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Judith Jarvis Thomson’s Defence on Abortion Essay

Most arguments concerning the abortion issue hinge on the moral status or standing of the fetus with respect to the rights it possesses and the obligations that are directly owed to it. These arguments typically fall into two commonly termed categories: pro-life and pro-choice. Pro-life advocates tend to place the status of the fetus first. They argue human beings including a fetus, have an intrinsic value that confers them the right not to be unjustly killed. Conversely, some pro-choice advocates argue the fetus lacks a virtuous characteristic that affords it any rights or significant morals, this is usually termed the ‘personhood’ argument.

Other pro-choice advocates such as Judith Jarvis Thomson argue contrary to the moral argument (personhood) they argue for body autonomy which places the interest of the woman first. Central to the view is the claim that no human being regardless of their moral status is permitted to use another human beings body against his or her will as a means to an end or an end in itself. Therefore the human fetus does not have the right to occupy the woman’s body for survival if it is against her will. It is viewed as an act of great generosity to continue with a pregnancy (the good Samaritan) primarily, because the woman freely lends her body to support another human-being ‘voluntarily. With this being said, should a woman seek an abortion, as to maintain an autonomy over her own body this view is justified.

So within this essay we will asses what Judith Jarvis Thomson’s (1978) ‘famous violinist scenario’ was supposed to show. Assessing whether the scenario is analogous to cases of (1) unwanted pregnancies, (2) abortion. Critic from both sides of the debate will be woven into the evaluation to provide a rounded view, for determining whether the analogy was successful with its intent. A summary will follow with the findings.

Most standardized pro-life arguments concerning the abortion issue start as follows: It is wrong intentionally to take the life of an innocent human being. The unborn is an innocent human being. It is wrong intentionally to take the life of the unborn. Opponents of the pro-life view typically tend to attack this syllogism from the second premise, ‘the unborn is an innocent human being’, questioning the notion of humanity and personhood of the unborn. Judith Jarvis Thomson however attacks the conclusion ‘it is wrong intentionally to take the life of the unborn’. Thompson challenges the idea that one can argue effectively from this premise to the conclusion, that sometimes abortion is morally permissible. She argues that the standard pro-life argument cannot justify the notion that all abortion is morally impermissible. Thompson’s argument is well illustrated in her ‘famous violinist’ analogy.

Thomson writing at a time when the status of the fetus was a great debate grants the opposition for the sake of argument, the premise that the fetus is a unborn person. Thomson then asks the reader to imagine a scenario where they have been kidnapped and involuntarily hooked up to a famous violinist for nine months, in order to save the violinist from a fatal disease. The reader has then to make a conscious choice as to how they would react. Thompson expects the readers moral intuition – there sense of justice to arise to the surface, when the reader considers being kidnapped and attached to the violinist (1) against their will (2) to support the life of a stranger. So would the reader consider it to be moral or immoral to unplug oneself from the violinist under these circumstances?

Thomson assumes, most people would not argue that (1) the violinist is not a valuable being with a right to life, (2) their moral intuitive and sense of justice would confer that they are under no moral obligation to use their body to support a stranger for nine months. With this being said, Thomson then asks the reader to consider if having a abortion is a meaningful analogy to unplugging the violinist? Both circumstances (1&2) catch the reader (a kin to a woman) by surprise, both the violinist and the fetus are attached to her body, which both need to survive; and both will release her in nine months. Here Thomson assumes that both scenarios will reveal the same conclusion. Just as the reader (1) is under no moral obligation to use his body to support the violinist, a woman (2) is under no obligation to support a human fetus. So Thomson’s analogy has directed the reader to the conclusion, that abortion as in the case of unhooking oneself from the violinist is sometimes morally permissible.

Pro-life apologist Gregory Koukl (2003) declared when first hearing the argument “it shock me up so much I almost had to pull over” he continued “The reasoning in the violinist illustration is very tight” prima facie “Thompson accurately represents firstly the pro-life position and then offers a scenario for consideration. Thompson’s analysis also employs two powerful techniques of argumentation: a moral example followed by a logical slippery slope. The logical slippery slope works like this. When one thing is immoral, and the second is logically similar in a morally relevant way, the moral quality of one slips over into the other. For example, it is immoral to murder and some think that capital punishment is similar enough to murder to make capital punishment immoral too”. Thomson’s analogy aimed for the response that Koukl conferred. Thomson aimed to sway, if only for a brief moment, the moral intuition of the reader, the hardened pro-life advocate. The analogy brings to the surface a persons instinctive attachment to their own personal autonomy.

This is not to say that the violinist analogy was the straw that broke the camels back. As it received rounded criticism from both sides of the abortion debate for various reasons. Mary Anne Warren (1978) an advocate of the personhood proponent and herself accused of lending support of the practise of infanticide and by no means pro-life, points out that Thomson’s analogy is “initially quite plausible…in the initial case of an unwanted pregnancy” however the analogy is less strong in cases of consensual sex and its consequences.

