Author’s Note: I will be speaking at UNC-Chapel Hill on Monday, March 6th at 7 p.m. The speech, which is on free speech, is also a free speech. In other words, it is free and open to the public. It will take place in the Student Union, Room 2420.
Recently, I saw an article that had been floating around on social media. It purported to list the 50 greatest living philosophers. On a slow afternoon, I decided to read through the entire list. It contained some people I had heard of and other names that were unfamiliar. One name in the former category was that of Judith Jarvis Thompson. The article suggested that she is best known for the following hypothetical, which advances a bodily autonomy argument in favor of abortion:
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 now is 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.
Pro-abortion choice advocates have relied upon this thought experiment for decades. They argue, rather simplistically, that this specific woman’s right to unplug the violinist translates into a general right to elective abortion. Many of my pro-life students are stumped by the argument and seek my advice on how to navigate it succinctly. I am writing this column to provide a response to those inquiries.
Those seeking a comprehensive account of the flaws in the Thompson hypothetical need look no further than Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice, by Francis J. Beckwith. But there are others who are seeking a quicker and less comprehensive response to use in an informal setting. For example, one might get hit with the argument in the college classroom or on social medial and need to make a much faster and shorter reply. In those situations, I always provide two fast rebuttals. If time permits, I follow up with two additional questions. Here they are in my preferred order of presentation:
Immediately establish that the Thompson hypothetical has no bearing on 99% of abortion cases. Put simply, people do not just wake up pregnant. When they do get pregnant it is almost always due to their choice to engage in a consensual act of sex. So let us come to a quick agreement that the Thompson hypothetical only has relevance to the question of whether we are to have a rape exception to a general ban on abortion. In the process of making this point, you have to establish that less than 1% percent of abortions happen because a woman got “plugged into” by a fetus as the result of a criminal act. If the person is unwilling to admit that, they are simply dishonest and it is time to end the argument and go find a more suitable debate opponent. If they will concede your initial point you may continue.
Next you must establish that the Thompson hypothetical still has no bearing on the other 1% of abortion cases. Comparing abortion with the mere withdrawal of support is simply outrageous. When a baby is aborted it is not to be likened to an unplugging. It is a slow and methodical dismemberment of flesh and tissue. Beckwith says it best when he says that likening abortion to the withdrawal of support is like suffocating someone with a pillow and then calling it the withdrawal of oxygen. If the person does not concede the point then there is a good chance he simply does not know what abortion entails. It might be a good idea to direct him to this link for further education: www.caseforlife.com.
If time permits, try to establish that we have greater moral obligations to our own children than we do to strangers. This should be fairly obvious. If not, then simply pose the question squarely, “By using the Thompson hypothetical, are you actually suggesting that a woman has no greater moral obligation to her own offspring than she does to a perfect stranger?” If the person does not simply walk away or leave the thread proceed with a final point and a final question.
The unborn child isn’t a criminal. In the hypothetical, the famous violinist is also a felon. He enters into conspiracy. Next he kidnaps. Then he tops it off with false imprisonment and aggravated battery through the use of invasive medical instruments. His punishment for the crime spree is “unhooking.” In contrast, with abortion you have an innocent human being who has committed no crime and cannot even form criminal intent. Yet the innocent child is punished with slow and methodical dismemberment. Explain this slowly and also ask the person, “Do you still believe you have provided me with a morally useful thought experiment?”
We are done here, folks. You have now slowly and methodically dismembered an inane hypothetical by an arguably overrated academic. And you did it in just a few short minutes.
For now, that is enough with the thought experiments. When I conclude my series on bodily autonomy and abortion I’ll rely on a real case from the state of Utah. That will require just one more column.
…To be continued.