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The Violinist Argument

Educated pro-choicers who claim that the question of fetal personhood is irrelevant because the mother’s right to an abortion would trump the fetus’ right to life even if he is a person may bring up Judith Jarvis Thompson’s famous “Violinist Analogy” or some variation of it.

In this somewhat contrived story, a man (a violinist, in the original formulation of the analogy) is dying, and the only way to prolong his life is to hook him up to another human and siphon off some of that person’s blood or kidney function (or something) as a form of life-support.1 He must remain in this state for the several months necessary for medical technology to reach the point that it can intervene and completely resuscitate him. So the music lovers, A violin in their zeal to save the violinist, find some random woman who happens to be the only person in the world with the right blood type. As she sleeps in bed, they hook her up to the violinist. The woman wakes up to find herself strapped down to the bed and attached as a form of life support to a complete stranger, essentially a human parasite, lying next to her. Unless she severs the tubes, she can’t move or go anywhere indefinitely, forced to have her energy siphoned off by the parasite. Most people’s (correct) reaction is that the woman has the right to free herself of the violinist, even though she knows that this will result in his death.

The idea is that this situation is analogous to an unplanned pregnancy: against her plans, the woman finds herself supporting the life of an unwanted person and has the right to deprive that person of her bodily support, regardless of what the result is for the parasite. A response to this objection is below.

Leaving aside the contrived nature of the analogy, its key logical flaw lies in its failure to distinguish between killing and letting die. In the context at hand, this distinction corresponds closely to the difference between what might be called ordinary and extraordinary life-preserving measures, whether they take the form of healthcare or some other intervention.

Let me give a simple example to illustrate what I mean by ordinary vs. extraordinary life-preserving measures. If you have fainted on the train tracks, it would be admirable for me to dive in front of an on-coming train and sacrifice myself in order to knock you out of the way. But you are not entitled to have me perform this extraordinary act of heroism. If I do not dive in front of the train, no one would say that I was guilty of manslaughter. On the other hand, you probably would be entitled to my assistance if I am standing idly by and see you collapse hours before a train is in sight. Where exactly to draw the line between ordinary and extraordinary life-saving measures might be fuzzy, but the basic validity of the distinction should be readily apparent.

Having laid this groundwork, we can see that the “Right to Life” is a right not to be killed. It is not a right not to die. The reason that the woman in the story can sever the tubes without violating the violinist’s dignity is because he does not have a right not to die. The tubes are an extraordinary means of preserving his life, and he is not entitled to extraordinary life-saving measures. However, the woman may not stab the man in the heart and only then sever the tubes. In this case, she would be violating his dignity because he has a right not to be killed. This latter scenario most closely resembles an abortion, in which the fetus is ripped or burned to death while still in the womb and only then removed.

Now, why does the abortion procedure go to such great lengths to kill the fetus before removing him? In many early-term abortions, the procedure is simply easier, but not so in late-term abortions. The reason is instructive: leaving a prematurely born infant to die without providing basic care would be illegal, a violation of the infant’s right not to be killed. Like the violinist, an infant is not entitled to extraordinary life-saving interventions, but he is entitled to ordinary sustenance. This includes the baseline level of care necessary for ordinary survival—food, water, oxygen, warmth, etc.—from those responsible for him. Parents who fatally neglect their young children are guilty of killing them, not just letting them die. Regardless of whether the parents want or ever wanted those children, the law understands that they have a primary responsibility to provide the ordinary sustenance to which young children are entitled. If unborn children have the same personhood status as infants, then they should be accorded the same rights. Since the placenta represents the ordinary means by which a fetus obtains food, water, oxygen, and warmth, it follows that he should have the right to remain in his mother’s womb until viability, even if she does not want him there.

The only avenue of defense available to a pro-choicer is to deny that a pregnancy represents an ordinary (rather than an extraordinary) life-saving intervention. This assertion violates fundamental human intuitions about the overriding naturalness of pregnancy, one the most basic biological functions of which the female human body is capable. It also treads dangerously close to denying that parents have any special responsibilities for the persons they create, even if unintentionally. These new persons require a certain natural environment for initial development. If parents cannot be expected to provide this primary necessity, it is difficult to imagine how they could be held to any special responsibility at all.

The academic literature on abortion sometimes gets down to debating this very question: whether parents have any special responsibilities for their children prior to wanting them. Pro-choice philosophers are often forced to deny it. While various unhelpfully contrived analogies are bandied back and forth in a vain attempt to gain insight into a situation—parenthood—that is simply unique in the human experience, the fact remains that society unequivocally recognizes such responsibilities, at least with respect to born children. One illustration that has not yet been mentioned is that society imposes the burden of child-support on “deadbeat dads,” even if they never wanted the children in question. Personally, we think that the special status of the parent-offspring relationship—and the dangers to society of denying it—should be sufficiently apparent to any reasonable person as to obviate the need to defend this point further. Those who are interested in how this debate has played out among the experts can reference the philosophical literature2.

  1. Note that here the pro-choicers are trying their hands at a BPA of their own. 

  2. One fairly accessible option is Francis Beckwith, Defending Life, Chapter 7. 

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