The Violinist part II – Really real choice

Judith Jarvis Thompson’s famous “Unconscious Violinist” argument in favor of abortion is posited thus:

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.

This is the opening to Christina Dunigan’s “Resculpting the Unconscious Violinist” which you can find on her “Real Choice” blog ( Here she takes a shot at dismantling Judith Thompson’s essay in defence of abortion.  I looked at Greg Koukl’s attempt last month:

Dunigan makes four points which she claims distinguish the violinist’s case from abortion.

1. The unborn child is not a stranger. 

Yes it is.  Unless science has intervened the mother won’t even know its sex.  A biological relationship, however close, does not an acquaintance make.

2. Except in rare cases of rape pregnancy, the pregnant woman has engaged willingly in an act that she knew might leave her “hooked up” to her child.

If this is a relevant difference, then we are entitled to know whether Dunigan considers abortion to be acceptable in cases of rape.  If rape would make no difference to her opposition, then the  willingness of the woman is not  genuinely a distinguishing feature for her purposes.

3. Pregnancy does not, except in rare cases, leave a woman confined to bed. She is quite free to go about her business, albeit somewhat awkwardly in the later months.

Would abortion be acceptable in Dunigan’s eyes if the woman were confined to bed as a result of pregnancy?  Or is she, again, introducing a distinction which she does not herself consider to be genuinely relevant? 

4. Abortion is not merely “unplugging” the unborn child. It is taking active, usually violent, steps to kill him. He is poisoned or dismembered or stabbed.

This is taken directly from  Koukl’s argument, which I commented on last month. It‘s a further case of drawing a distinction which one suspects plays no real part in Dunigan’s objection to abortion, since it is unlikely that she would endorse abortion however simple, non-violent and undamaging to the body of the foetus it was. 

To deal with these four points of dissimilarity (as she considers them) Dunigan suggests the following modifications to Thompson’s violinist thought experiment:

  1.  A father is given his child to care for.  He had not realised he had fathered a child until he was given her to care for. (Dunnigan choses a father rather than a mother, to get away from the emotional baggage that motherhood carries.  She deserves credit for this.)
  2. The father has a hobby which he knows is dangerous to the child, because it exposes her to chemicals which are toxic for the very young.
  3. As a result, she suffers kidney damage.
  4. To survive, she needs to use the father’s kidneys to filter out the toxins, so must remain attached to her father for nine months before she can survive independently.
  5. The child is very young and portable (so the father is not confined to bed).  She can be carried round in a Snugli.  She won’t grow or cry all the while the treatment is going on.

The problem is that injuring a child by exposing it to chemicals and creating a foetus by conceiving it are not in any way comparable.  This is a massive flaw in Dunigan’s argument.  Everything that follows is rendered null by being based on this false claim of similarity. 

In Dunigan’s illustration the father is responsible for damaging a pre-existing, independent child who would have had no need of the physical attachment if her father had not recklessly caused the damage. There was an alternative for that child: her father could have looked after her properly and ensured that she was not reduced to a state of such dependency.  A foetus is not robbed of its health and capacity for independent existence by being brought into being.  It is by its very nature an entity incapable of independent survival and cannot be brought into being except in that state.   

The portability of the child is supposed to distinguish pregnancy from the situation of the woman who has the violinist attached to her.  But portability is not the real issue.  As I have already said, I do not believe that Dunigan sees it as the real issue – she would not drop her opposition to abortion for women who are confined to bed for all or most of their pregnancy. 

Is it really the lack of portability in the violinist which causes most of us to feel that she should not be legally obliged to keep him attached to her?  Suppose the optimum method for preserving the violinist’s life was just to keep his head alive, surgically linked to the woman’s own blood system via her stomach, until such time as it could be re-planted back on his cured body.  So, the woman has full mobility, the violinist is not conscious, just that she has to carry this bulky head around, while her blood passes through it keeping his brain alive.  Would that make it OK to compel the woman to retain the attachment?

Dunigan’s next point reverts to the supposed “violence” of abortion:

Then we need to add the final difference. The man in our thought experiment isn’t insisting that he had a right to unplug the infant and leave her to die. He is insisting that he has a right to demand that the doctor kill the child — either by poisoning her or by dismemberment.

I wonder how many cases there have been in the whole history of medical abortion where the woman has specifically requested that the foetus be poisoned or dismembered before it is aborted.  Women do not “insist” that doctors do this.  They go to a doctor to request a termination of their pregnancy.  The doctor carries out that procedure in whatever way is necessary to secure that end.  Let’s return for a moment to the violinist’s head: in that case, removal could not avoid some element of violence to the violinist as his vascular system is severed in detaching him.  Does that make any difference?  If the woman has the right in law to have him removed, she has the right to have that done by whatever means are necessary.


Dunigan’s parting shot is to remind us that every pregnant woman has only herself to blame for getting pregnant in the first place:

And let’s remember — the father knew from Day One that his hobby involving those chemicals might leave him in that situation, with a baby hooked up to him and utterly dependent upon him for nine months. He indulged in his hobby anyway. 

Really? What if the man was told that there were precautions he could take which would save the child from any ill-effects of the chemicals. He took the precautions, but they didn’t work, just like contraceptives don’t work sometimes. 


And what if the “man” is just a kid himself, or with special needs, and couldn’t properly appreciate the risks he was taking, or grasp the full consequences of his hobby? Is he still to be compelled to carry the baby? 


And what if he didn’t bring those chemicals into the house himself?  What if somebody forced their way into the house and held him hostage while they let the chemicals loose?  Then what?

Does it look different now?