Judith Jarvis Thomson on Abortion

Judith Jarvis Thomson is a well-known American ethicist and professional philosopher who taught at MIT. Thomson is probably most well-known for her influential paper “A Defense of Abortion”, which is going to be the subject of this post. Thomson assumes for the sake of argument that the fetus really is a human life, and then presents us with the following dilemma:

“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.”

One of the most important ways in which Thomson’s thought experiment is disanalogous to a pregnancy is the following. The pregnant mother created that situation of her dependent baby through a voluntary act. But even if the Society of Music Lovers had not kidnapped me and had simply asked me, it was not me who created that situation or the dependency of the violinist. The violinist became sick and dependent in ways that have nothing to do with me. However, the mother ( and father) voluntarily created a situation where a living human being would be dependent on them. In that sense, the mother has a responsibility to the human life she made dependent upon herself in a way that I don’t have a responsibility toward the violinist. A truly analogous situation is one where I was responsible for the situation the violinist finds himself in, where I am in some way responsible for the disease that made him dependent.

Thomson declares that she suspects the reader would find the situation she sketches outrageous. This once again shows the variability of moral intuitions, because I don’t intuitively find it outrageous and I don’t know why she does. What is outrageous is that they kidnapped me and forced me into the situation. I could be blinded from any other aspects by this facet of the case, and be tempted simply based on that to disconnect. I suspect that is exactly why Thomson included that facet in the story even though she knows it is not analogous to the vast majority of abortion cases, which involves young women who know that their actions could result in pregnancy. If the Society of Music Lovers had come to me rather and pleaded with me, and if I truly had the only blood type that could save him, I think there may well be a moral obligation on me to help. But even though I was forced, I would not want to condemn the man because of how his friends behaved ( assuming he was not complicit in their treachery). This would be to treat him badly, or to withhold a benefit from him, simply because of how his friends behaved, which is obviously unjust. If he was not complicit then the two cases are morally equivalent, because in both cases the man needing the help is innocent and it would be unjust for me to allow my actions toward that man or my decision regarding him to be determined by how those around him has behaved. So if there is moral obligation on me in the former case, with no kidnapping but only pleading, there is also the same degree of moral obligation in the latter case, with the kidnapping. This would mean that even rape does not justify abortion, because if the fetus is a human life then it would be unjust to treat the human life disadvantageously based on what others have done. At one point, Thomson appeals to the Parable of the Good Samaritan: “After telling the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus said, “Go, and do thou likewise.” Perhaps he meant that we are morally required to act as the Good Samaritan did. Perhaps he was urging people to do more than is morally required of them.” This is interesting, because Jesus also said that “Love your neighbour as yourself” is one of the two most important commandments and the Parable of the Good Samaritan was Jesus’s explanation of the commandment to love your neighbour as yourself. Let’s look at what happens right before Jesus tells the parable (Luke 10:25):

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho…

First, Jesus says that we must love our neighbour as ourselves in order to “live”, implying that we don’t do it we won’t live. And then Jesus explains the commandment to love your neighbour as yourself by telling the parable. So this is not referring to non-obligatory moral action, but to obligatory. It seems to me that the commandment to love your neighbour as yourself may well imply that we must stay connected even if it is a complete stranger and even if we were kidnapped. We would want the one stranger who could help us to do so if we were in that situation, which means that we must do so.

Another problem with the thought experiment is that it makes out the relationship between the violinist and the kidnapped person. The violinist is a complete stranger and in no way related to the person who was kidnapped. What if the violinist is not just some random stranger, but your son, daughter, father or mother, or even aunt or uncle? This clearly changes things quite dramatically. Whereas before we might have had doubts about the right way forward, when it was a complete stranger, now it is pretty clear that we do have an obligation. The unborn baby is not some random stranger: it is a son or daughter. Judith Jarvis Thompson has admitted for the sake of argument that the fetus really is a human life. If that is the case, this is not some random human life, but the son or daughter of the person looking to “disconnect”. So let’s look at a different case. Instead of a random stranger, the person needing the help is a child, and the only person who could help them is their mother. Is there a moral obligation on the mother to help? Yes there clearly is. The relationship is clearly morally relevant so leaving it out of the analogy is not going to reflect the moral intuition appropriate to the situation.

So this analogy is crucially lacking in this morally relevant area, which is that the relationship of myself to the complete stranger whom I am to help is completely different from the relationship between a mother and child. The mother-child relationship is a relationship where we rightly expect a certain degree of love. In fact, a mother treating her own children with indifference we can rightly say is far worse morally than treating just anyone with indifference. This is especially instantiated in the case of a mother who kills her own children. This is seen as a symbol of a completely twisted moral character and rightly so. And since Thomson has admitted for the sake of argument in this thought experiment that the unborn baby is a human life then the unborn baby is already the child of the mother and not a “potential” child or something of this sort.

Thirdly, as pointed out by Phillipa Foot, there is something different between actively killing a fetus and simply withholding a service that you could offer ( even if that results in their death). It may be said that there is no difference because the consequences are the same in either case, but that would assume a consequentialist framework of ethics. In other words, it is not true that just because two actions have the same consequences that they are therefore morally equivalent. In abortion, the baby must be killed. It is not merely that the mother is “disconnecting”. Also, there is a crucial difference between a violinist who gets sick and dies in the normal course of events, and a baby who would live unless killed through abortion. The one case is someone who has already lived and who gets sick by the fault of no one around him and who would die only for lack of help. The other case is a human life which has only just started and would live but for someone else’s actions. To put it simply: the violinist would die but for someone else’s actions while the baby would live but for someone else’s actions. So leaving the violinist to die would be less culpable, because your are remaining passive in this case. Abortion involves actively ending a life.

Another point to make here is that Thomson’s defense could not justify many late-term abortions, because in many of these cases the baby is already viable. In other words, they can survive without being “connected” with the mother.


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