A New Response to the Violinist Argument

Author Amy K. Hall Published on 07/10/2013

The “Violinist” argument for keeping abortion legal is an illustration created by Judith Jarvis Thompson for the purpose of clarifying our moral intuitions about abortion by considering a parallel situation. The Violinist story goes like this (see the full, original story here): A woman wakes up to find she’s been attached without her consent to a famous violinist who needs the help of her kidneys for the next nine months in order to live. If the woman detaches herself from him, he will die.

According to Thompson, since it’s clear that the woman ought not be forced by law to remain attached to this man (though he is a person with rights), in the same way, the law ought not force a woman to remain attached to an unborn child who is similarly using her body to live (though he is a person with rights).

In response to this bodily rights argument, Stephen Wagner, Josh Brahm, and Timothy Brahm (along with others—see acknowledgments) have developed a new illustration that more closely parallels the situation of a pregnant woman (including those who are pregnant by rape), which they call “The Cabin in the Blizzard.” From Stephen Wagner’s paper, “De Facto Guardian and Abortion”:

Imagine that a woman named Mary wakes up in a strange cabin. Having gone to sleep in her suburban home the night before, she starts to scream frantically. She goes to the window and sees snow piled high. It appears she is snowed in. On the desk by the window, she finds a note that says,

“You will be here for six weeks.
You are safe, and your child is, too.
There is plenty of food and water.”

Since she just gave birth a week ago, she instinctively begins tearing through each room of the cabin looking for her infant son. She finds an infant in a second room, but it is not her infant. It is a girl who appears to be about one week old, just like her son. Mary begins to scream.

Pulling herself together, she goes to the kitchen area of the cabin and finds a huge store of food and a ready source of water. The baby begins to cry, and she rightly assesses that the baby is hungry. Mary sees a three-month supply of formula on the counter in the kitchen area.

Now imagine that the police show up at the cabin six weeks later, and Mary emerges from the cabin. After determining she is in good health, albeit a good bit frazzled, one policeman says, “We’ve been investigating this situation for some time. The Behavioral Psychologists from the nearby University of Lake Wobegon are responsible. We’ll bring them to justice. We’re so glad you’re okay. Is there anyone else in the cabin?”

Mary said quietly, “There was.”

“There was?” The police hurry past her to the cabin. They search the cabin and find the infant formula unopened on the counter. They find the infant dead on a bed. The coroner confirms that the infant died from starvation.

We can see that Mary was wrong for not feeding the baby in this situation, regardless of the fact that she did not consent to these demands being placed on her. As Wagner points out, our moral intuition tells us her obligation to feed the child exists even if her only option is to use her own body to breastfeed that child, causing her great discomfort. And even if the note Mary found had a fourth line saying, “If the child in the cabin dies, you will be rescued immediately,” we still would not think her justified in killing the baby either actively or passively.

Wagner analyzes why this obligation exists:

What’s going on here? My colleague Timothy Brahm and I, in trying to put our finger on what seems to be happening in her case, called her a de facto guardian. It just happens to be the case, for whatever reason, that Mary is now in a situation in which she is the only person in the vicinity who can help a child in need. It’s as if Mary is now situated in the same way a parent or guardian is situated most of the time, but in Mary’s case, it’s by accident. Finding herself situated as a parent, she now shoulders the same obligations of a parent or guardian, and in her case, temporarily. It’s as if the obligations slipped over onto her by the accident of the situation....

A parent’s moral obligations, at least for feeding and sheltering their children, are so strong that we say there should also be laws forcing parents to do these things. If the moral obligations of a de facto guardian like Mary are simply the same obligations of a parent, yet temporary, then they must also be legal obligations. In other words, it should not be legal for a person in the de facto guardian position to neglect the feeding and sheltering of the child.

Wagner’s paper explores different variations of the cabin story (formula vs. no formula, the existence of severe physical difficulties, the baby is her own child, she’s trapped for two years instead of six weeks, etc.), responds to objections, and explains why this illustration is a much more accurate analogy to pregnancy than is Thompson’s Violinist. The full paper is worth a read.