Unstringing the Violinist

Author Greg Koukl Published on 02/04/2013

Judith Jarvis Thompson’s “Violinist” argument is one of the most compelling ever offered in favor of abortion on demand, but it’s deeply flawed. Here’s where it goes wrong.

I remember exactly where I was the first time I heard Judith Jarvis Thompson’s “Violinist” argument. I was driving south on the 405 freeway in Los Angeles listening to a radio talk-show. It shook me up so much I almost had to pull over.

Not only was the argument compelling, but Thompson made a stunning concession when she acknowledged the full personhood of the unborn. Having conceded what pro-lifers were trying to prove, she short-circuited their argument from the outset.

My first impulse was to throw in the towel. The argument couldn’t be answered, I thought. This is often the case with carefully worded philosophical treatments. At first glance they appear compelling. On closer inspection, though, the flaws begin to show. In this instance, the problems with Thompson’s argument are fatal.

The Violinist Argument

The details of Judith Jarvis Thompson’s argument are important, so I will quote her illustration in full. Entitled “A Defense of Abortion,” it first appeared in 1971 in the Journal of Philosophy and Public Affairs.1

I propose, then, that we grant that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception. How does the argument go from here? Something like this, I take it. Every person has a right to life. So the fetus has a right to life. No doubt the mother has a right to decide what shall happen in and to her body; everyone would grant that. But surely a person’s right to life is stronger and more stringent than the mother’s right to decide what happens in and to her body, and so outweighs it. So the fetus may not be killed; an abortion may not be performed.

It sounds plausible. But now let me ask you to imagine this. 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 now is 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 you’ve now 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,2 which suggests that something really is wrong with that plausible-sounding argument I mentioned a moment ago.

Judith Jarvis Thompson correctly shows that an additional step is needed to bridge the gap between the premise that the unborn is a person and the conclusion that killing the unborn child is always wrong. What’s needed is the additional premise that taking the life of a person is always wrong. Killing, however, is sometimes permissible, most notably in self-defense.

The reasoning in the violinist illustration is very tight. Thompson accurately represents the pro-life position, and then offers a scenario for us to consider. The analysis employs two powerful techniques of argumentation: an example that appeals to moral intuition followed by a logical slippery slope.

The logical slippery slope works like this. When one thing is immoral, and a second is logically similar in a morally relevant way, the moral quality of the one “slips over” into the other. For example, murder is immoral, and some think capital punishment is similar enough to murder to make capital punishment immoral too.

Thompson 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.

She then asks us to consider if having an abortion is a meaningful parallel to unplugging the violinist. Both circumstances catch the woman by surprise. Both the violinist and the unborn child are attached to her body, which both need in order to survive. Both will release her in nine months.

Thompson’s view is that disconnecting the violinist is morally justified even though he’ll die, and there seems to be merit to this appeal. To stay connected would be heroic—“a great kindness,” in her words—but, like all acts of heroism, it is voluntary and not morally required.3 If that’s the case, then it’s moral to abort a child, even if he or she is a fully human person, just like the violinist. If the first is morally acceptable (unplugging the violinist), and if the second (having an abortion) is similar to the first in a relevant way, then the second should be acceptable also.

A recent book, Breaking the Abortion Deadlock: From Choice to Consent,4 uses the same approach. Author Eileen McDonagh points out that if a woman’s liberty is being threatened in some fashion—if she is being attacked, raped, or kidnapped—then the law gives her the latitude to use lethal force to repel her attacker.

Pregnancy, McDonagh argues, is this kind of situation. “If a woman has the right to defend herself against a rapist, she also should be able to use deadly force to expel a fetus,” she writes.5 In pregnancy, a woman is being attacked by another human being—from the inside, not from the outside. Therefore, she has the moral liberty to repel her attacker by killing the intruder.

It does seem obvious that a woman ought to be allowed to protect herself from an attacker and use lethal force to do so, if necessary. If this is true, then we must concede the legitimacy of abortion, which, McDonagh claims, is parallel in a relevant way.

