Rethinking Judith Jarvis Thomson’s Defense of Abortion

One of the strongest arguments for the moral permissibility of abortion arguably comes from Judith Jarvis Thomson’s 1971 paper, “A Defense of Abortion.” Side-stepping entrenched debates over the metaphysical status of the fetus, Thomson argues that even if we grant full personhood status to the fetus, abortion would still be permissible. She supports this claim largely by way of her famous “violinist” thought experiment which goes like this:

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. [If he is unplugged from you now, he will die; but] in nine months he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.

This extraordinary case appeals to the intuition that it would be morally permissible to unplug oneself from the violinist and allow him to die, since doing so would not in any way violate the violinist’s right to life. Indeed, the violinist would not have the right to make parasitic use of another person’s bodily autonomy in order to sustain his own life to begin with. By analogy, Thomson argues, a mother’s act of aborting her fetus would not constitute an act of doing/killing, and would not therefore constitute a violation of the fetus’s right to life. Rather, abortion should be understood as an act of allowing/letting die by the woman withdrawing her bodily autonomy and inherent life-sustaining processes from the fetus.

While Thomson’s thought-experiment has stood the test of time in countless undergraduate philosophy classrooms, biomedical seminars, and courtrooms for half a century now, the mechanics and details of the argument nonetheless warrant thorough re-examination. I want to argue here that Thomson’s argument in defense of abortion ultimately fails to acknowledge three essential metaphysical and morally relevant considerations:

  1. Flawed action-individuation.
  2. Special duties of parents.
  3. Special rights and duties of fathers.

Let us examine each in turn.

Flawed action-individuation

A crucial feature of Thomson’s argument is that the violinist case begins “mid-act.” The thought experiment traps us, wholly against our will, in an extraordinary scenario that has happened to no one else in all of human history. But this set-up is necessary to establish the conditions under which the decision “to unplug” will constitute an allowing/letting die of another adult human being rather than the killing and active termination of a life-sustaining process (and accompanying entity).

But in normal cases of consensual intercourse, the foreseeable causal chain and accompanying risks are set into motion by the original decision to have sex. So, if the woman later chooses to terminate that process, doing so would constitute a knowledgeable act of doing/killing rather than a mere allowing/letting die. Indeed, baked into the woman’s choice to have sex in the first place is the moral risk of setting off a predictable causal chain whereby another human life becomes wholly dependent upon her bodily functions to survive.

The everyday risks of consensual sex stand in dramatic contrast to the outlandish scenario in which some parasitic foreign entity suddenly attaches itself to a person’s pre-existing life-sustaining processes without that person’s will, knowledge, or foresight. Once we do a better job at filling in the causal back-story, it becomes evident that the life-sustaining process terminated in the abortive act finds its moral and metaphysical origin in the woman’s original choice to have sex.

Even if we disregard this argument, it isn’t even as if the abortion procedure itself is remotely comparable to an “unplugging,” let alone a mere allowing. As conservative pundit Matt Walsh succinctly notes:

The bodily autonomy argument doesn’t get you all the way to abortion. If a woman has a right to detach herself from her baby, to extricate herself from the situation, to remove herself from this dependent life-form, that would mean we would have to take the other life-form out of her. It would not mean that we would have to kill it before we take it out.

Hence, on standard philosophical accounts of doing versus allowing and killing versus letting die, the abortion procedure fails to satisfy standard conditions of mere allowing/letting die as Thomson’s analogy tries to suggest.

In these various ways, Thomson chops up and individuates the various parts of the causal process—from the woman’s initial choice to have sex all the way to the actual act of the abortion procedure itself—and ultimately appeals to the wrong moral intuitions, and with only a selected and highly curated fraction of the entire causal chain.

Special duties of the parents

Walsh further notes that Thomson’s violinist case is radically disanalogous from normal sexual intercourse and pregnancy cases insofar as the violinist is a complete stranger, suddenly thrust upon us against our will. This appeals to the intuition that a grave rights violation has taken place and that considerations of bodily autonomy should win the day.

However, the entity in question in the abortion debate is not some random stranger, but the mother’s own child. At issue here is the difference between allowing a random adult to die and killing one’s own child. This is no small matter. Were the child to be born, most people will maintain that both the mother and the father now have a particular responsibility to look after that child. They could not simply allow the child to starve to death because taking care of it would constitute encroachment upon their bodily autonomy.

