Feedback archiveFeedback 2008

Refuting contrived pro-abortion arguments: the ‘famous violinist’ of Judith Jarvis Thomson

by Jonathan Sarfati and Lita Cosner

Published: June 28, 2008

Images Fetal Fotos

Unborn babies, 4D ultrasound, still shot

Unborn babies, 4D ultrasound, still shot

RG from the UK wrote about a curious philosophical argument used by a pro-abortion philosopher, but generally never used by pro-abortion politicians. The reply answers the argument in depth, and explains how pro-life arguments must include both the humanity of the unborn, as well as the sanctity of innocent human life (note here that ‘innocent’ is used in the original Latin sense of in nocens = ‘not harming’, not ‘sinless’). The latter is accepted by few, if any, evolutionary philosophers.

What I think is really interesting about all the pro-life sites I’ve visited is that none of them, so far, has addressed the argumants in favour of abortion which were first put forward in 1971 by Judith Jarvis Thomson and subsequently expanded upon, exhaustively, by Eileen McDonagh in her book Breaking the Abortion Deadlock.

Philosopher Francis Beckwith thoroughly refuted arguments like this in his book Politically Correct Death (reviewed at Antidote to abortion arguments). Another paper, easily searchable from the web, Philosophers on abortion and infanticide by philosopher Frank Bouchier-Hayes summarizes Thompson’s ‘famous violinist’ argument and responses. Bouchier-Hayes starts:

Rebecca Kiessling

Rebecca Kiessling

Rebecca Kiessling: conceived by a brutal rape, and grateful that she was not executed for her father’s crime while in her mother’s womb; see her website.

‘Thomson begins her article ‘A Defense of Abortion’ by tackling the premise which she believes much of the opposition to abortion relies upon, viz. that the foetus is a human being or person from the time it is conceived. To claim this, she argues, would be like claiming that an acorn is an oak tree. She does, however, concede that choosing a point in the development of the foetus where we can definitely say that a human being exists, which didn’t exist before this point, is highly problematic. Indeed, she tells us that, in her view, “we shall probably have to agree that the foetus has already become a human person well before birth” (Thomson 1971: 48). She does not, however, believe that a human being or person is present at conception. Despite the latter statement, Thomson is prepared to allow, for the purposes of her argument, the premiss that the foetus is a person from the time of conception.’

It’s notable that this shows that proving that abortion is wrong requires two premises, not one. The first is that the unborn is a human being, but the second is that killing an innocent human being is wrong. These premises are unambiguously taught in Scripture—see Abortion: The answer’s in Genesis. But evolutionary teaching has caused many people to deny its authority.

In many cases, proving the first premise, that the unborn is a human being, is sufficient to impress people about the horrors of abortion. This is why most pro-abortion politicians totally ignore the unborn in their demagoguery, focusing on the slogan ‘women’s right to choose’. It is also why the same politicians, who argue strongly for ‘informed consent’ for other medical procedures oppose exactly the same for abortion—many a mother, upon seeing truly what is growing inside her, i.e. a baby not just a ‘clump of cells’, and seeing the gross brutality of the abortion methods, would balk. And there would go the lucrative rewards to the abortion industry.

Actually, it’s even stronger than that. The onus is on the pro-aborts to prove the claim that the unborn really is not a human baby, contrary to Scripture and science. It is not enough to say ‘we don’t know whether it’s human.’ A hunter is criminally liable if he shoots towards a movement in the bush, not knowing whether a human or deer caused the movement. And an explosives engineer is criminally liable if he blows up a building, not knowing whether there are any people inside.

Certainly this is the first argument that a pro-abort must justify, and it’s worth holding their feet to the fire on this, rather than allowing sidetracking. If the baby is human, and killing a human is wrong, then everything else is a smoke-screen (see Offended by the term Baby Killers ).

But as shown, proving the humanity of the unborn is not sufficient for those thoroughly steeped in evolutionism. They argue that the sanctity of life depends on its being made in the image of God, but they believe that we all evolved from animals so there is nothing special about humans. So it’s no wonder that strident evolutionists such as philosopher Peter Singer and politician Barack Obama support infanticide as well as abortion.