Parallels That Aren’t Parallel

The key question in any slippery slope appeal is whether the two situations are truly similar in a morally relevant way. If not, then the illustration is guilty of a logical slippery slope fallacy. The analogy fails and the argument falls apart.

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.

Both Thompson and McDonagh treat the child—the woman’s own daughter or son—like an invading stranger intent on doing harm. They make 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. Eileen McDonagh wants 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.

Thompson 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.

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, also echoed in McDonagh’s thesis. Both presume it is unreasonable to expect a mother to have any obligations towards her own child.

The violinist analogy suggests that a mother has no more responsibility for the welfare of her child than she has to a total stranger. McDonagh’s view is even worse. She argues the child is not merely a stranger, but a violent assailant the mother needs to ward off in self-defense.

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?

Blood relationships are never based on choice, yet they entail moral obligations, nonetheless. This is why the courts prosecute negligent parents. They have consistently ruled, for example, that fathers have an obligation to support their children even if they are unplanned and unwanted.

If it is moral for a mother to deny her child the necessities of life (through abortion) before it is born, how can she be obligated to provide the same necessities after he’s born? Remember, Thompson concedes that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception. If her argument works to justify abortion, it works just as well to justify killing any dependent child. After all, a two-year-old makes a much greater demand on a woman than a developing unborn.

Thompson is mistaken in presuming that pregnancy is the thing that expropriates a woman’s liberty. Motherhood does that, and motherhood doesn’t end with the birth of the child. Unlike the woman connected to the violinist, a mother is not released in nine months. Her burden has just begun. If Thompson’s argument works, then no child is safe from a mother who wants her liberty.

In the end, both Thompson’s and McDonagh’s arguments prove too much. They allow us to kill any human being who is dependent upon us, young or old, if that person restrains our personal liberty.

The simple fact is, in a civilized society no one has the freedom to do whatever she wants with her own body. Liberty unfettered by morality is the operative rule of anarchy, not civilization. At any given moment, each of us is constrained by hundreds of laws reflecting our moral responsibilities to our community. The most primal of those rules is the obligation of a mother to her helpless child. This is one of the reasons the public outcry against Susan Smith was so intense.

Susan Smith Morality

Susan Smith shocked the nation with the murder of her children. She believed her two young boys were an obstacle to remarriage, so she placed them in her car, fastened their seat belts, and drove them into the lake.

Smith’s crime was especially obscene because she violated the most fundamental moral obligation of all: the responsibility a mother has for her own children. Yet wouldn’t Susan Smith be exonerated by Thompson’s and McDonagh’s logic? These children were kidnappers and interlopers, trespassing on Smith’s life, depriving her of liberty. Why not kill them? Those boys were attacking her. It was self-defense.

Last year, a couple in New York was arrested when authorities learned they took a 10-day vacation to Florida and left their young children behind to fend for themselves. If McDonagh’s and Thompson’s arguments work, these parents should be released from jail because they bear no more obligation towards their own children than they do to strangers across town or burglars who break into their house. Those children were invading their privacy, trespassing in their home, stealing their food.

This argument is frightening for two reasons. First, it must reject the notion of parental responsibility in order to succeed. Second, in spite of that weakness, people in high places think it’s compelling. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing in the North Carolina Law Review, has admitted that Roe v. Wade was deeply flawed, and instead quoted the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment in support of abortion. Women get pregnant, she argued, men don’t. Abortion gives women a shot at equality. She then cited Thompson for support.

The responsibility a mother has toward her child supersedes any claim she has to personal liberty. If it doesn’t, if Thompson’s and McDonagh’s arguments succeed, then release Susan Smith. Release the deadbeat Florida tourists. If parenthood is an act of heroism, if mothers have no moral obligation to the children they bear, if child-rearing is a burden “above and beyond the call of duty,” then no child is safe, in the womb or out.

Resources for Additional Study

Pro-Life 101: Making Your Case

Making Abortion Unthinkable DVD

Great Abortion Debate!