Warren says, “we cannot claim that the woman is in no way responsible…she could have remained chaste, or taken pills more faithfully, or abstained on dangerous days…if x behaves in a way (involving)…, say a 1% chance of bringing into existence a human being with the right to life…then it is by no means clear (that) x is free of any obligation… to keep that human being alive.” she continues “My own intuition is that x has no more right to bring into existence, either deliberately or as a foreseeable result of action he could have avoided, a being with full moral rights (y) and then refuse to do what he knew beforehand would be required to keep that being alive …” (Warren cited by P.J. McHugh 2006)

So, in this instance the analogy does not directly address Warren’s concerns as Thomson is asking a different question: “whether the interests of woman triumph over those of the fetus” (Cottingham, ‘Philosophers on abortion’ 10’20”-10’50”). Speculatively, if Thomson were to reply directly to Warren she might claim, well if (x) consented to sex and took the relevant precautions, the precaution illustrates that she does not commit to the consequences of an action (y), if (y) appears out of a contraceptive mishap, (x) still has a moral right to her own autonomy. (Y) autonomous in itself, has also a right, however as (y) in this instance is dependant on (x) for survival, the rights of (x) in accordance with the rule of autonomy, triumph over the rights of (y). So it follows that (x) must consent to host ‘(y)’ in her womb.

Thomson does later in the theory suggest that one ought to consent however, one has a right not to do so . It’s quite clear from Warren’s earlier comments that she would have challenged the argument further mainly because Thomson’s first premise that the fetus was a person and her final premise that an abortion is sometimes permissible conflicts with the personhood theory. For Warren a person (with full human rights) indicates personhood so killing another person is immoral.

As Warren pointed out Thomson’s analogy did not show an analogy to consensual sex but did the analogy really fail? Some argue the analogy was strongest in illustrating a tight parallel (analogy) to cases of forced intimacy – rape. Therefore Thomson’s analogy was strongest concerning the rights, obligations, and the autonomy of a person. But admittedly weaker in areas such as consensual sex.

Another critic of Thomson’s violinist analogy comes from a advocate on the opposite side of the abortion debate. In the audio recording ‘Philosophers on abortion’ Jennifer Saul a pro-life advocate pointed out a dis-analogy between unplugging the violinist and the direct killing of the fetus. However, the scenario was analogous to cases of indirect killing, preserving the woman’s health (self-defence). Jenny argued that “it is generally widely accepted that acts of murder committed in self-defence are moral” furthermore “You don’t need a violinist analogy to point this out”. But maybe one does need the analogy to illustrate a logical slippery slope here. As, Koukl pointed out earlier if killing is moral in one sense, logically on the slippery slope, it has to follow that killing must always be moral.

Dan Marquis a general pro-life thinker (who side-steps complex cases such as those in Thomson’s analogy) illustrates the logic in the ‘future like ours argument’. In this argument the fetus is held in the same regard as adult humans. Marquis examines why people ordinarily regard it as immoral prima-facie to take the life of an adult human being, he claims the reason to be one of value. Depriving something which has the capacity to have a future like ours – a future of value is always immoral. Therefore, as a fetus has the potential for these capacities killing a fetus would be to deprive it of a future like ours – a future of value, so it is always immoral to kill a fetus. So it follows that killing something (whether indirect or directly) is always immoral if it deprives it of a future of value like ours. A claim which no doubt (1) challenges the view of Saul’s and other’s in respect to self-defence and in some cases permitting abortions; (2) invites her to either bite the bullet or find a morally relevant difference. In most cases those on either side of the debate will offer a morally relevant difference rather than bite the bullet and settle with the consequences.

So is Thomson’s argument sound? Yes, the argument is sound for the particular theory and rights she choose. In this instance Thomson adopts, a theory of “rights and obligations” (a rather libertarian approach) that allows we as human beings to justify our actions independently of the consequences. In this respect the analogy was able to illustrate that we as human beings (subconsciously, without external influences) instinctively value our autonomy. However, it is generally understood as a rule that we ‘ought’, where we can, extend our actions to attend to the needs of others. When in fact within a rights based theory we are in no means obliged to adhere this rule for our individual rights, freedoms and personal autonomy take prevalence over the needs of other beings.

A second success in Thomson’s argument was whether is it permissible to kill? The analogy showed, if the reader instinctively replied that it was morally acceptable to unplug the violinist, then they should also agree that in some cases abortion is permissible; so logically it has also to be true that abortion is permissible in all cases as Marquis’s theory illustrates. Conversely, if the reader instinctively replied that is was immoral to unplug oneself from the violinist then they should also agree that abortion in some cases is immoral; so again logically it has also to be true that abortion is immoral in all cases.

A third success was highlighting that if the readers moral intuition and sense of justice, directs them to either one of the above conclusions, the next logical step would be to agree that the act is always permissible or always impermissible.

WC 2089

1.Marquis. Don, in ‘Ethics’, Exploring Philosophy, Author, Barber. Alex, The Open University, Milton Keynes. 2.Warren. A. Mary in ‘Ethics’, Exploring Philosophy, Author, Barber. Alex, The Open University, Milton Keynes. 3.Thomson. J. Judith in ‘Ethics’, Exploring Philosophy, Author, Barber. Alex, The Open University, Milton Keynes. 4.Saul. Jennifer in ‘Philosopher’s on abortion’, Audio 3 Track 5, The Open University, Milton Keynes. 5.Cottingham in ‘Philosopher’s on abortion’, Audio 3 Track 5, The Open University, Milton Keynes. 6.Koukl Greogory, (2003) “Unstringing the Violinist,” in, Stand to Reason, accessed 28/01/2013 7.Poupard. J. Richard, (2007) in ‘suffer the violinist: why the pro-abortion argument from bodily autonomy fails’ Christian research journal, accessed 30/01/2013 8.Warren. A. Mary, cited in ‘critique of Judith Thomson’ author. P.J. McHugh (2006) accessed

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