Does 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
 Alan Donagan (1977), Paul D. Feinberg (1978), Robert N. Wennberg (1985), and Judith A. Boss (1993) offered similar Warren-Steinbock-types of critique.
 Hysterotomy and hysterectomy methods are more like unplugging in Thomson’s analogy
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