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Abortion and Thomson's Violinist: Unplugging a Bad Analogy
Comments on why the prenatal child has the right under individual liberty to be in the mother's womb

by Doris Gordon, National Coordinator
Libertarians for Life
Copyright 1991, 1993

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One of the most influential articles on abortion is Judith Jarvis Thomson's "A Defense of Abortion," written in 1971. Thomson asks the reader "to imagine" that you "wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist" who has a fatal kidney ailment. You find "the violinist's circulatory system was plugged into yours," making you like a kidney dialysis machine. You were kidnapped, because "you alone have the right blood type to help."

To Thomson, unwanted pregnancy and the unconscious violinist are morally equivalent cases. She argues that neither the stranger nor the mother owes the needed life support; the stranger may unplug himself from the violinist, and the mother may unplug herself from her child.

As Thomson recognizes, personhood is the pivotal issue in the abortion debate. If personhood begins before birth, then whenever it begins, we must respect the rights of both mother and child. If human beings are not persons before birth, then abortion is not homicide (the killing of one person by another), and from the perspective of rights, there is nothing further to discuss. In her article, Thomson grants, for argument's sake only, that human fetuses are persons. Even so, she concludes, abortion is not necessarily unjust homicide.

Thomson's defense is a classic example of blame the victim. Its influence continues, despite rebuttals by scholars on both sides of the abortion debate. Here are some of my reasons why her analogy fails.

Abortion isn't just "unplugging"

To begin with, her analogy is irrelevant to reality. In most abortions, the children aren't just "unplugged" and removed from the womb; they are killed -- intentionally. They are dismembered or poisoned before eviction.

"I am not arguing for the right to secure the death of the unborn child," she says. "You may detach yourself even if this costs him his life; you have no right to be guaranteed his death, by some other means, if unplugging yourself does not kill him."

Yes, there is an important moral distinction between killing by using lethal force (death is certain) and killing by letting die (survival is possible, at least theoretically). But although Thomson discusses it, she does not seem to appreciate it. She apparently finds comfort in pretending that abortions terminate pregnancy by letting die. However, even according to her own principles, violent abortions are unjust homicides and should be prohibited.

Who consented?

If Thomson's analogy were relevant, it would be so only in the few cases of pregnancy due to rape. Yet she also means it to apply when sex is mutually consensual. The stranger in the analogy did not consent; he was asleep. In protesting to a Thomson fan about conceiving children in real life, someone once said, "But you weren't asleep when it happened!"

The child, of course, is not a consenting party either to being conceived or to being aborted.

Who caused it?

To help make her argument, Thomson paints unwanted prenatal children as aggressors, as trespassers. She equates them with burglars climbing into open windows, and she compares getting pregnant to being invaded in one's home by "people-seeds [that] drift about in the air like pollen." This is rubbish.

Surely she knows the cause-and-effect relationship between heterosexual intercourse and pregnancy. A child's creation and presence in the womb are caused by biological forces independent of and beyond the control of the child; they are brought into play by the acts of the parents. The child did not cause the situation. In real life, the parents are the causative agents of both the pregnancy and the child's dependence.

In Thomson's analogy, the stranger did nothing to cause the violinist to be sick. The stranger did nothing to cause himself to be captured and plugged in. The child is also like a captive, in the sense that she, too, is in the situation involuntarily. To conceive and then abort one's child is to turn conception into a deadly trap for the child: it is to set her up in a vulnerable position that is virtually certain to lead to her death.

(Of course, if the woman was raped, pregnancy is not voluntary for her, either. But abortion doesn't hinge on whether she conceived voluntarily or not. The problem in rape is whether the victimization of one person should permit the victimization of someone else. See "Abortion in the Case of Pregnancy Due to Rape".)

Crash goes Thomson's analogy

Even if the trespass charge against the child were true, why capital punishment without due process for trespass? But the charge is false on its face.

Trespass implies an unjustified interference with the rights of another. It implies some volition on the part of the accused: the "invader" acted intentionally, recklessly, or negligently, and could have avoided the "invasion." Mere presence on another's property, absent more supporting evidence, is insufficient to prove volition.

Who among us could have chosen not to begin life, or not to inhabit our mother's body when conceived? Inhabiting the mother's body is a byproduct of the parents' volitional act, not the child's. What the prenatal child does, she does by necessity. This necessity is also a byproduct of the parents' volitional act.

Even if we were to concede trespass, the child is at most an "innocent trespasser," because her unwanted presence is a consequence of her parents' volitional actions. If she is aggressing, her parents caused her to aggress. But nobody has a right to cause another person to aggress.

Since a prenatal child is where she is because of her parents, the child could be said to be acting as her parents' agent -- which places her "guilt" squarely on her parents' heads. We might say that the mother aggressed against herself, except that one cannot aggress against oneself.

Let's compare unwanted pregnancy to a case of a car crash in which one car crashes into a second car, propelling it into a third. As it turns out, the owner of the third car also owns and drove the car that started the chain reaction. Being the owner of both cars, she can fault only herself. Of course, the owner of the car in the middle can fault her, too.

