A (female) violinist and one of the friends who kidnapped you.
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Chances are you’ve heard of ‘the violinist argument’, which Judith Jarvis Thomson famously made in her 1971 philosophy paper, ‘A Defense of Abortion’. Before the referendum, I remember one pro-choice activist mentioning it as the pro-choice argument that she had never heard a pro-life person refute (though there are a few of those).

There are lots of good objections to the violinist argument. (And many of them have been made by well known professional philosophers who are pro-choice and who don’t think that the argument works – we hope to do a short series on this at some stage!). But there are a lot of pro-choice (and pro-life) people who haven’t heard them. This blog is going to quickly describe some of the responses that have been made to the argument, and link to other pro-life sites where these points are argued in more detail.

But first, what is the violinist argument? It’s good to be clear about what it is and isn’t saying. The first thing to note is that it’s emphatically not an argument about whether the fetus is a human person or not. Thomson begins the paper by briefly discussing her views on this:

I am inclined to think also that we shall probably have to agree that the fetus has already become a human person well before birth. Indeed, it comes as a surprise when one first learns how early in its life it begins to acquire human characteristics. By the tenth week, for example, it already has a face, arms and legs, fingers and toes; it has internal organs, and brain activity is detectable. On the other hand, I think […] that the fetus is not a person from the moment of conception. A newly fertilized ovum, a newly implanted clump of cells, is no more a person than an acorn is an oak tree.

But, she says, she ‘shall not discuss any of this’ [emphasis mine]. Why? She says that

it seems to me to be of great interest to ask what happens if, for the sake of argument, we allow the premise [that the fetus is a human being, a person, from the moment of conception]. How, precisely, are we supposed to get from there to the conclusion that abortion is morally impermissible? 

So, her argument assumes that the fetus is a human person from the moment of conception onwards (even though Thomson herself does not believe this). But she thinks that even if you grant this, abortion should be legal. 

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. [emphasis mine]

And, most pro-life advocates will agree that yes, this argument does pretty much capture the logic of our position! So what is Thomson’s objection to this line of reasoning? A lot happens in ‘A Defense of Abortion’: as well as using thought experiments about violinists, it features ‘people seeds’, you being trapped in a tiny house with a rapidly growing gigantesque child who could crush you to death, people arguing about coat ownership and so on. While I obviously don’t agree with its conclusion, I personally kind of like the paper. I’m not going to go into most of it. But this is how Thomson starts her argument against the pro-life position she outlines by asking the reader how they would react to the following scenario: 

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 is now 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 now you’ve 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, which suggests that something really is wrong with that plausible-sounding argument I mentioned a moment ago.

Later in the piece, Thomson argues that even if staying hooked up to the violinist would be a decent thing to do, it definitely shouldn’t be legally required of you. 

So, how’s a pro-lifer to respond to this? Here are three ways to do so (there are also other ones).

  1. One way to challenge this argument is to point out that there is a difference between ‘failing to save someone’ or ‘letting someone die’ and actively killing them. In Thomson’s thought experiment, the violinist was dying before you were kidnapped and medically attached to him. Arguably, according to this response, when you detach yourself from the violinist, you are not so much killing him as refusing to help him survive: it’s like refusing to donate a kidney to someone, but even more understandable. (Arguably, at least.) An abortion, on the other hand, indisputably counts as killing. In an abortion, a fetus or embryo is dissolved, dismembered, or killed by a lethal injection. What if you and the violinist were locked attached with a medical tube, and you were told that the only way to detach it was to dismember the violinist. Is it really right to say that your right to bodily autonomy overrides his right to life, where this is understood as ‘a right not to be killed’ rather than a ‘right to be helped to stay alive’? For responses to the violinist argument that mention this, see here, or here, or here.   
  1. Another way to challenge the argument is to point out that our intuitions about this kind of scenario vary drastically depending on how we imagine some of the details about who is involved. In Thomson’s thought experiment, the violinist is a grown man. His friends kidnapped you. But what if you were both kidnapped by madmen, attached to each other via some kind of medical tube, and told that whoever detached themselves from the tube before a nine month time-span was up would kill the other? Does the right to bodily autonomy of whoever reaches out to detach the cord first trump the right to life of the slower party? 

Or consider changing these details about the case Thomson describes. What if the violinist were a child rather than an adult? What if he were your own child, a two year old toddler? Or, what if, upon waking up attached to the violinist, you discover that you will die if either of you detaches from the other? Does the violinist have the right to do that to you? Secular Pro-Life does a good job of describing this kind of response (and other ones, too). 

  1. In a similar vein, Steve Wagner, writing for Justice For All, invites us to consider a thought experiment that it similar to Thomson’s one but yields different conclusions, the ‘de facto guardian thought experiment’. We’re asked to imagine that a woman, Mary, wakes up to find that she is stranded in a cabin in a forest with a small baby. She can leave the cabin by herself and leave the baby to die, or she can stay behind and care for the baby for nine months. Most people think that she has an obligation not to abandon the baby, and that she should be legally obliged not to do so. But a situation like this is at least as relevantly similar to pregnancy as the violinist one: this thought experiment captures as many or more of the morally relevant factors mentioned above as Thomson’s one does. The whole document is very worth reading (and there’s more to Wagner’s argument than I’ve said here – he modifies the scenario in different ways to make it more relevantly similar to pregnancy, and also discusses his and Thomson’s thought experiments in more depth). We had a go at doing something similar with the conjoined twins thought experiment.

As these various responses show, the violinist argument is far from a conversation-ender. We’d also recommend checking out the Equal Rights Institute on this and other bodily rights arguments!