever be enforced. Let us say, for example, that a stranger is in need of a kidney to survive. He’s been looking for a donor, and one day, you come along and agree to be that donor. So, he stops looking for a donor- at this point, you can be said to be in some way responsible, and you get together, plan the whole thing out, and a couple of months later, you’re both at the hospital. At the last minute, you decline to go through with the operation. Have you done something wrong? Maybe. Yet no one would seriously claim that you MUST go through with the donation- that you had an agreement, that you understood the consequences, that you even got the other guy to stop looking for a donor, and so, the contract must be fulfilled. And, of course, our rejection of this ‘ought’ comes strictly from the concept of bodily autonomy- that we CANNOT be compelled to be another’s surrogate, or another’s receptacle, or anything other than what we are, in our full corporal integrity.

Let us say, however, that this isn’t very compelling either. Let us assume that the analogy breaks down because WE are not responsible for this other person’s ailment, even though we agreed to help him after he had independently developed it. Alright, so let’s change the analogy. We engage in a risky behavior that MIGHT lead to organ damage in another person. Sure enough, it does. Are we then compelled to give our kidney to remedy this? The answer is still no. Even if we intentionally destroy his kidney- which goes far past a woman’s culpability in creating a child by accident- we would still not be compelled to give our kidney to correct this. Again, the appeal is the same: it is only to bodily autonomy, which seems to hold in every analogous case except those involving a woman’s body.

Let us move on to a more formal objection to this essay. The first is by philosopher Francis J. Beckwith, who has written a series of much longer articles against Thomson I might tackle at a later date. For now, I will address yet another rebuttal to the people-seeds thought experiment, titled ‘Thomson’s ‘Defense of Abortion’ At Forty’, in which he writes:

But suppose that the people-seeds found their way into your home because you sowed them there, even though you had no intention of becoming a pod-parent. In this possible world, seed-sowing, as it is called, is a deeply emotional and pleasurable activity engaged in by two people who are attracted to each other. Being adept at the nuances of anthro-horticulture, they employ the requisite seed-icide provided to them by their local Planned Planthood, because they know and understand that the activity of seed-sowing exists for the purpose of sowing-seeds, even though people engage in it because of the pleasant and desirable sensations and emotions that accompany that activity.

But a generative act remains a generative act even if those participating in it desire only its accompanying effects and do not explicitly intend that the act achieve its intrinsic purpose. In this revised version of the people-seed scenario, it seems that you are indeed responsible for the people-seeds that result from your seed-sowing.

I must say, I was a little taken aback by Beckwith’s argument. He is, from what I could tell, a decorated, professional philosopher, but insists on ‘revising’ a thought experiment which already had his revision built into it. Remember, in Thomson’s universe, it is ALREADY known that opening up one’s window IS a generative act- this IS the consequence of letting in a little air, purely for one’s pleasure, as a *proximate* cause, even if the *distal* cause- just like the distal cause for sex- might be something else altogether.

Again, Thomson proceeds from this assumption, and her question is the same as before: is there ANY action- even a so-called generative action- which compels one to give one’s body up to contract? I believe that there isn’t- not in the world of pure ideas, where we collectively recoil against such contracts, nor in the real world, since no Court would ever uphold such an agreement. All that Beckwith accomplishes, here, is a clunky and unnecessary re-phrasing that does not address the relevant parts of Thomson’s analogy.

The next objection comes from Christian apologist Greg Koukl, and is taken from an article titled “Unstringing The Violinist.” It is, in fact, a good summary of what others have argued over the years, allowing me to rebut them all in one go. I will now tackle his dissent in three parts.

Thompson [sic] is counting on a certain moral intuition- our sense of justice- rising to the surface when we consider the plight of the kidnapped woman used as a host against her will to support the life of a stranger.

[But] are there important differences between pregnancy and kidnapping? Yes, many.

First, the violinist is artificially attached to the woman. A mother’s unborn baby, however, is not surgically connected, nor was it ever “attached” to her. Instead, the baby is being produced by the mother’s own body by the natural process of reproduction.

Thompson [sic]…treat[s] the child- the woman’s own daughter or son- like an invading stranger intent on doing harm. [She] make[s] the mother/child union into a host/predator relationship.

A child is not an invader, though, a parasite living off his mother. A mother’s womb is the baby’s natural environment. [Some] want us to believe that the child growing inside of a woman is trespassing. One trespasses when he’s not in his rightful place, but a baby developing in the womb belongs there.

Judith Thomson's violinist thought experiment, arguing that abortion is not murder.

Although he claims to have found a salient difference, Koukl begins with mere padding by way of a red herring- that the fetus has not been ‘attached’ to her by some unnatural means. And it IS a red herring because it commits a peculiar form of the naturalistic fallacy. In Koukl’s example, he seems to think that which is natural is also salient: meaning, it ought to trump other logical components of an analogy, even IF the analogy does not need it for the RELEVANT parts to work. In short, Koukl has found an *arbitrary* difference between real life and the analogy, and assumes- without providing any justification- that it is a RELEVANT difference worth arguing about.

Worse, he then misreads how the rest of the analogy works. Although he claims that Thomson treats the fetus like an invading stranger, in reality, Thomson ONLY treats the fetus- and the fact that it IS a fetus- as a mere tangent. To be clear, what Thomson objects to is not the fetus itself. It could have been a tumor or a tadpole or even just a brief episode of gas that a woman does not wish to keep inside her. The question is whether anything can compel her to do just that, or whether she has entered into a non-negotiable contract. Koukl assumes that the contract MUST stand, but doesn’t explain why. Instead, he simply invokes a so-called “rightful place,” then begs the question in a foregone conclusion wrapped up in yet another iteration of the naturalistic fallacy which does not even touch upon the morally relevant portion of Thomson’s defense of self-ownership.

