Foetally Flawed: An Anti-Abortionist Tries to Take on the Violinist. 

I am prompted to return to Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “Defence of Abortion” by Elijah Thompson’s  ( no relation) posts on his Foetal Position Blog. Elijah links to a podcast which I haven’t listened to on the basis that I am assuming the blogs include everything which is relevant. But if I’ve missed something which can only be fully understood from the podcast, then I hope Elijah will direct my attention to it.

In her “Defence of Abortion” Thomson memorably claimed that being pregnant was just like being kidnapped and having an unconscious violinist plugged into your kidneys.

In the same way King Canute memorably claimed that he could turn back the tide.

Which as much as to say that neither of them made those claims.

Canute – Google it.

Thomson, read on.

Thomson never said that all pregnancies were comparable in every way to being attached without consent to a violinist who will die if you don’t agree to stay plugged in to him for the next nine months.

If you think she did, if you think she missed the fact that most pregnancies are not the result of a criminal act and that they do not require nine months confinement in bed, or if you think that she claimed that abortion can never be immoral, then you need to go here to read what she actually said (or re-read it if you’ve previously read it).

Responses to Thomson are bedevilled by these misunderstandings of the purpose of the violinist thought experiment. The violinist is a starting point for thinking about what principles are involved when we talk about one person’s right to life being in conflict with another person’s right to autonomy. Thomson does not say that the violinist is a paradigmatic analogy for every pregnancy that ever was or ever could be. She accepts that there are some circumstances in which unplugging yourself from the violinist (and by analogy having an abortion) would be morally wrong. But she also says that our instinct that we have a right to unplug ourselves without incurring criminal sanctions is a sound and defensible instinct.

Those who oppose Thomson’s defence of abortion tend to assume that if something is immoral then that is sufficient to justify making it illegal. But in fact this is not how the law works. There are many behaviours which are largely agreed to be immoral but which are not criminal in any democratic society that I am aware of. For instance:

– cheating on your partner

– watching somebody drown in 2 inches of water

– failing to give police information which would enable them to catch a rapist or murderer.

Elijah thinks (or appears to think) that Thomson is claiming that the violinist scenario is always fully analogous to pregnancy.

He thinks (or appears to think) that if he can persuade us that some abortions are morally reprehensible then it must follow that all abortions are morally reprehensible. And that if all abortions are morally reprehensible then it must follow that all abortion should be illegal.

I hope to show that he is wrong on all counts.

Elijah sees two categories of “bodily autonomy” argument by supporters of choice. The first he calls “the sovereign zone”. The second (in which he places Thomson) he calls “the right to refuse.” I can’t see myself that there is much in this distinction so I will briefly deal with the what Elijah says about “the sovereign zone” argument. You can find his blogpost here.

Elijah says that if a pregnant woman demands her doctor treat her with drugs (such as thalidomide) which would cause damage to her unborn child, we agree that the doctor may (in fact should) refuse the demand. He says that if we accept that, then we have thereby accepted that the it is not permissible for the woman to do whatever she wants with her own body.

But I think that we have not accepted this at all. What we accept is that medics have a duty of professional care and that in carrying out this duty they may sometimes decline to act as their patient wishes. If I go to a surgeon and tell her that I wish to have my right leg amputated above the knee because I am going to a fancy dress party and wish to go as Long John Silver I cannot imagine that she would do anything other than refuse. But accepting that is no basis for accepting that my lower right leg is not in general mine to do with as I like or that I owe it some moral obligation.

Now on to Elijah’s next post where he deals specifically with Thomson’s violinist. You can find that here.

Elijah begins by differentiating the violinist scenario from actual pregnancy. “What (Elijah asks) is the difference between the violinist analogy and actual pregnancy?

He answers:

“In the analogy, you are bedridden.”

He points out “Statistically speaking, a woman is very rarely bedridden during pregnancy, let alone bedridden for her the entire length of pregnancy.

But Thomson agrees. She is absolutely specific on this point: “[Anti-abortionists do not] make an exception for a case in which the mother has to spend the nine months of her pregnancy in bed. They would agree that would be a great pity, and hard on the mother; but all the same, all persons have a right to life, the fetus is a person, and so on. I suspect, in fact, that they would not make an exception for a case in which, miraculously enough, the pregnancy went on for nine years, or even the rest of the mother’s life.”

