Sunday, November 11, 2012

Abortion and the Famous Violinist

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The abortion controversy often centers around where personhood begins as a good indication of whether to outlaw abortion. The philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson boldly claims that even if abortion entails killing innocent human life, abortion remains morally permissible. She does this with her famous violinist thought experiment.


Abortion is a controversial topic, and I confess I find it intellectually interesting, albeit a bit puzzling. That is, I’m not sure what the best solution is as to where to legalize and outlaw abortions. I find the extreme pro-choice position (making it legal for all pregnancies at all stages of pregnancy) unpalatable, but I’m also skeptical of the extreme pro-life position (outlaw it at conception).

Consider the extreme position that human personhood begins at conception, when the human being starts off in a single-celled stage of development called a zygote. A single-celled zygote is no more plausibly sentient than an amoeba, and there are understandable difficulties with thinking that any single-celled organism or any human body is a bona fide person when there is no kind of brain (to illustrate, if an adult human’s brain were annihilated, we would think that human person qua person ceased to live).

The other extreme—personhood begins at birth—doesn’t seem much better. Consider a woman eight months pregnant with her fetus and gives birth, thereby making what was a fetus into a person, but then kills it after it is born. Even on this extreme view, she has killed a person. Now suppose instead of giving birth, she kills the fetus inside her when it is as the same stage of development. On the “personhood begins at birth” view, she has not killed a person. But this hardly makes sense; does the location of the human being at eight months really decide whether it is a person?

It seems implausible to me that the location of a human being determines its personhood. If the mad scientist Professor Evil shrunk me and put me inside his body, would I cease to be a person? Could Professor Evil then kill me without having committed murder? It seems not.

The Famous Violinist Thought Experiment

Maverick atheism brought this up in his Joe Biden and Abortion article. Judith Jarvis Thomson tries to short circuit the issue in her famous article A Defense of Abortion. An excerpt from it:
You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist's circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, “Look, we're sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you--we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. 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.” Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says. “Tough luck. I agree. but now you've got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person's right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him.”
I’m not quite convinced that it would be morally permissible for me to kill the famous violinist, but let’s set that aside. Two things that are missing here in the case of pregnancy are (a) that the victim is the son or daughter (there do appear to be at least some parental duties to children); and (b) a bodily inconvenience more akin to pregnancy. To illustrate why this might matter, consider the following scenario. A mad scientist infects a mother with something that causes bodily inconveniences identical to pregnancy for nine months (including the small medical risks associated with pregnancy), after which she will return to normal. The mother knows that the mad scientist has a serum capable of curing her immediately, but the scientist won’t give it to her unless she kills her newborn son. Is it morally permissible for the mother to kill her son to get the cure? I think most people, pro-lifers and pro-choicers alike, would answer in the negative.

So what relevant difference would there be between this analogy and abortion? Perhaps because her newborn son is someone she’s already committed to supporting, whereas she wouldn’t have any commitment to supporting the fetus she wants to abort (the same could be said for the famous violinist). I do not think this is a relevant difference, but we can modify the scenario accordingly. Suppose while being pregnant with her first son she decides to abort it, but on her way to the abortion clinic she gets in a car accident and the doctors, not knowing she wants to abort the preborn child, deliver the child prematurely to save his life. While regaining consciousness she abdicates all legal responsibility for the child, giving it up for adoption while the newborn is in intensive care. The next day the mother begins working at the same hospital her newborn son is in, and she is in a position to kill her newborn son to get the cure. It still does not seem morally permissible for the mother to kill her newborn son.

One might object saying that in the case of pregnancy and the famous violinist, physiological support is being given to the victim, and this makes it morally permissible to end the life of the victim for bodily convenience. I do not think such a factor is relevant, but let’s add that to our scenario anyway. Suppose the mad scientist implants a small micro-wormhole device that teleports some nourishment from the mother’s body to her infant, and that the providing of nourishment to the newborn harms the mother no more and no less than when she was pregnant, but the device causes bodily inconveniences at the same level as pregnancy. The are only two ways to stop the device: (1) wait nine months; or (2) kill her son. Both cases would result in the device being deactivated and passing harmlessly through the pseudo-pregnant mother’s digestive tract. Is it morally permissible in this case for the pseudo-pregnant mother to kill her son? The answer still appears to be no.

But if it’s not morally permissible for the pseudo-pregnant mother to kill her son even when her body is providing the person nourishment etc., about the only relevant difference there might be to justify a Thomsonian abortion defense is the location of the person. But when all other relevant factors (e.g. bodily inconvenience) are held constant, it would seem rather arbitrary to think that it’s the location of a person that determines whether it’s morally permissible to kill them, just as it seems arbitrary that the location of a human being determines its personhood.


Thomson’s argument from her famous violinist thought experiment is unsuccessful. Two factors missing in Thomson’s scenario play a part in the failure: (a) that the victim is the son or daughter (there do appear to be at least some parental duties to children); and (b) a bodily inconvenience more akin to pregnancy. When a better analogy is given (asking whether it is morally permissible for a mother to kill her newborn son to immediately cease her pregnancy-like inconveniences), the failure of her argument becomes apparent. By my lights, we’re left with the difficult and thorny issue of where human personhood begins regarding the ethical and legal controversy of abortion.