Thompson [sic] ignores a second important distinction. In the violinist illustration, the woman might be justified withholding life-giving treatment from the musician under these circumstances. Abortion, though, is not merely withholding treatment. It is actively taking another human being’s life through poisoning or dismemberment. A more accurate parallel with abortion would be to crush the violinist or cut him into pieces before unplugging him.

Yet this is simply another sleight of hand which willfully misconstrues the reason for Thomson’s analogy. Again- the RELEVANT question is whether YOU, as an autonomous person, can be compelled to give up your own body for another’s use. Koukl is right in saying that the thought experiment removes all blood from its imagery, just like it removes the word ‘baby’ from our emotional response. But this is not a sufficient objection.

Let us say that the violinist is not simply ‘plugged in,’ just like a fetus is not merely plugged into a woman. Let us say that the violinist has been fused with the woman, and is violently holding on to her, making removal possible only by way of a hacksaw. Now, we have blood, we have guts, we have screaming- does a kidnapped woman no longer have the right to use a hacksaw to prevent some extreme use of her body? Keep in mind that Koukl already ASSUMES that the woman has been kidnapped and drugged, but seems to imply that cutting herself free from this situation might be going a little too far. And while I understand that anti-abortionists bristle at the suggestion that they are closet misogynists, it is inadvertent slips of the tongue, like these, that really make you wonder.

His final argument is as follows:

Third, the violinist illustration is not parallel to pregnancy because it equates a stranger/stranger relationship with a mother/child relationship. This is a key point and brings into focus the most dangerous presumption of the violinist illustration: [that] it is unreasonable to expect a mother to have any obligations towards her own child.

This error becomes immediately evident if we amend Thompson’s illustration. What if the mother woke up from an accident to find herself surgically connected to her own child? What kind of mother would willingly cut the life-support system to her two-year-old in a situation like that? And what would we think of her if she did.

I find this objection particularly amusing because Koukl, himself, shows exactly what is wrong with it. Yes, a mother certainly has these obligations, but Koukl’s own amendment reveals how far these obligations in fact go. One could say that only a bad mother wouldn’t give a kidney to save a dying child, although even that is pretty harsh. But nowhere in Koukl’s thought experiment is it clear that the mother MUST go through with this. We are- again- discussing the permissibility of abortion, rather than casting non-binding judgments upon some permitted action.

Further, since Koukl likes to nitpick, allow ME to nitpick, as well- which is not even a nitpick. Notice how, in Koukl’s thought-experiment, we have a 2 year old child- that is, an independent human being with 2 years of life behind them, as well as the emotional bond this creates between mother and child. But as bad as, say, a miscarriage might be to a woman’s mental health, the death of her 2 year old will be far worse. For Koukl’s thought experiment to get at the reality of abortion in the majority of cases, this child would have to be a fetus the size of a raspberry, with neither the capacity to feel pain, nor any memories to speak of, nor any birth-pangs for the mother to recall- because she, herself, has not even gone through the child-birth that his thought experiment demands.

And while Greg Koukl might see no obvious difference between birth and non-birth, pain and no pain, a talking child of two with their own bodily autonomy, or a clump of cells still at the mercy of another’s autonomy, the revision I just offered suggests that most people do.

Now that we’ve gone through Thomson’s essay, I want to offer one final caveat. Although I now believe that bodily autonomy trumps ALL other considerations, I disagree that we MUST assume personhood, exactly for the reason that Thomson herself states. It IS arbitrary to create a dividing line between one point of pregnancy and another- it is, therefore, an all-or-nothing game. Yet this works both ways. Just as it is arbitrary for the pro-abortionists to say that this is NOT a person, ever, until the day of live birth, it is just as arbitrary to say that it IS a person from moment of conception. As a result, the following is simply not an argument:

Yes, you can hyperventilate into the camera with tears in your eyes and a quiver on your lip, but the fact is, YOU, as an anti-abortionist, need to SHOW personhood, not merely declare it by fiat. And here’s the problem- you can’t see it in photos, you won’t find it at the end of a scalpel or the floor of an operating room, you can’t make it real with your emotions, and you certainly can’t slippery-slope your way into personhood, either.

Yet the liberal position on this question IS the null hypothesis because everything around us says it is- the law, social mores, our own subjective responses, and while that is not enough for us to take a definitive stance, it is MORE than enough to demand evidence from the other side. Liberals need to remember this, and to stop fighting a defensive war when, if they just squint a little, they’d see all the wide, open, fertile land that doesn’t need to be fought for, because we’re the only ones who can see it. And, when you DO see it, shout it, communicate it, and start arguing from fresh turf.

2 Comments Abortion Is NOT Murder: Judith Thomson’s Violinist

  1. Dan Schneider

    A good if exhausting, piece.

    A point to the future. In a decade or three, all humans will likely be grown in vitro from conception to birth, esp considering male testosterone and semen deficiencies on the rise.

    But for those females that conceive the old way, the relevant q is genetic autonomy- does the woman WANT to reproduce, and with this sex partner? That is because, unless this is established, the father cd say, ok, you don’t HAVE TO carry it 9 mos.- I want the fetus and I will raise it. Does the dad have that right?

    I’d say no, because any extracorporeal birth shd need the written consent of the two WILLING parents.

    1. Alex SheremetAlex Sheremet

      I agree. I was arguing this point in the Shapiro thread, where some guy couldn’t understand why genetic autonomy is fundamental. You can’t claim to be a conservative or a libertarian, in the real sense of the words, if you don’t give people the opportunity to control their own reproductive material. The Right so often fetishizes reproduction, but does not respect it or even understand it.

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