Is abortion ethical? Judith Jarvis Thomson, who died five days ago, created one of the most well-known thought experiments in modern ethics. In her 1971 paper “A Defense of Abortion,” she presents the thought experiment of the unconscious violinist.
Is abortion ethical? Judith Jarvis Thomson, who died five days ago, created one of the most well-known thought experiments in modern ethics. In her 1971 paper “A Defense of Abortion,” she presents the thought experiment of the unconscious violinist:
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. [If he is unplugged from you now, he will die; but] in nine months he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you. – (Thomson, A Defense of Abortion)
This thought experiment is supposed to show that even if we agree that a fetus has a right to live (like the violinist undoubtedly has!), we can still defend the mother’s decision to have an abortion (or, in the thought experiment, the kidnapped person’s decision to have the violinist removed).
Sometimes, so Thomson, the right of a person to decide about their own body trumps even someone else’s right to life.
This argument is intriguing because it moves the abortion debate away from the question of whether the fetus has a right to live and towards the issue of the mother’s right to decide about her own life. Too often, abortion is debated in relation to the personhood of the fetus: when its heart begins to beat, when the (Christian) soul enters the fetus, when it begins perceiving pain or when it becomes able to move or interact with external stimuli. All these are important milestones in a fetus’s development, but, according to Thomson, they miss the point. Because even when we assume that a fetus has full personhood rights (as the famous violinist certainly has!) – even then it seems unjust to force the mother to serve the violinist’s needs.
But is abortion ethical?
But if we think about the argument a little longer, all sorts of difficulties start to appear.
First, it seems that there is a significant difference between being kidnapped in the night and strapped to another person without one’s consent, and, on the other hand, having sex that leads to pregnancy. The sexual act is, usually, consensual, and bears an inherent risk of pregnancy of which the consenting partners are (or should be) aware. Nothing like that is true of the forced union with the violinist. Therefore, the argument could only be used in favour of abortions after rape, but not in cases of voluntary sexual activity.
Another relevant difference to the question of whether abortion is ethical seems to be that the fetus is the mother’s own child, while the violinist is a stranger. The family bond between the mother and the child can be seen as the foundation of a special duty of the mother towards the child – a duty that she does not have towards the violinist.
And, finally, there seems to be some issue with the question of whether the mother is allowed to actively kill the baby. Abortion seems to be a direct act of terminating the life of the fetus. While removing the violinist from one’s body is not killing him. It is just letting him die of natural causes that are outside of the influence of the kidnapped person. Surely, committing a crime directly and letting an unfortunate situation occur, are two ethically different kinds of actions and should be judged differently.
Despite these problems (or perhaps even because of them), Thomson’s argument has been at the forefront of the abortion debate for fifty years now, and it doesn’t seem to lose any of its interest and force.
The vast majority of philosophers would count themselves blessed if they had created one argument in their lives that people will remember after they are gone. Judith Jarvis Thomson will forever belong to that small circle of the great.