Assessing Thomson’s Defense of Abortion

FoetusDoes the personhood of foetuses give them right to life? Does that right to life overrides women’s rights to control what happens in and to their bodies?

In A Defense of Abortion Judith Jarvis Thomson argued that even if we grant that foetuses are persons and thus have right to life, it does not follow that they have the right to use the pregnant women’s bodies. Thomson’s case from the famous unconscious violinist analogy unfolds as follows:

Imagine you wake up in the morning kidnapped by the Society of Music Lovers, and are plugged into a famous unconscious violinist who has a fatal kidney ailment. “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”(Thomson 1971, 49)

Thomson argued that even if the violinist is a person and has right to life, it does not follow that he has right to use your body, if we grant that a person can decide what happen in and to her body. It would be very nice of you to allow it, but it is morally acceptable to unplug yourself (1971, 48-49).

In both cases, killing the violinist and aborting a foetus, according to Thomson, are relevantly analogous actions because your body is being violated. If it is morally permissible to kill the violinist because your body is being violated, then it is morally permissible to abort a foetus because your body is being violated.

Exploring The Extent of Thomson’s Violinist Analogy

Mary Anne Warren pointed out that Thomson’s argument from the violinist analogy is plausible as a defense for permissibility of morally unaccountable unwanted pregnancy only, e.g. rape (Warren 1973). She argued that “[t]he crucial difference between a pregnancy due to rape and the normal case of an unwanted pregnancy is that in the normal case we cannot claim that the woman is in no way responsible for her predicament; she could have remained chaste, or taken her pills more faithfully, or abstained on dangerous days, and so on.”(1973, 49)

In morally accountable cases, the foetus, congruently argued Bonnie Steinbock, “does have a right to use the pregnant woman’s body because she is (partly) responsible for its existence.”(Steinbock 1992, 78)1

David Boonin-Vail (1997) and Peter Singer (2011) disagreed with Warren and Steinbock. If Thomson’s argument from the violinist analogy is sound, then it could be, they argued, extended beyond morally unaccountable cases.

Boonin argued that there is a difference between “a person’s (a) voluntarily bring about a state of affairs S and (b) voluntarily doing an action A foreseeing that this may lead to a state of affairs S.”(1997, 291) Moral accountability for one’s action is plausible in only (a) but not (b). Non-rape unwanted pregnancy cases falls in (b). He explained that being morally responsible does not necessarily mean a person also agrees to a foreseeable consequence.

Boonin offered an analogy; Bill and Ted voluntarily placing some money on the restaurant’s table. Demonstrating (a) is Bill who after finishing eating voluntarily took the money out of his wallet and placed it on the table and walked out the door. On the other hand, (b) is Ted who voluntarily took the money out of his wallet while eating because it was uncomfortable sitting with it in his pocket. He not only consciously knew that he may forget his money on the table but was also warned by a friend. He unwisely refused to listen to the advice. Ted after finishing eating carelessly left the money on the table, walked out the door, and about ten minutes after returned to collect his money (293). Though Ted is morally responsible for leaving his money on the table, it does not follow that he agreed with the foreseeable consequence of the waiter taking his money.  Following Boonin, women’s voluntary intercourse with men is more like Ted’s case.

Singer offered a different analogy:

Suppose that you found yourself connected to the violinist, not because you were kidnapped by music lovers, but because you had intended to enter the hospital to visit a sick friend; and when you got into the elevator, you carelessly pressed the wrong button and ended up in a section of the hospital normally visited only by those who have volunteered to be connected to patients who would not otherwise survive. A team of doctors, waiting for the next volunteer, assumed you were it, jabbed you with an anesthetic and connected you. If Thomson’s argument was sound in the kidnap case, it is probably sound here too, because nine months unwillingly supporting another is a high price to pay for ignorance or carelessness. (2011, 133)

Boonin’s analogy fails because moral accountability in view here is not of voluntarily placing of some money on the restaurant’s table but voluntarily leaving of the money on the table. Ted, unlike Bill, did not leave the money voluntarily. Similarly Singer’s analogy fails because it is not a voluntary carelessly pressed wrong-button action, of say Gill, which is parallel with Ted placing his money on the table, that is in view. Gill, as in the case of rape, found himself involuntarily plugged to the violinist.

Questioning the Thomson’s Violinist Analogy

Thomson’s analogy fails because in a typical case of abortion we are not merely failing to save another person’s life, by unplugging ourselves, but we are actively taking away another person’s life.

If Jeff McMahan is correct that “[t]he standard methods for performing abortions clearly involve killing the fetus: the fetus dies by being mangled or poisoned in the process of being removed from the uterus” (2002, 378) then abortion is not simply unplugging oneself from another person and letting her die but actively and intentionally killing her. The kidney donor is not only unplugging herself and passively letting a dying violinist die but unplugging herself by actively killing him2.