Bouchier-Hayes continues with Thomson’s argument, as below (which RG failed to explain):

‘Thomson proceeds by outlining what she believes to be the argument which certain opponents of abortion would derive from the premise above-mentioned. The crux of this argument, as Thomson sees it, is that the right to life of the foetus outweighs the right to life of the mother “to decide what happens in and to her body”. The subsequent thought experiment which Thomson places before us is an attempt to expose the flaws which she believes exist in the latter statement. The thought experiment involves you imagining a situation in which you wake up in a hospital bed to discover that your circulatory system has been connected up to the circulatory system of an unconscious famous violinist. The reason given for this gross abuse of your privacy is that the violinist has a serious kidney infection. Unfortunately for you the appropriate treatment consists of connecting him up to you, since both you and the violinist have been found to possess the same rare blood type by the Society of Music Lovers. The hospital director informs you that even though the Society of Music Lovers was wrong to kidnap you and place you in this difficult position, you are morally compelled to remain as you are until such time as the violinist can function independently of you. To do otherwise, he points out, would result in the death of the violinist and to allow this, at least in the eyes of the hospital director, is patently impermissible. Given that the time frame involved is nine months, Thomson asks you whether you would feel morally obliged to defer to the wishes and beliefs of the hospital director. Apparently worried that you will fail to see what she sees as a ludicrous situation which you are under no obligation to tolerate, Thomson stretches the time frame indefinitely. In short, she wants us to accept that the right to life of one person does not override the right of another person to choose what happens in and to his or her body, when the connection between such people resembles that expressed in the thought experiment outlined above.’

That is, Thomson argues that even if we grant the humanity of the unborn baby, she has no ethical or moral right to the use of her mother’s body to sustain her life. However, this analogy fails on a number of grounds. Bouchier-Hayes summarizes Beckwith’s refutation:

‘Francis Beckwith finds four ethical problems with Thomson’s analogy. First, he tells us that in “using the violinist as a paradigm for all relationships, which implies that moral obligations must be voluntarily accepted in order to have moral force, Thomson mistakenly infers that all true moral obligations to one’s offspring are voluntary”. Beckwith contends that in an unwanted pregnancy the reluctant father has involuntary obligations to his offspring because of “the fact that he engaged in an act, sexual intercourse, which he fully realised could result in the creation of another human being, although he took every precaution to avoid such a result”.

‘Second, he tells us that Thomson’s volunteerism, above discussed, opposes family morality,

“which has as one of its central beliefs that an individual has special personal obligations to his offspring and family which he does not have to other persons.”

‘He goes on to say that even if Thomson sees the concept of family as being oppressive towards women,

“a great number of ordinary men and women, who have found joy, happiness and love in family life, find Thomson’s volunteerism to be counter-intuitive”

‘Third, he argues that one can establish that the foetus has a prima facie right to the mother’s body on the grounds that the foetus is something which is dependent on its mother, that this stage of a human being’s natural development takes place in the womb, that the foetus, when born, has a natural claim upon its parents that they care for it, even if it is the case that they never actually wanted it, and, finally, that there is no reason to deny the foetus a natural prima facie right to its mother’s body if, as Thomson allows, it is fully human prior to birth.

‘Fourth, he argues that abortion is not simply the withholding of treatment for the foetus, but is in fact the killing of the foetus. He makes the point that “calling abortion the ‘withholding of support or treatment’ makes about as much sense as calling suffocating someone with a pillow the withdrawing of oxygen”.

‘Quite apart from all of the above criticisms, Beckwith is fundamentally opposed to Thomson’s use of the violinist analogy as is clear from the following passage:
“It is evident that Thomson’s violinist illustration undermines the deep natural bond between mother and child by making it seem no different than two strangers artificially hooked-up to each other so that one can steal the service of the other’s kidneys. Never has something so human, so natural, so beautiful, and so wonderfully demanding of our human creativity and love been reduced to such a brutal caricature.”’

Very briefly, what they say is this: given that it is impossible to detect the point at which a zygote/embryo/foetus becomes a person, the only option is to assume that a person comes into existence at the moment of conception.

Agreed. Even the anti-Christian and pro-abortion magazine New Scientist was forced to admit (189(2543):8–9, 18 March 2006):

The task force finds that the new recombinant DNA technologies indisputably prove that the unborn child is a whole human being from the moment of fertilization, that all abortions terminate the life of a human being, and that the unborn child is a separate human patient under the care of modern medicine.
Pregnancy and sex are not the same thing. Pregnancy begins—depending on who you ask—either when the sperm penetrates the egg and fertilizes it, or when the resultant morula implants itself in the uterine lining. Fertilization occurs a minimum of two hours and a maximum of 7 days after the sex act occurs; it can take up to 4 days for the zygote to travel from the site of fertilization to the uterus, and following that, it can be up to seven days before implantation occurs. So both fertilization and implantation occur at a time and a place remote from the sex act.