Now, let's call a pregnant woman A (or one-half A, the father being the other half), the child B, and the mother's body C. A conceives B, thus causing B to inhabit C. Plainly, C is A, the mother. The child, B, the one caught in the middle (no pun intended), is innocent. The mother has no just reason to evict, let alone kill, her child.

In Thomson's analogy the sequence is: The violinist develops a fatal kidney problem, his friends go to his aid; they capture an innocent stranger and plug the violinist into him; the stranger unplugs himself, which lets the violinist die.

But what if the violinist is in the life-threatening condition because the stranger is not innocent? What if the stranger had hit the violinist with his car? This would make the situation closer to what's at issue in the abortion debate. The violinist has the right to defense, so why wouldn't he have the right to compel the stranger to keep him alive, especially since the stranger is able to prevent his death?

If we put someone at death's door and then take another step that brings about the death, that's not letting him die; that's killing him. And that kills Thomson's defense, too.

The right to be in the womb

Conception followed by eviction from the womb could be compared to capturing someone, placing him on an airplane, and then shoving him out without a parachute in mid-flight. We have no right to endanger others without their consent and then intentionally or negligently fail to protect them from the harm.

Conception and pregnancy are foreseeable consequences of even careful sex. By causing children to be, parents also cause them to need support; it's a package deal. When parents mutually enable their sperm and ova to join, the parents are not enslaved -- they've volunteered. This may put the needs of a parent and child in conflict, but it creates no clash of rights between them. This is because parents owe their children support.

Thomson recognizes the possibility of parental obligation: "If [the mother] voluntarily called [her child] into existence, how can she now kill it, even in self-defense? This question is something new," she writes in her article. She adds to this a very important observation. Pro-lifers should take notice, because it still holds true today for most of us. Quoting Thomson:

    "Opponents of abortion have been so concerned to make out the independence of the fetus, in order to establish that it has a right to life, just as its mother does, that they have tended to overlook the possible support they might gain from making out that the fetus is dependent on the mother, in order to establish that she has a special kind of responsibility for it, a responsibility that gives it rights against her which are not possessed by any independent person -- such as an ailing violinist who is a stranger to her."

As Thomson correctly sees, the mere biological relationship of parents to their children is insufficient to establish a "special responsibility" to them. But then she compares the job of parenting to being a Minimally Decent, Good, or Splendid Samaritan; the badge earned by a set of parents depends on the level of difficulty they faced in assuming support of their child. The way she analyzes the topic makes one wonder whether she thinks parenting even born children is charity.

It most certainly is not. Feeding own our children is not merely something we ought to do under morality; it's what we owe them under justice. Parental obligation is not a special obligation, in that acting justly towards everyone else is a universal obligation. Parental obligation does not arise out of contract or because a tort or other injustice was committed. The obligation is, basically, the obligation is to avoid injustice in the first place.

The obligation to protect

Our unalienable rights to life, liberty, and property, can be boiled down to one central unalienable right: to be free from aggression, the initiation of force or fraud. With this right comes the unalienable (i.e., non-optional) obligation not to aggress.

Non-aggression is, basically, a negative obligation -- do not hit first. Yet because of it, we can incur positive obligations. For example, we don't aggress by entering contracts; yet, by doing so, we can incur debts. We also can incur debts apart from contract or harming others.

We do this by threatening harm, by endangering others without their consent. If harm results, we not only caused the danger, we caused the harm and initiated force. Since we have no right to initiate force, we have no right to endanger others and then let harm befall them. The principle is: If you endanger them, you owe them protection from harm.

The kind and degree of preventative care we must take depends upon the kind and degree of the risk we've imposed on others. For example, when we drive a car, at the minimum, we must stay alert and drive carefully. Our right of defense gives us the right to prevent drunk drivers from using the road.

Causing a child to be is not, in itself, endangerment (it's a normal, natural fact of life), because the very fact of pregnancy automatically protects the child against the possible dangers of an unsupportive environment. But by conceiving a child, parents give themselves a life-or-death power over her, and they do this without her consent. If parents intentionally or negligently use their power to put her in harm's way (let her starve, say), they cause the danger. If the child gets harmed, they caused the harm. They initiated force and violated the child's rights.

Most abortion-choicers accept, in principle at least, the obligation of parents to protect immature children. Not many would say that leaving one's infant unattended in hazardous situations is a matter of the parent's choice. When their children get very sick in the middle of the night and need help, most abortion choicers don't go back to sleep saying, "So what if my kid might die? I have the right to control my own body, don't I?"

What difference does it make for a woman's rights whether her kid is in the crib or in her womb? It's her self-same body after, as well as before, birth.

And it's her self-same child.




LFL explains and defends the libertarian case against abortion choice. Our reasoning is expressly scientific and philosophical rather than either pragmatic or religious, or merely political or emotional.

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