Abortion

Deconstructing Thomson's violinist model as a defense for abortion

One of the great ongoing debates in American society involves when, if ever, abortion is permissible. A common argument made in favor of abortion has been that a woman has the right to determine what happens with her body. If she does want to undergo the ordeal of a pregnancy, she should be able to terminate it. Judith Jarvis Thomson has attempted to add weight to this claim by proposing a hypothetical situation where a woman is essentially tethered to a famous violinist, who lives off the woman's organs. Thomson's scenario, upon closer inspection, is a poor analogy to the abortion debate and is easily dismissed. Thomson ignores more solid defenses of abortion to present this analogy that is, at times, bewildering.

Thomson's hypothetical case involving a violinist bears only marginal applicability to the abortion debate. In essence, Thomson envisions a case where a person wakes up connected to an ill but famous violinist - who the person who has never met. The violinist, who has a right to live, needs to siphon off the healthy person's organs for nine months, regardless of that person's consent. We can all agree that such a case would be an injustice, but we should also agree that Thomson's hypothetical fails to capture the essence of the abortion debate - or pregnancy for that matter.

The first problem with Thomson's argument is that it invokes a sense of social position that is, at best, barely applicable to the abortion debate. When a reader considers Thomson's hypothetical, that reader is supposed to feel a bit of outrage that this violinist is permitted to leach off another person's organs simply because he is famous and talented and there is a strong interest in keeping him alive (Thomson, 1971). That sense of social inequality is not prevalent in the abortion debate. One would be hard-pressed to find anyone arguing that abortions should not occur because the fetuses are in a socially superior position to the mothers. At most, we hear the argument that the unborn baby, as a human, deserves at least as many rights as the mother. But the idea that the unborn baby's life is superior to that of the mother's, as in the case of the violinist, is not a core argument.

Second, Thomson has seemingly forgotten how pregnancies occur. In her example, the person wakes up chained to an adult violinist to whom the person has neither a connection nor a moral obligation. By and large, this is not how pregnancies occur. Women do not just wake up one day with a fetus living off of them, with no idea how that fetus was created. Pregnancies occur because adults take actions that create a fetus. This unborn baby is not some stranger leaching off an adult who should bear no moral responsibility. The unborn baby was created by the adult, through the adult's actions, and, as a result, there is a very real moral responsibility. Thomson does not sufficiently acknowledge this responsibility and can only bring herself to accept "at most that there are some cases in which the unborn person has a right to the use of its mother's body, and therefore some cases in which abortion is unjust killing" (Thomson, 1971). It would be…