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The Kidney Donation Argument

The Kidney Donation Argument is a variation on Thompson’s Violinist Analogy. According to this formulation, we are supposed to imagine a society consisting of two citizens and a government. One of the citizens is a man who has kidney failure and will die unless he receives a kidney transplant. The other citizen is woman who is a healthy potential organ donor. The question posed by the argument is: would the government be right to force the woman to donate a kidney to the man? Most people’s (correct) reaction is to say no. Even if it would be admirable for the woman to donate her kidney, the man is not entitled to it. An illustration of two kidneys Rather, the woman has a right to exercise “ownership” over her kidney by refusing to donate the organ for the sustenance of another even if it means that a person with intrinsic value will die. If so, the argument runs, then it would also be wrong for the government to force a pregnant woman to “donate” her uterus for the sustenance of a fetus even if it means that the fetus will die as a result of that refusal.

This analogy attempts to make the same argument as the Violinist Story. Because it entails fewer sci-fi contrivances, it is initially more appealing. Actually, however, it is less intellectually sound than Thompson’s story. This is because the Kidney Story fails adequately to represent the case of abortion. If having one’s kidney inside another person is analogous to being pregnant (as the story implies), then donating the kidney is analogous to becoming pregnant. Thus, all it proves is that the government should not forcibly impregnate anyone—an assertion with which everyone agrees.

Theoretically, the pro-choicer could respond by modifying the analogy accordingly. In the improved analogy, the woman was drugged and had her kidney removed against her will (analogous, perhaps, to a case of rape). Everyone agrees that this (like rape) should be illegal. But it happened, and now the kidney is in the man. The question then becomes: should the woman be allowed, in the name of exercising ownership over her body parts, to kill the man and rip him open in order to reclaim the kidney? This action on the part of the woman would, in the context of the analogy, most nearly approximate an abortion. We think that most people’s intuition would be that, no, the woman may not dismember or burn the man to death, regardless of the injustice of the situation. If not, then neither should a pregnant woman be allowed to do likewise to her unborn child.

Finally, if the pro-choicer denies this intuition or tries to reformulate the analogy further, the “killing vs. letting die” distinction presented on the previous page is always applicable, even for the most sophisticated formulations.

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