Accordingly, if special duties to care for one’s own offspring and to not let them die apply during the moments immediately after birth, and if one’s offspring counts as a person while still in the womb (as the empirical data increasingly suggests and as Thomson grants for the sake of argument), then such special duties arguably trump bodily autonomy considerations for the same reasons in the womb as well.

Special rights and duties of fathers

The abortion debate is primarily concerned with the bodily autonomy of the mother and/or of the fetus. The rights and duties of the father are seldom discussed. Now, at first glance, any discussion of men’s rights in the present abortion debate might seem wholly inappropriate. After all, men are not the ones enduring nine months of pregnancy and all its accompanying physical and psychological hardships, reproductive complications, and many risks. Nevertheless, it is not as if the father’s role counts for nothing in the metaphysical and moral equation either. While the father's body does not carry the fetus during gestation, the contribution of the father's sperm is nonetheless a necessary condition for the fetus’s creation and therefore a necessary causal contributor to the accompanying rights and duties related to that living entity.

If we grant that a father has special duties to his offspring (once outside the womb), to care for and protect them or to at least pay child support, and we grant that the fetus is a person (either in virtue of the latest empirical evidence at some stage of gestation, or by stipulation according to Thomson), then the father’s special duties to care for and protect his would-be offspring within the womb deserve consideration. These may override the mother’s unilateral veto power in deciding to abort a fetus on bodily autonomy grounds. Either that, or it ought to be conceded that fathers have no special duties whatsoever to care for their offspring or to pay child-support once the child is born.

Conclusion

People don’t see with their eyes, they see with their concepts. Consequently, the more concepts people have, the more they will see. This claim, however, comes with an important caveat. It is important to remember that analogies are just that, analogies; and that any analogy, no matter how persuasive or clever or intuitively convincing at first glance, should be examined and scrutinized with extreme care and rigor before we use it as the basis for legislation, policy, or real-world action.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2021/09/19/rethinking-abortion/
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Wow, thanks for a highly interesting argument of which I was previously unaware. The authors conclusion reminds me somewhat of the admonition contained in Bayes Theorem. For the record, I am mostly pro-choice, with the exception that I believe that the concept of liberty means that rights have to be balanced by responsibilities.

In this case, if we perceive abortion as a harm which is non-existent with the use of the morning after pill, but gradually becomes more onerous with the growth of the fetus, we can see at one end of the spectrum the argument is close to “every sperm is sacred”, whilst at the other some of more recent arguments deployed by the Democrats in relation to mental health and near full-term abortions are moral abominations. Personally, I think it is worth revisiting the issue of when the fetus acquires legal status- at least for the purposes of debate, I read a source a while back which was actually on a pro-choice factchecking site which Google has long since covered up- apparently the first signs of brain wave activity which would be comparable to an adult human in a coma occur around 110 days.

I loved the argument about the violinist. For intellectual purposes alone, reframing the issue slightly would place the woman as the driver of a car who, whilst driving safely and within the Law still made her responsible for running over the violinist allows us to see the scenario in a more realistic light. Would society really have as many qualms about sentencing her to 9 months of life support in these circumstances?

And even if we accept in these circumstances the lack of legal blame should prohibit the state from using force, doesn’t this show the unfettered approval of abortion which many in society give (to the extent that some now openly celebrate having an abortion) to be morally questionable? If we gave the woman free choice to save the violinist and she then nonetheless refused, wouldn’t we be somewhat horrified? Again, this is for intellectual purposes alone- I generally loathe getting involved in the abortion debate, it usually boils down to a binary discussion where peoples priors matter more than the arguments deployed.

Of course, this does present an interesting argument in relation to rape and abortion. In the scenario it would be the rapist who would have stolen the car and thus be required for being hooked up to the violinist. Unfortunately, the technology does not exist yet- but I look forward to the day that it does. Perhaps the possibility of carrying a baby for nine months might give the little fuckers a disincentive! The system might be open to abuse though- I can imagine many a woman being tempted to argue in court “but he told me his bioware was set to non-fertile”, in order to shift the responsibility for carrying the baby to the man…

As usual, my essays are available on Substack and are free to view and comment:

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Uh huh, like blastocyst/embryo = ‘child’…

It has always been inequitous and curiously underdiscussed that women’s right to abort the feotus/baby are commonly accepted, but men are not accorded the same rights, while are still societally/legally compelled to take responsibility in (at least) financially supporting the future human child.

This is somewhat in line with societal attitudes in general, where men are expected to take responsibility and women are expected to be protected.