Regardless of when pregnancy begins, there is a new human being right from fertilization. This should be obvious from test tube babies that began life outside the womb.

Consent to sex is not consent to pregnancy, for several reasons, one of which is outlined above.

Consent to sex is the consent to the possilibity of pregnancy, because it is impossible to have heterosexual sex with no possibility of a resulting pregnancy. Indeed, pregnancy used to be a major purpose behind sex, before the advent of widely available birth control pills. And even if consent to sex were not consent to pregnancy, it would hardly follow that a resulting baby, an innocent human being, should be killed for the convenience of the mother.

Another reason is that sex is neither necessary nor sufficient for pregnancy: a woman can be artificially inseminated; and it is possible to fertilize an egg in a laboratory (so sex isn’t necessary).

So because women can get pregnant without having sex, and having sex doesn’t always make a woman pregnant, if a woman gets pregnant by having sex and doesn’t want the baby she can kill him? We don’t quite follow your logic.

An unfertilised egg lasts about a day after it is released before it dies; sperm can survive for about a week. That means that there is a relatively short period during every menstrual cycle when conception can occur. Furthermore, an estimated 50% of fertilized eggs are spontaneously aborted, usually before the woman even knows that she’s pregnant. So sex isn’t sufficient for pregnancy to occur: for that to happen, the egg and the sperm have to be in the same time at the same place, the fertilized egg has to make it to the uterus, where it must implant itself in the uterine lining and secrete the hormones required to stimulate the corpus luteum to produce the hormones which sustain the pregnancy.

One has to wonder, if nearly half of all pregnancies are spontaneously aborted before the woman knows that she is pregnant, how is it possible to estimate? The fact that some babies die before birth does not make abortion acceptable any more than the fact that everyone dies makes murder acceptable.

Since sex and pregnancy are not the same thing, consent to sex is not consent to pregnancy. This means that the foetus, as a person in its own right, is occupying the body of the woman against her will.

A possibility that she willingly accepted when she consented to engage in sex. It is notable that you recognize the baby as ‘a person in its own right’, as this is a position nearly unheard of in the pro-abortion camp. Even those like Singer who admit that the baby is alive from conception do not recognize it as a ‘person’, although this non-recognition is quasi-religious, not scientific.

A woman has the right to bodily integrity, just as a foetus has the right to life. The foetus’s right to life does not cancel out or override the woman’s right to bodily integrity. If a man cannot force a woman to have sex, and a doctor cannot force a woman to donate a pint of her blood, or one of her kidneys, or part of her liver to save the life of another person, why should it be the case that a woman can be forced to accommodate a person in her body, for a full 9 months, against her will?

Because if she does not donate blood or a kidney or part of her liver, she does not actively kill a human being.

For one thing, we are not against terminating a pregnancy. It’s the dead baby we have a problem with. Live childbirth is an excellent way to ‘terminate’ a pregnancy which we fully support! At present, it is not possible to terminate the pregnancy without killing the baby, so yes she has a responsibility to that baby, even if unplanned. The mother-baby bond is more foundational than anything like a famous violinist hooked up to your kidneys or whatever you’re leading to.

Of course she should.

Because she’s ‘made her bed, so she should lie in it’?
Well, no. She hasn’t ‘made her bed’ (see above), and to suggest that she should be forced to endure an unwanted pregnancy because she had sex is tantamount to saying that she should be punished for having sex.

Certain actions have natural consequences that follow those actions, and someone who engages in a behavior accepts the possibility that she will have to deal with the consequences of her actions. One possible result of sex is that the woman will be faced with an unwanted pregnancy.

Recreational sex is not a crime, and so it should not be punished—and even if it was a crime, there is no other crime which is punishable by the violation of one’s body for 9 months.

Pregnancy is not a punishment; indeed, it is a sad reflection on today’s society that so many think so—again, such as Barack Obama who didn’t want his daughters ‘punished with a baby’. In the Bible, children are without exception regarded as blessings (Psalm 127:4–5); many stories in the Bible revolve around the sorrow of a barren woman and her joy when God finally gives her a son.

Note that even in the horrific case of rape (which two evolutionists claimed is in our genes, and wrote a book about it), there is no justification for capital punishment for the child of the rapist. See Conceived by Rape for examples of people — such as Rebecca Kiessling, a family law attorney — happy that they weren’t executed for their father’s crime. Indeed, Rebecca Kiessling also dissected Thomson’s piece in The right of the unborn child not to be unjustly killed: A grass roots/philosophy of rights approach:


Attempting to draw an analogy in order that she may bolster her argument for abortion, Thompson says “I imagine you would regard this as outrageous.” Well, of course it is outrageous — the hypothetical is outrageous. If someone really told any of us that this happened to him or her, the universal reaction would surely not be one of believability. Pregnancy, on the other hand, is believable and it is far from being outrageous. After all, it is the means by which we have all arrived here, and the essence of reproduction.

