A response to Judith Jarvis Thompson’s violinist argument for abortion rights

Amy posted this on the Stand to Reason blog, and it got a ton of comments.


The “Violinist” argument for keeping abortion legal is an illustration created by Judith Jarvis Thompson for the purpose of clarifying our moral intuitions about abortion by considering a parallel situation. The Violinist story goes like this (see the full, original story here): A woman wakes up to find she’s been attached without her consent to a famous violinist who needs the help of her kidneys for the next nine months in order to live. If the woman detaches herself from him, he will die.

According to Thompson, since it’s clear that the woman ought not be forced by law to remain attached to this man (though he is a person with rights), in the same way, the law ought not force a woman to remain attached to an unborn child who is similarly using her body to live (though he is a person with rights).

In response to this bodily rights argument, Stephen Wagner, Josh Brahm, and Timothy Brahm (along with others—see acknowledgments) have developed a new illustration that more closely parallels the situation of a pregnant woman (including those who are pregnant by rape), which they call “The Cabin in the Blizzard.” From Stephen Wagner’s paper, “De Facto Guardian and Abortion”:

Imagine that a woman named Mary wakes up in a strange cabin. Having gone to sleep in her suburban home the night before, she starts to scream frantically. She goes to the window and sees snow piled high. It appears she is snowed in. On the desk by the window, she finds a note that says,

“You will be here for six weeks.
You are safe, and your child is, too.
There is plenty of food and water.”

Since she just gave birth a week ago, she instinctively begins tearing through each room of the cabin looking for her infant son. She finds an infant in a second room, but it is not her infant. It is a girl who appears to be about one week old, just like her son. Mary begins to scream.

Pulling herself together, she goes to the kitchen area of the cabin and finds a huge store of food and a ready source of water. The baby begins to cry, and she rightly assesses that the baby is hungry. Mary sees a three-month supply of formula on the counter in the kitchen area.

Now imagine that the police show up at the cabin six weeks later, and Mary emerges from the cabin. After determining she is in good health, albeit a good bit frazzled, one policeman says, “We’ve been investigating this situation for some time. The Behavioral Psychologists from the nearby University of Lake Wobegon are responsible. We’ll bring them to justice. We’re so glad you’re okay. Is there anyone else in the cabin?”

Mary said quietly, “There was.”

“There was?” The police hurry past her to the cabin. They search the cabin and find the infant formula unopened on the counter. They find the infant dead on a bed. The coroner confirms that the infant died from starvation.

We can see that Mary was wrong for not feeding the baby in this situation, regardless of the fact that she did not consent to these demands being placed on her. As Wagner points out, our moral intuition tells us her obligation to feed the child exists even if her only option is to use her own body to breastfeed that child, causing her great discomfort.

Another problem with the violinist argument is that it neglects the fact that the baby is there as a result of the woman’s own decision to have sex without being ready for a baby. In the violinist example, the woman is a helpless victim of some group of music lovers. But in a real pregnancy, the woman had to have made a decision that resulted in the baby being born, (except in the case of rape).

Triablogue explains it thus:

Thompson seems to make a distinction between consent to pregnancy and consent to sex (as Beckwith and others point out). But it seems that pregnancy is the designed result of sex, even though it may not be the desired result. It would seem that our sex organs have the purpose of being ordered towards procreation. Applying this to the violinist then: What if I engaged in an activity, say, spelunking, that regularly created rare kidney diseases in violinists? Say that every time I dropped 50 ft into the cave, a violinist was almost sure to develop the disease that only I had the blood type to correct or fix. If I did so, should I not be hooked up to him, voluntarily or not? Say that there was protection, some kind of spelunking helmet. Say that it was not 100% effective. If my helmet ripped, should I be attached to the violinist? Or say I tried to “pull up” before I hit 50 ft. Unfortunately, it felt so good to decend that I pulled up a little too late and my right foot passed the 50 ft mark. Should I be attached to the violinist? I don’t see why not. Indeed, say that the statistical evidence was that the first two people that ever spelunked together would eventually cause 6 billion violinists to come down with rare kidney diseases, I dare say the Society of Music Lovers, and almost everyone else for that matter, would call for abstaining from spelunking unless you agreed to take care of the violinists until they got better. This seems fatal to Thompson’s argument.