Nevertheless it is clearly incongruous and hence truly unfair.

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False equivalence. Notwithstanding a small minority of pregnancies where serious mitigating circumstances can occur, in one scenario ie pregnancies, a person to be responsible for does not exist & in the other at birth, a person does.

Interesting article. Hadn’t heard of Thomson or her argument on this topic before.

I wouldn’t grant Thomson’s stipulation. Though I can agree that:

which is why the main determinant for me is the timing.

The issue of “fathers” and “child support” has been raised before. Although the author concedes that the father’s claim rests solely upon having been the sperm donor. Which means this bar is removed in all cases involving anonymous sperm donation. And also that objections would not exist if both gamete donors agreed to an abortion.

While Thomson’s thought-experiment has stood the test of time in countless undergraduate philosophy classrooms, biomedical seminars, and courtrooms for half a century now, the mechanics and details of the argument nonetheless warrant thorough re-examination.

This is a decent article but it’s based on a false premise, that Thompson’s argument is widely accepted among philosophers. It’s not. None of the author’s criticisms are original; these counterarguments first appeared soon after Thompson’s article was published and have been reiterated in undergraduate philosophy classes ever since.

Women might argue that it’s “clearly incongruous and hence truly unfair” that they’re the parents who have to spend nine months gestating, but that’s the biological reality. It’s a morally relevant difference which has clear implications for the abortion debate.

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This is absolutely true. However the decision to abort is generally taken according to the prospect of raising a child for at least 18 years but really for life, rather than the impact of enduring the gestation period only. Furthermore in western society the legal and moral responsibility for raising the child lies squarely on both biological parents.

I’m struggling to parse this accurately, but it is entirely true that there are immediate medical risks to only the mother due to biological realities, and in some cases the risks are significant.

Oh I think I understand what you’re saying, Ella. Perhaps an analogy is this. The police discover a plan to rob a bank. In your view the police have no right to thwart the bank robbery because it does not yet exist - it only exists once the robbery has taken place. I think this is just sophisticated word play.

To be clear, firstly there is a very clear potential future responsibility for both parents from the time of conception, and not just from the time of birth.

Secondly (and almost completely orthogonally) most people are very uncomfortable with treating late term babies as non-persons, whatever the law might state. It is just so obvious that late term babies have most of the attributes that lead us to broader individual rights - consciousness most importantly. The exact change of status at birth from inside to outside is arbitrary in a very intuitive human sense.

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But its weakness is what makes it a handy go to for pro lifers. Diverting to the ‘my body my choice’ argument distracts from the personhood one….

I doubt that a woman seeking an abortion is concerned about any other person, including philosophers, religious objectors, or the supplier of the sperm. There is only herself as the one most immediately involved.

Up to 11 weeks or so, medication abortion is an effective method of unplugging, so philosophers and objectors can intervene solely by restricting availability of the medication. When they do so, getting around the prohibition is potentially easier than needing to travel to a distant state.

Religious objectors realize that penalizing women who undergo illegal abortions is futile, so they go after the providers instead. There is likely a philosophical argument to be made here as well.

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To me it is all good clean fun to argue about the morality of abortion. The question for me is when do you call Mr Plod and George Soros’s prosecutors in on a case of murder? At what point exactly? Fetal heartbeat? 3 months? 9 months? Less than 24 hours after birth?

The world wonders.

“nine months of pregnancy and all its accompanying physical and psychological hardships, reproductive complications, and many risks.”

I don’t think this is an argument against abortion. It’s an argument for the Plan B abortifacient pill.

How about a Kickstarter campaign to send Plan B to anyONE who asks for it? Through Amazon since time is essential. Bezos could fund it. Be good for his image. Or Elon could donate the money.

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In the US, abortion is 1) population control for the underclass (championed by Democrats but w/ tacit GOP support) 2) a bloody shirt for Dems to wave for elections/fund-raising 3) a GOP piety-signalling prop 4) an illusory symbol of freedom for the deluded, even as real freedoms are whittled away.

For all the practical rationales and “intellectual” arguments, at least one salient point should give one pause: abortion became legal by 1973, because after a few short years of intense propaganda, enough people had become convinced that what had been widely understood to be a class of human beings was no longer really human. With “assisted” suicide, that pattern is being woven again. And for the same reason: to eliminate the monetary costs of the target group.

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Michael has done us the service of pointing out what ought to have been the screamingly obvious in the first place, which is that the arguments for abortion were ridiculously weak in relation to the social, legal and legislative impact they had. But what he does not do is explain why they got that much traction, other than the society was a bit intellectually sloppy and uncritical in accepting them with such alacrity.