Questioning Thomson’s Body Rights Assumption

Thomson assumed that our rights to decide what happens in and to our bodies extend to another person. This is not necessarily true. Imagine the following counterexample:

Jane decided to chop off the legs of her foetus, at week 7. Grant that she has the right to choose what happens in and to her body, Dr. John, with help of modern technology, performed the operation and chopped Jane’s foetus legs off. In week 10, Jane decided to chop the hands of her foetus off and John performed what is reasoned to be Jane’s personal choice and right. Taking it to an extreme Jane decided to pluck her foetus’ eyes out, et cetera. Two alternative endings could be that of (i) Jane in her final trimester decided to perform prostaglandin or (ii) Jane decided to give birth to an eyeless-amputated child.

If our moral sentiments, assuming we are not morally blind, toward Jane are that of not only disapproval but also of condemning Jane for her “ruthlessness” then it does not follow that Jane’s right to choose what happen in and to her body is extended to her foetus.

Questioning Thomson’s Use of “Use

Raising a worthy exploring inquiry, Philip W. Bennett asked; “Does the foetus use the body of the woman who has it in the same way that the violinist is using the body of the unwilling kidney donor?”(Bennett 1982,142) Bennett questioned the assumption that he believed Thomson took for granted, namely the relationship between a violinist’s use of the kidney donor with that of a foetus use of the mother.

Using people as means to our own ends, following Kant, is often wrong. Thomson’s violinist, or the Society of Music Lovers, according to Bennett, is, in a moral chastisement sense, using the kidney donor as a means to his or their end. In this way he or they are morally accountable. But the foetus does not uses the body of the woman in a similar way to them because foetus use its mother in a moral neutral sense. (1982, 144)

If Bennett’s distinction is correct, viz., the foetus does not indeed use the body of the pregnant woman as the violinist uses the body of the kidney donor then “the moral sentiments evoked by the violinist case, as codified in the principle that ‘ having a right to life does not guarantee having either a right to be given the use of or a right to be allowed continued use of another person’s body …,’ have little or nothing to say about the issue of abortion and the implications of the foetus’ right to life if fetuses have such a right.”(142)

By granting, for argument sake, that foetuses are persons, Thomson did not succeed to show that it is morally permissible to actively kill them. Elsewhere3 I argued that what makes killing people generally morally wrong applies also to the killing of foetuses. That case does not assume that foetuses are persons.


Bennett, Philip W. (1982) A Defence of Abortion; A Question for Judith Jarvis Thomson. Philosophical Investigations. Vol 5, Issue 2:142-145

Booni-Vail, David (1997) A Defense of “A Defense of Abortion”: On the Responsibility Objection to Thomson’s Argument. Ethics, Vol. 107, No. 2:286-313

McMahan, Jeff (2002). The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Singer, Peter (2011) Practical Ethics. 3rd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Steinbock, Bonnie (1992) Life before Birth: The Moral and Legal Status of Embryos and Fetuses. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Thomson, Judith Jarvis (1971) A Defense of Abortion. Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 1, No. 1:47-66

Warren, Mary Anne (1973) On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion. The Monist Vol 57, No. 1: 42-61

[1] Alan Donagan (1977), Paul D. Feinberg (1978), Robert N. Wennberg (1985), and Judith A. Boss (1993) offered similar Warren-Steinbock-types of critique.

[2] Hysterotomy and hysterectomy methods are more like unplugging in Thomson’s analogy

Abortion: It Is Her Body, It Is Her Choice?

LittleoneIs it true that a woman’s body is her own business, and should not be a political issue? Should a woman be granted right to decide whatever happens in and to her body?

This blog post explored the Bodily Autonomy Argument offered for abortion. Whether you are for or against abortion, it is my intention to persuade you that this argument is a failure by offering three just-so-stories counterexamples, to show how unconvincing it is to any reasonable and morally unblind person.

I used a narrow definition of abortion in the post, viz., a deliberate act of removing a developing embryo or fetus (Latin: “little one”), without justified reason1 from the womb in a period before it is capable of independent survival.

The argument from woman autonomy commonly unfold as follows:

1. A woman has the right to decide what she can and can’t do in and to her body.
2. The fetus exists in a woman’s body.
3. A woman has the right to decide whether the fetus remains in her body.
4. Therefore a pregnant woman has the right to abort the fetus.

Most of critiques found in literature gunned against this argument tend to show that a fetus is not an extension of the woman’s body. Christopher Hitchens, for example, contended:

As a materialist, I think it has been demonstrated that an embryo is a separate body and entity, and not merely (as some really did used to argue) a growth on or in the female body. There used to be feminists who would say that it was more like an appendix or even—this was seriously maintained—a tumor. That nonsense seems to have stopped (Hitchens 2009, 378)

But let assume that a fetus is part of the woman’s body. Would it follow that a pregnant woman ought to have a right to choose what happen in and to her body? Is true that: “Abortion is a personal choice because you are talking about what a woman does with her body.”(Jordan 1992:8-9)? Consider these three counterexamples:

Special Case 1: Chopping the Fetus

Jane decided to chop off the legs of the fetus, at week 7 but still she wants to keep it. Since she has the right to choose what happen in and to her body, Dr. John, with help of modern technology, performed the operation and chop Jane’s fetus legs off. In week 10, Jane decided to chop the hands of the fetus off and John performed what is reasoned to be Jane’s personal choice and right. In her final trimester, Jane asked John to perform prostaglandin.