Her point is that if your opposition is founded on the foetal right to life then it should not make any difference to your opposition whether pregnancy entails nine months bed rest or not.

So Elijah is pushing at an open door because he seems to have overlooked the fact that the door is not going to lead him to anywhere he wants to go.

Elijah’s next point:

In the analogy, the person connected to the violinist is not responsible for being connected.  In the vast majority of cases, the pregnant woman has consented to sex. One of the possible consequences of engaging in sexual intercourse is the creation of a dependent human being……So, in order for the analogy to be parallel, the pregnant woman would have to be a rape victim who subsequently became pregnant, and she must immediately go on bed rest for the entirety of her pregnancy.”

Once again, Elijah makes a distinction which Thomson readily accepts in her article, because lack of consent is not key to her case.

Here is Thomson on that very point: “In this case, of course, you were kidnapped, you didn’t volunteer for the operation that plugged the violinist into your kidneys. Can those who oppose abortion on the ground I mentioned make an exception for a pregnancy due to rape? Certainly. They can say that persons have a right to life only if they didn’t come into existence because of rape; or they can say that all persons have a right to life, but that some have less of a right to life than others, in particular, that those who came into existence because of rape have less. But these statements have a rather unpleasant sound. 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 a product of a rape. And in fact the people who oppose abortion on the ground I mentioned do not make this distinction, and hence do not make an exception in case of rape.

Elijah makes it clear that he would not allow abortion in cases of rape so we are entitled to wonder why he thinks it important to draw this distinction with the violinist when at the same time he considers it irrelevant.

Next Elijah moves to what he calls “the responsibility objection”.

He says “I’d like to point out that we, as a society, recognize the responsibility objection as legitimate. If you are responsible for causing someone to be in a dependent state, you have an obligation to them that goes beyond the obligation you have to someone else. ”

Hmmmm. “If you are responsible for someone being in a dependant state”. That’s an interesting turn of phrase in this context. Let’s re-visit it later, because Elijah has more, much more, to say on that point.

His next point:

“In the analogy, the relationship between the violinist and the connected person is that of a stranger.  In the overwhelming majority of cases, the pregnant woman is carrying her own child.

Yet another objection which Thomson foresees and deals with:

It may be said that what is important is not merely the fact that the fetus is a person, but that it is a person for whom the woman has a special kind of responsibility issuing from the fact that she is its mother. ………Surely we do not have any such “special responsibility” for a person unless we have assumed it, explicitly or implicitly. If a set of parents do not try to prevent pregnancy, do not obtain an abortion, but rather take it home with them, then they have assumed responsibility for it, they have given it rights, and they cannot now withdraw support from it at the cost of its life because they now find it difficult to go on providing for it. But if they have taken all reasonable precautions against having a child, they do not simply by virtue of their biological relationship to the child who comes into existence have a special responsibility for it. ”

For myself, I would add that a baby in the womb can quite properly be regarded as a stranger – which is why you can buy all those cards for new parents which say “Welcome little stranger”. What Elijah appears to mean is that the violinist is not biologically related to you. But he does not explain why that should make any difference. Supposing it were to turn out that the violinist is your son. Would that make any difference? And if it would, why would it?

Now Elijah reverts to the Responsibility Objection. The Responsibility Objection is something to which Elijah attaches massive importance. But I believe that it is where he goes massively wrong; so wrong that nothing in his argument which is predicated on this objection can stand scrutiny. He is not alone in this error. Most who argue against Thomson, from Greg Koukl up, make the same fundamental mistake.

Let’s look at Elijah’s argument:

In the violinist analogy, the reason the violinist is dependent upon someone else is because of the devious actions of the society of music lovers. Unfortunately, the person chosen to connect to the violinist had nothing to do with the connection……this ‘responsibility objection’ is one of the stronger arguments against the analogy, and gives us a pretty good idea about why the analogy is not morally parallel.

Let’s imagine a slightly modified version of the violinist where I am directly responsible for the violinist to be dependent upon me. Due to the fact that I have a very strange sense of humor or have an insatiable desire to be desperately needed, I do some research and find a famous violinist who has the exact same weird blood type as me (in this analogy, we both share the bombay blood type). I poison him, and then find a hospital and connect myself to him.

I am now directly responsible for his dependent state. The same is true of nearly all pregnancies. So why, if you are responsible for another person’s dependency upon you, are you allowed to kill him/her?