Uncritical sloppiness may have been the proximal behavior, but it does really explain what was driving the suspension or ordinary judgement, which in my view was the conversion of sex as a biological agent of reproduction to not only a legitimately inconsequential recreational act, but part of the roll out of sex, sexuality and fantasy as primary drivers of the economic and cultural system, that was simultaneously disposing of the need for a disciplined, rational and objectively verifiable hierarchy of needs and wants.

Unlike the early, clumsy and politicized attempts at totalitarian autocracy, the roll out of indulgence based sociometrics through the system of public relations and marketing went straight under the collective radar, because the whole thing was packaged in goods, services and ideation promotional wraps, as if it were all spontaneously coming out of the ethersphere…and very effectively concealing the colonization of consciousness…

All classes were susceptible to the packaging of reality itself.

None of this works even vaguely like some Orwellian party line, but rather like a chicken and egg loop that builds momentum in a direction where multiple cross platform balances of force tip towards developing alignments in the larger system. It is a very subtle and apolitically market based process that people just don’t notice unless they are looking for it.

The anti abortion voices tapped into a communal zeitgeist that was beginning to deregulate and privatize the social system and residualizing social authority in favor of marketing. So individual agency was always going to get a clear run at its ambitions, no matter how crummy the arguments for them were…because social discourse itself was becoming a marketed product and its expressions were increasingly devolving into snappy sounding keywords and slogans…tuned and toned to bring mass audiences to the only possible conclusion, using all the voices that could be martialed from street level 10 second TV interview grabs to ‘thoughtful’ intellectuals and academics. engaged in so called ‘debates’ where bright young and progressive people on the right side of the angels confronted ageing and horn rim spectacled relics from another age, who could only watch as the carpet slid out from under them and the amazingly pro abortion TV audience cheered on the heroes of ‘change’ and ‘progress’…

The result was a foregone conclusion repeated endlessly throughout the architecture of social discourse until ‘the inevitable’ happened…and voila, abortion on demand was a fait accompli that only dinosaurs and troglodytes could possible oppose.

Very elegantly and neatly done…

The 1960s and early 70s democratic consensus that produced that result is now disintegrating, and ‘quite spontaneously’ we are reviewing the outcomes from that period and scratching our collective heads as to how the abortion advocates got away with it in the first instant, which brings me back Michael above, who points out that what seemed so obvious then, doesn’t seem so obvious now.

Below is a chapter from my book, ‘The Secular Fundamental’ called ‘The case of abortion on demand’, which gives a much more detailed review of the subject.

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I think you’ll find historically once coercive influences that have held big lies in place are removed adjustments have often been accepted with alacrity. See the Age of Enlightenment & The Fall of Communism.
Oh, & human disagreement on a grand scale being only characterised as “vulnerable to a suspension of ordinary judgement” has a kind of totalitarian vibe. They always like to believe brain washing can defeat reason….

I think you will find Ella that at the time abortion on demand was being legitimized as an OK thing, coercion was not an issue…That came later when suppression of anti abortion sentiment & militancy ‘became necessary’.

Well whatdaya know! Just like men, women believe a regard for their humanity & individual sovereignty be non negotiable…

Sorry Ella, I think you mistake what I am saying and I am not sure what point you are trying to make.

I am making two points, which is that coercion was not part of the roll out of abortion on demand, but woke defense of women’s interests over the top of those of their progeny has and does involve coercion.

If we are having an argument about abortion on demand per se and the supposed female discretion over the survival of the life they have created, in the same way that masters and mistresses used to over their slaves, that is another.

As I point out (amongst many other points I make) in my essay above, female sovereignty over what happens in their body is not in dispute. I would only add that when a human is brought into being at the moment of first cell subdivision, another life is in play which is not hers. He or she does not belong to her as a slave belongs to a mistress. He or she is not some inanimate object or dangerous foreign body. like a cockroach or bacterium.

A new life is in her, but not hers. Only half his or her chromosomes are hers. The new life is a completely autonomously self actuating organism. The mother is just providing warehousing and services until her child has grown up enough for his or her organs to roll out and mature enough to operate without those start up services.

Pretending that early life is subhuman is no different to the pretense that Jews are. The same kind of pseudo scientific ‘personhood’ falsifications and evasions of reality are perpetuated.