It’s very helpful illustration for dealing with pro-abortion people who admit that unborn children are human persons, but who still think that women should have a right to terminate their pregnancy.

8 thoughts on “A response to Judith Jarvis Thompson’s violinist argument for abortion rights”

  1. I seriously thought the “Violinist” argument was a joke when I first read it. I mean I realize the pro choice camp isn’t exactly known for supporting their position with reason and rationality, but that’s seriously the most ridiculous argument I’ve heard. Like, period. For anything.

    And Triablogue nails the reason why it’s so ridiculous. The frustration I’ve always had in talking with pro choice people is that they act as if pregnancy is like cancer… like it just happens to a woman out of the blue and they have no control over it. That’s the only way the “but it’s my body!” argument can hold water, but it’s obviously absurd. Putting aside the obvious fact that it’s not just the mother’s body we’re dealing with anymore, the other issue that’s often ignored is that this other body is there because of an intentional action the women took.

    The pro choice camp’s refusal to deal with that fact has never ceased to amaze me. They don’t even try to address it… they just pretend it’s not true. And the Violinist argument is a great example of that. The fact anyone can attempt to make an analogy to abortion and just conveniently gloss over the decision-consequence aspect of it shows me how deluded these people really are.

    1. The whole point of abortion is to avoid taking responsibility for sexual choices. Thus, it is no wonder that pro-abortion advocates conveniently ignore the fact that pregnancy (in the vast majority of cases) is a direct result of the woman’s choice to engage in sex. Their starting proposition is that they ought to be able to have sex without consequences. Abortion on demand is just a logical result of that kind of thinking.

      If sex without consequences is a right, then it must be okay to get rid of any unwanted consequences – including killing an unborn human being. The fact that they are ignoring some well-known facts of biology (such as where babies come from and that they are individual human beings from the moment of conception) in their pursuit of this lack of responsibility doesn’t seem to bother them.

      1. There is always a choice to act and what is scary is that the people who make the choice don’t see themselves as responsible for the consequences of what they’ve done. That is scary.

        1. True. It’s part of a larger social trend in which people tend to see themselves as bystanders in their own lives, tossed about by circumstances, and perpetual victims. They don’t ever seem to want to take responsibility for their actions. Things just happen to them. It’s never their fault. Out of this mindset is born the idea that babies just fall from the sky into the wombs of innocent and unsuspecting women who don’t deserve to have their lives changed irrevocably by such a chance occurrence and thus must be allowed to fight back against such an unfair attack on their bodies. This really is the way many abortion advocates see the issue. Personal responsibility is not even on their radar.

        2. So here is an interesting question (or at least one I find interesting)… If a pro choice proponent is going to be consistent, shouldn’t they support the right of the father to abandon the mother/child without any further financial obligation? If the issue at stake is allowing a person to avoid a child they can’t or don’t want to take care of, why wouldn’t it logically follow that this same right should be extended to the man?

          1. I’ve wondered the same thing. And I’ve argued that it’s unequal and unfair to force a man to provide for a child he didn’t want, but allow a woman to kill the child and get out of any unwanted responsibility. Apparently, for a man, having sex means he is responsible to care for any child produced (since he can be forced to pay child support), but it doesn’t mean the same thing for women. That’s a double standard.

            I think the reason our society has this double standard is that it is so feminized. Our society isn’t looking for equality. They’re looking to elevate women and make up for (real or imagined) past gender inequality by making things difficult and unfair to men. Women, thus, aren’t expected to take responsibility, but men are. Any faults are automatically attributed to men. Thus, when a child is conceived, it is considered the man’s responsibility and he should pay, even though the woman was just as involved in creating the child. Women must never be forced to give up their plans and goals due to an unplanned pregnancy (since women have done this for thousands of years under past male-domination, it must never happen again in order to right the universe). Yet men can and should be held accountable for their actions. This is how they think.

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