Special Case 2: Poison the Fetus

Linda discovered that she was pregnant. Since she has the right to choose what happen in and to her body, Linda chose to continue living her ordinary lifestyle of smoking marijuana and consuming alcohol, knowing that she does increase the probability of her fetus having fetal alcohol syndrome. It is after all her private and personal own business. She decide what happen in her body. After 9 months Linda gave birth to an intellectual disabled baby with facial, fingers, arms and legs defects.

Special Case 3: Feed No Child

Rose gave birth in a desert where she and a newly little one (fetus) are the only survivors of a plan crash. It is only by drinking breast’s milk the little one can survive. Since Rose believe that she has the right to choose what happen to her body, she chose not to feed it. She chose to preserve her energy and nutrients needed for her own body. Two days later the little one died from hunger.

In these three special cases counterexamples, knowing that there is no morally sane woman who would even dare think of doing what my hypothetical Jane, Linda and Rose did, the argument used to justify their actions is the same. Jane, Linda and Rose contended that it was their own bodies and they have the right to choose for themselves what was to be done in and to their bodies.

As spectators, are our moral sentiments toward Jane, Linda and Rose’s actions of approval and praise? I deem that only morally blind person would find my hypothetical ladies’ actions praiseworthy and ought to be approved on the ground that it was their own private business, since they have the right to decide whatever happens in and to their bodies.

If that is the case, these counterexamples show that it is not true that a woman’s body is her own business, and should not be a political issue. From these three just-so-stories counterexamples I concluded that the Bodily Autonomy argument for abortion is a failure since if true, then absurdly Jane, Linda and Rose’s actions would be morally justified.


Jordan, Barbara (1992) “New Democratic Order?” World Magazine, November 7th. 8-9.

Hitchens, Christopher (2009), God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything Hachette Book Group. Kindle Edition.

[1] I grant therapeutic abortion, abortion done to save the mother’s life, as a justified reasons

Shootings, Obama And Breakdown of New Atheism In Times Of Need

“[O]ur hearts are broken today for the parents and grandparents, sisters and brothers of these little children, and for the families of the adults who were lost.,” heart movingly said Barak Obama, not as a president of United State, but as a fellow parent to those who are affected by second worst U.S’s school shooting. He went further,

Our hearts are broken for the parents of the survivors, as well, for as blessed as they are to have their children home tonight, they know that their children’s innocence has been torn away from them too early and there are no words that will ease their pain.

I could not help but wept with Obama when he said,

The majority of those who died today were children — beautiful, little kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years old. They had their entire lives ahead of them — birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own. Among the fallen were also teachers, men and women who devoted their lives to helping our children fulfill their dreams.(Obama 2012: n.p)

Appropriately, Obama ended with “[m]ay God bless the memory of the victims and, in the words of Scripture, heal the brokenhearted and bind up their wounds.”

What If Obama Was New Atheist? What Would He Have Said?

Obama’s closing remark made me ponder, what if Obama was new atheist and not a Christians who believes as Fyodor Dostoevsky that “suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage”? What if Obama worldview was not as Dostoevsky put it,

In the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened with men( Dostoevsky 1922: 247-8 )

What if Obama did not believe that we are living in a fallen world that is groaning, as in the pains of childbirth, until Christ returns to restore all things? What if he did not believe in final day where God will give an ultimate judgment?

What if Obama speech was like what Richard Dawkins believe, namely we live in a  “universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice.”? Would he have told his fellow parents whom are affected by second worst U.S school shooting,

The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pitiless indifference. As that unhappy poet A. E Housman put it:

For nature, heartless, witless nature

Will neither care nor know

DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.(Dawkins 1995: 132-3)

Would Obama told them that Adam Lanza was simply dancing to his DNA’s music? What if Obama echoed Francis Crick words, namely,

You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. Who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons.(Crick 1994: 3)

I am not saying that Obama’s Christian faith is true because it gives hope and assurance in times of need, but that new atheism and atheism in general breaks down when it comes to things that we dearly care.

Our joy, love, sorrows, hopes and delights. Things that makes us humans.

My wife and I weep together with families  fallen into this tragedies. I do not know why God permitted Adam Lanza to do so, but I know that everything “work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them” and we grieve with hope, for we know that life does not end at the grave. Christ’s resurrection demonstrated that we will see them again.

We have hope because  “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”(ESV Re. 21:3-4) That is how it ends. That is how it begins.

 Behold, God will make all things new.


Crick, Francis (1994) The Astonishing Hypothesis – The Scientific Search for the Soul, London, Simon and Schuster.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor (1922). The Brothers Karamazou. New York: Macmillan

Obama, Barak (2012). Obama’s speech on December 14th 2012. Transcript: President Obama’s Remarks On Conn. School Shootings. White House

Dawkins, Richard (1995) River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life.  Weidenfeld & Nicolson. London

Photocredit: Obama Ian D. Wade Portrait Genesis & Cover: The Courier Mail