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

Classical Utilitarianism: Ends Defined Morality

John Mill

Stephen King’s novels, which were turned into a movie The Green Mile, captured a story of a seven-foot, very quite, calm and achluophobia black American death-rowed inmate John Coffey at Cold Mountain Penitentiary, awaiting his execution for alleged rape and murder of two white little girls. As the story unfolds, the death-row supervisor Paul Edgecom discovered that John was innocent but could not do much to stop his execution.

Was the execution of John moral right action? Does the eudaimonistic desirability of an action that maximizes people’s happiness make an act right? Is it true that an act is right if it produces the greatest sum of satisfactions to a great number of people? This article concisely introduced and evaluated Mill’s classical utilitarianism.

“All action is for the sake of some end, and rules of action,” argued John Stuart Mill in Utilitarianism, “it seems natural to suppose, must take their whole character and colour from the end to which they are subservient.”(Mill 2003, 182) Paul, according to Mill’s, has to take into account the whole states of affairs into consideration. John’s execution is done for the sake of some end and rules action. So far so good for Paul. Assuming that he already took into consideration the rules of action, does some end also determine the value of executing John?

Yes, would be Mill’s answer according to his understanding of utilitarianism. In What Utilitarianism Is, Mill’s apologia of utilitarianism, he argued what he deemed to be in accordance with utilitarian opinion:

[T]he end of human action, is necessarily also the standard of morality; which may accordingly be defined, the rules and precepts for human conduct, by the observance of which an existence such as has been described might be, to the greatest extent possible, secured to all mankind; and not to them only, but, so far as the nature of things admits, to the whole sentient creation.(2003, 190)

Utility, the Greatest Happiness Principle, states that an action is neither right nor wrong by itself, but right if it tend to promote happiness (pleasure and the absence of pain) and wrong if it tend to produce unhappiness (pain and the privation of pleasure) (2003, 186) to a great number of people.

If the execution of John did increase the sum total of happiness to a great number of people, then it was morally right. Since Paul knew John’s execution increased the sum total of happiness to a great number of people, he would be led by Mill’s utilitarianism to conclude that it was morally right to execute an innocent man.

Mill’s utilitarianism does not locate the moral value of an act in the act but the psychological end result of great number of people involved.

Mill, John Stuart (2003) Utilitarianism and On Libert. Edited by Mary Warnock . 2nd ed. Blackwell Publishing.

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

Paul, Christians And The Civil Authorites

GovernmentWhat did Paul of Tarsus mean when he told Christians living in Rome to be subject to the government? How can we apply Paul’s advise to modern Christians living under both post-Christian and non-Christian nations?

Answering the first question, Stephen Charles Mott contended, and I agree, that Paul asked Christians in Rome to put their “ interest below what is required for relationships with the civil authorities”(Mott 1993:142) He expounded,

“[s]ubordination to civil government, particularly in the symbolic act of paying taxes, is an aspect of the call to spiritual worship in the everyday life of the world[…] Their service to God is at the same time for the people, restraining evil and promoting their good (Rom 13:4).”(ibid)

As a Jew believing that God has ordained all civil authorities, Paul undoubtedly held Judaic understanding of submission to civil authorities, “which is a matter of nonresistance or nonviolence, not always of obedience.” explained Craig Keener,  “unless it involved a conflict with obeying God’s law.”(Keener 1993: n.p)

When the government is in conflict with God’s law,  Christians are called to join Peter and the apostles’ position, “We must obey God rather than men.”(Acts 5:29) but at the same time if possible, so far as it depends on them, they are called to live peaceably with all, never to avenge for themselves, but trust that God will avenge for them. Christian ought not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.(Rom. 12:18-21)

“The Christians” wrote N. T. Wright, “ are called to believe, though, that the civic authorities, great and small, are there because the one true God wants his world to be ordered, not chaotic.”(Wright 2004: 86) Wright pointed out that “[t]his does not validate particular actions of particular governments”(ibid) but it is to show that some civilly authorities are necessary in a fallen world were evil may flourish if undealt with.

Brooks correctly remarked that “[o]bedience to civil magistrates is one of the laws of Christ whose religion makes people good subjects.”(Brooks 2009: 46) Christian ought to be subject to the government knowing that God works through it for His praise and glory.

Question To Theologians: Do you agree with Stephen Charles Mott position on Christians relation to civil authorities?


Brooks, K. (2009). Summarized Bible: Complete Summary of the New Testament. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

Keener, C. S. (1993). The IVP Bible background commentary: New Testament (Ro 13:1–2). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Mott, Stephen Charles(1993) “Civil Authority” in Dictionary of Paul and his letters. Hawthorne, G. F., Martin, R. P., & Reid, D. G. ed. et. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Wright, T. (2004). Paul for Everyone: Romans, Part 2: Chapters 9-16. Both volumes include glossaries. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.