And the only reason they have got traction was that at the same time as abortion on demand was being rolled out, sex was being ideologically reconstructed from being a reproductive artifact to a consumer recreational one, in which the real purpose of sex was being displaced by its pleasures and fantasies, as an ever increasingly deregulated and privatized economy and culture of disciplined needs and wants was subsumed by fantasies of desire and their immediate satiation regardless of consequences.

The social and ideological reconstruction of sex also meant not only was life as an idea pushed to one side (along with the rest of the biological world) but women themselves were reconstructed into pleasure icons of consumability…by men, who were the main beneficiaries of sex-on-demand. Women were converted into bunnies in a sexist bunny hunt where they were the game; not very liberating at all.

The formal patriarchy may have been disposed of as surplus to requirement, but good ol’ sexism acquired a new tranche of leverages that I would argue transferred female subjection from an iron cage to a golden one that is actually smaller than the old one and saddled them with social reproductive infrastructure that just fell to pieces on contact, as disciplined and consequential social and moral agency disappeared off the horizon and was replaced by adolescent narcissism and hopelessly unstable relationships that even if they did last a reproductive cycle, only did so in brutally disappointingly degraded form…which is why women are struggling to find stable adult men to mate with who can be relied on for anything…

I am on your side Ella. Women get 100% of the reproductive suite which is brutally unfair and makes them vulnerable in ways that will never be so for men. Biology does not have to be fair. That onerous responsibility remains yours and no amount of ideological magic wanding will change that.

But that does not mean you have to put up with the incompetent and malign sexist shit that you probably have endure for most of your waking time. But part of that is that you just cannot have your cake and eat it as well. You have to be careful what you ask of the gods in case they grant it by giving you far more of what you didn’t want and a lot less of what you did.

But before you can escape the current crappy and sexist trajectories that you currently endure, the admission of biological constraints is necessary before any realistic improvements are possible. And that applies to industrialist as much as it does to you. As a culture we are going to have to reposition life in front of all else, across all our cultural and economic platforms, or the whole lot is going to disappear into the deletion bin of history.

You cannot possibly separate the abortion question from the broader life question, because they are the same thing. And once that is in place, we can start to put women at the front and center of our culture as, amongst a lot of other things, the life givers,…around whom men must rotate as satellites, whose sole job it is to make sure the lives of their women run as smoothly, securely and conflict freely as it is humanly possible to be, where her needs come first and are met, before she has to ask or fight for them.

And in order for that to happen, the social milieu has to be radically reregulated and deprivatized.

Post-Modern Heroes - Michael and Giordana - Writing.Com

It’s a very infantilising view of women to believe that they are so vulnerable to direction especially regarding decision making that’s an intrinsic part of their biological drive. They couldn’t have possibly come to their own conclusions without being told, brainwashed or coerced? It’s a familiar sexist trope that their desire for equality comes from ‘above’ & not within. Advocacy is representing an interest not driving it. That advocacy is successfully supported is because it resonates.

That’s a subjective call that varies on a huge spectrum because after all we are individuals. Some (Catholics) would say life starts as early as ovulation, some fertilisation, some viability etc. That science classifies fertilisation as the commencement of human life doesn’t make it morally indisputable. There’s no ought from is remember.
Abortion being an organic decision is more likely given its actually evolutionarily consistent with the recognition that unsuitable environmental conditions are not conducive to the flourishing of offspring. Most abortions (75% in the US) are from women in poverty that already have children. That should tell you something about their motivations.

Why should a blastocyst have more rights than a two year old? A two year old has no claims on their mother’s body.

Your’e not seriously suggesting that the life of a slave or a person of Jewish descent is on par with that of a blastocyst? Thanks……

But the fact of the matter is we are talking about two very different entities that’s been falsified as having equal status. It’s their differences that’s being evaded here. Potentiality is not actuality.

It got traction simply because there were no longer coercive influences, available technology, no loss of value (low time investment/low development in most cases) & environmental conditions dictated procreation unsuitability. That those whose very existence is to give & nurture life don’t think a particular type of life is worth protecting in large numbers is an innate value intuition. And this is evidenced in the 95% of terminations that occur in the first trimester.

We already were pleasure icons. The liberating part now is being a pleasure icon when we feel like it & so much more.

But is a more sexually liberal society the real culprit here or parental failure? Excess of anything is not so much about the availability of temptation but lacking the character to overcome it.

Some would say meaning & growth is only found in struggle. Picking up one’s cross isn’t only a man’s job…

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