The pouch

If Thompson really wanted to draw a fair and accurate analogy to a mother/unborn child scenario, the violinist would be the size of the unborn child and tucked away — possibly in a pouch. Given an imaginary scenario which is indeed comparable to that of a normal pregnancy, I would hold that it is far from outrageous to require the continuation of life support for up to nine months or so — whether the recipient is a famous violinist or a mediocre air-guitarist.

Psychological manipulation

Thompson’s creation of an “unconscious famous violinist” who suffers from kidney failure was surely calculated to have a certain manipulative/psychological effect on her readers. Thompson is likely to want her readers to believe the violinist is: (1) a man (to feminist readers, this is an automatic negative); (2) full-grown (this gives the visual effect of a huge burden); (3) fairly old (for younger and discriminating generations he may elicit less sympathy, with possible notions that he has already had enough years to enjoy his life); (4) already dying because his kidneys are failing (some may conclude that he must not have too many years ahead of him to live and in some readers’ minds, unplugging him may be more akin to euthanasia); (5) wealthy and a world traveler because he is famous (and so is likely to have had a "better life" with more opportunities than most of us ever will); and (6) stuffy, boring, and pompous. Therefore (Thompson would like for us to conclude), his life could not be worth more than our desire to be rid of him. Fortunately, not all of her readers allow themselves to be misdirected by the prejudices and emotions of the intolerant and selfish elements of our society; rather, logical reasoning with consistency is to be the guide for analysis and judgment.


In Thompson's violinist hypothetical, the kidney donor is not voluntary — he or she was kidnapped. Thus, the author has made her illustration analogous to a rape-conception pregnancy. In addressing our issue in the confines of pregnancy through rape, I agree with Thompson when she states: “Surely the question of whether you have a right to life at all, or how much of it you have, shouldn't turn on the question of whether or not you are the product of a rape.” This statement is true for a couple of reasons. First of all, a retaliatory strike, whether in self-defense or as a punishment, must be against a victimizer. In Thompson’s outlandish sketch, the kidney kidnapper is the victimizer — not the violinist, and in a sexual assault, the rapist is the victimizer — not the unborn child. The unborn child did not cause the harm, which was the rape and not the pregnancy. Any attempts to declare the right to life of the blameless unborn child as suspended because of the rape are tragically misdirected. Go punish the guilty rapist, but leave the innocent unborn child alone. Additionally, in many states, while the rapist’s parental rights will be terminated, child support may be collected from him by the state for the support of the child.

Qualifying Characteristics

Secondly, in comparing an unborn child of a non-rape-conception to an unborn child of a rape-conception, the two unborn children have done nothing different and have no differing characteristics from one-another to warrant the false conclusion that one’s right to life is greater than the other’s. This is abundantly clear when one compares a child who was conceived out of a rape to a child who was not, or even adults for that matter. Their basic human characteristics are the same, and the right to life, or not to be unjustly killed, remains equal.

Furthermore, if women are to be punished for having sex, men should be, too.

We have argued that women aren’t punished in the proper sense of the word for having sex, they simply reap the natural consequences of their actions, one of which happens to be pregnancy. There are risks of promiscuous sex for men too; STDs being the most prominent. However, it is a sad fact that promiscuous sex has greater consequences for women than for men. Men do not get pregnant, and really, wouldn’t it be vindictive to wish unwanted pregnancies on men just for having sex? If women are unjustly ‘punished’, as you say, the solution for the problem would be to make sure that women aren’t unjustly ‘punished’, not to inflict the same unjust punishment on men!

Furthermore, there are consequences for the father of an unwanted baby that the legal codes of many countries recognize in the responsibility to support the mother and child financially (child maintenance payments), even if the father abandons the mother and child.

That is a very basic outline of the ideas advanced by Thompson and McDonagh; when one goes a little deeper it is possible to show that the foetus is not—as pro-lifers routinely say—‘innocent’, but guilty: it is guilty of violating a woman’s body since it is there without her consent; and it has, in a sense, ‘acted’ to be there, inasmuch as the embryo attaches itself to the uterine lining and secretes various hormones to produce changes in the woman’s body for the purpose of sustaining its own life. While it would be ludicrous to say that the foetus has the intention (or mens rea) of doing harm to the woman, the fact remains that by its actions it causes her harm, and even if it cannot be held accountable for these actions, that doesn’t mean that it should be allowed to continue to perform them with impunity (in the same way that someone with learning difficulties may not mean to harm property or persons, but can and should nevertheless be prevented from doing so).