Time to go back to that phrase: “If you are responsible for someone being in a dependant state….”

In Elijah’s analogy you have done something wrong which reduces a formerly healthy independent individual to a state of parasitic dependency. Without your feckless behaviour that other person would enjoy a good quality of life. The dependency arises from an injury done to the dependent person by you.

This is entirely different from the case of the foetus. A foetus is not in a state of dependency because its mother has robbed it of its health by her behaviour. A foetus is in a state of dependency because that’s how it is to be a foetus. Foetuses do not go striding around the world in a state of robust independence until they are captured by women and placed in their wombs. For a foetus there is no alternative option of out-of-womb independence which has been stolen from it. The possible alternatives for the foetus are to exist (in which case it will of necessity be dependent) or for it not to exist at all.

For Elijah’s analogy to work, conception has to be analogous to poisoning. The foetus is “poisoned” by existence. Abortion adds insult to the injury of existence by ending that existence! And Elijah thinks that the original version of the violinist leads to mental contortions!

Next point (in fact this is yet more on the Responsibility Objection)

Sex Makes Babies. Duh.  If you cause someone to need you, you have an obligation to take care of them…….let’s imagine there is a room. In the room, there is a button with a sign above it saying ‘press here for 25 – 40 minutes of pleasure. Warning: there is an 8% chance of this machine creating an infant.’

Now if someone walks in, reads the sign, presses the button for pleasure, and a baby is sent down a slide and ends up sitting right next to him. He may argue and say ‘no, I only consented to having 40 minutes of pleasure! I didn’t consent to this infant!’

This is an odd choice of analogy. Firstly, as we’ve just seen with the foetus, it’s not that the button pusher is responsible for the baby’s state of dependency. The baby’s state of dependency arises from the fact that it’s a baby. Secondly, the baby is not obviously dependent on the button-pusher. Anyone can take over its care and in a world where pleasure machines pumped out babies we might expect that a system would be in place to arrange that somebody did. Note that this is significantly different from pregnancy where (as things stand) nobody can take over the pregnancy. Finally, I don’t know about you, but I would see the person who made the machine available for use as having more responsibility for the resulting babies than the users.

So the analogy fails because it is not much like pregnancy and even if it were, it is not obvious that the legal or even moral obligation of care should fall on the button-pusher.

Elijah’s next point:

“A Child is Not an Intruder…..the unborn child is not an intruder, whereas the violinist is an intruder.

This part would have been better headed up as “The violinist’s situation is unnatural” because Elijah does not mean by “intruder” what most of the rest of us do.

Intruder: someone who is in a placeor situation where they are not wanted.

Here is how Elijah argues the point:

In the violinist example, we are using our kidneys to keep the violinist alive. This is an unnatural function of our kidneys; they are not designed to keep another person alive. The fact that we are using our bodies in an unnatural way shows that this analogy is not properly analogous to pregnancy.

Pregnancy is natural. The violinist’s situation is unnatural. So what? How and why does that affect the morality of the situation?

Elijah’s next Objection:

The fatal series of events began before you were connected to the violinist in the analogy. But in abortion, you start the fatal series of events. There may be a moral obligation to someone who is dying, but initiating the fatal series of events on an innocent human being is wrong.

Thomson seems to be ignoring the fact that in abortion, you have a healthy child who is being actively killed. “

Well, hold on. Sometimes the child is healthy. Sometimes it’s very ill. Does Elijah make an exception for abortions where the child is not healthy? If the health of the child would not affect his opposition to abortion then referring to it is just a red herring.

But anyway, he continues: “In the analogy, you have someone who is already dying.”

In the analogy you have somebody who was dying – until he was connected to you. He’s no longer dying when you start the fatal series of events which will lead to the disconnect. Then the violinist will go back to the situation he was in before you connected.

In abortion you have someone who used not to exist. Abortion begins a fatal series of events which will return the situation to what it was before your body enabled their existence.
So to the extent that Thomson needs to be analogous, in this respect she absolutely is, but Elijah fails to see it!

Elijah ends with two analogies taken from Anthony George’s “The Good Samaritan on Life Support.” The first is the reverse analogy (where you need the violinist to keep you alive but he refuses). The second is the conjoined twins analogy. I think that Anthony George’s article merits its own post so I shall deal with that in my next post.


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?