August 28, 2011


Thomson's "Defense of Abortion" at Forty (Francis J. Beckwith, 8/05/11, Catholic Thing)

In 1971, philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson published "A Defense of Abortion." It is perhaps the most famous and widely republished article in contemporary moral philosophy.

In this article, Thomson introduces us to her famous violinist analogy. You are asked to imagine that you have been kidnapped and rendered unconscious by a vigilante gang of classical music aficionados who have surgically connected you to an unconscious violinist for whom you are alone anatomically suited to be his organic dialysis machine until he fully recovers nine months later. You awake and are told that the violinist will die if you unplug yourself from him.

Thomson argues that even though the violinist has a right to life, you nevertheless have a right to unplug yourself from him. This allows her to make the point that even if X has a right to life, that right by itself does not entitle him to coerce Y to provide bodily aid and sustenance to X, even if such assistance is necessary to keep X alive. So to apply this to abortion, even if the fetus is a human person, it does not follow that abortion is always wrong, since no one, including a fetus, has a right to use another's body against her will.

Although there are many critiques of this argument (I've published a few of them myself), there is a new one that I'd like to suggest: Thomson is not really granting the pro-life view of personhood.

...the Constitutional Law professor I had used the example of the government taking you and hooking you up to the violinist, which makes more sense given that anti-abortion laws are the government requiring you to sustain another's life. He was reluctant even to address the topic of Roe and rather than do so in the class split us up into smaller discussion groups. After having us read the world famous violinist scenario he started off by saying: "I think we can all agree that the government's action here is unjust and you should be able to demand to be released."

I asked: "Why? Setting aside the question of whether it was right or wrong for the government to employ you to save a life, the fact is that you are preserving that life and if you demand your freedom you'll kill another man. Why is your physical freedom of greater import than his life?"

The whole thing deteriorated from there (or ascended) as we were unable to even reach a basic agreement over that question of selfish interests vs obligation to others.

But it's important to keep in mind that this is Ms Thomson's basic point: that I should be allowed to kill the violinist.

Posted by at August 28, 2011 6:53 AM

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