I have argued that consent to any action involves implicit consent of any consequences that can reasonably be expected to result from that action. The mother is therefore not the victim. To say that the baby is guilty of anything is ludicrous; the baby hardly caused her own conception!

I should like to add that I was passionately anti-abortion for much of my life;

That’s the trouble—the pro-life position should not be based on passion but on logical reasoning from correct premises. I’m reminded of an article, ‘With a Little Help from Your Friends’, by Dr J. Budziszewski, professor of Government and Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin and author of How to Stay Christian in College, where he relates the following:

‘I will never forget a young woman who told me during office hours that she felt she was losing her faith. Her radical feminist teachers could see nothing in Christianity but “patriarchy”, and she couldn’t find Christian replies. It didn’t take long to discover why she couldn’t find them. She wasn’t looking. And it seemed to me that she wasn’t so terribly attracted to radical feminism either. She pictured herself as struggling to hold on to her faith despite superior arguments against it. The truth was that she was looking for an excuse to lose her faith, exposing herself exclusively to the most anti-Christian influences she could find.

‘It reminded me of how I had used various ideologies to rationalize my own flight from faith at her age. I was so sure that I was intellectually convinced by the case against Christ, but the reasons that convinced me had little to do with the intellect.

‘The reasons students find it difficult to keep faith in college are much the same as the reasons other Christians have found it difficult to keep faith in other times and places. These temptations are endemic to a fallen world, and the university is no exception.’

There are conversions the other way, from passionately pro-abortion to pro-life after realizing the humanity of the unborn. For example:

In contrast with the logical reasons for converting from pro-abort to pro-life, the conversions the other way are usually purely opportunistic, and required for political advancement. This is clear since they usually never make the slightest attempt to refute their own previous arguments for the humanity of the unborn. A good example is the preacher that so influenced Hentoff above, none other than Jesse Jackson. Hentoff continued:

‘But Jackson had by now become “pro-choice”—much to the appreciation of most of those in the liberal base. … The last time I saw Jackson was years later, on a train from Washington to New York. …
‘On that train, I also told Jackson that I’d been quoting—in articles, and in talks with various groups—from his compelling pro-life statements. I asked him if he’d had any second thoughts on his reversal of those views.
‘Usually quick to respond to any challenge that he is not consistent in his positions, Jackson paused, and seemed somewhat disquieted at my question. Then he said to me, ‘I’ll get back to you on that.’ I still patiently await what he has to say.’

Ramesh Ponnuru’s fine book The Party of Death (2006) documents numerous more blatantly opportunistic conversions of pro-life to pro-death.

and I do NOT think that it is an easily resolved issue. I find it very frustrating that the pro-life camp has failed to keep itself abreast of the pro-abortion camp—

However, most populist pro-abortionists have not kept up with the more sophisticated arguments like Thomson’s either, as argued above. Indeed, they will not concede the humanity of the unborn even in principle as Thomson does, at least not yet while the majority of the population still balks at killing innocent humans.

Conversely, many of the more sophisticated pro-abortionists recognise the fallacy behind much populist pro-abortion rhetoric. Just think about most of the propaganda about ‘a woman’s right to choose’ which doesn’t even engage with the pro-lifer’s firmly based contention that the unborn really is human. Even more despicable is the dishonest ‘personally opposed, but … ’ (why be opposed at all if it’s just a lump of cells?) or ‘I can’t impose my personal beliefs on others’ (what about the imposition of anti-life beliefs on the unborn?)—see further refutation of such arguments.

and by the way, I am perfectly happy to be referred to as a baby-killer, a pro-abortionist or whatever other moniker you would like to attach to me, since the right to bodily integrity is something I believe very strongly in, and I am not ashamed of that stance.

Evidently the bodily integrity of the unborn is not important. And if a society doesn’t defend the most defenceless, why would you trust it to defend your bodily integrity either?

I do not regard abortion as murder, but as killing in self-defence: it’s unfortunate that the embryo/foetus has to be killed in order to remove it from the body, but that’s the only way it can be done at present.

In reality, it is hardly self-defence because the baby in almost no case is threatening the mother’s life (as opposed to her skiing holiday, fitting into her prom dress, or that the parents don’t want a girl, etc.). See also What about abortion to save the mother’s life?

Published: 28 June 2008(GMT+10)

Related Articles

Further Reading