The Violinist Re-Strung

In “Unstringing the Violinist” Greg Koukl, a prominent anti-abortion campaigner seeks to rebut Judith Jarvis Thompson’s pro-choice argument found in her essay “A Defense of Abortion”.  His response, in which he quotes her essay in full, can be found here:

Briefly Thompson argues that the situation a woman is in when she has an unwanted pregnancy  is analogous to that of a person who wakes up in hospital to find herself surgically attached to an unconscious violinist.  It transpires that the violinist was dying, but he can be saved if he remains attached to the woman for nine months, using her body as a life support system. To this end, a group of music lovers has kidnapped the woman and plugged the violinist into her system.  If he is detached, he will die.

Greg Koukl concedes that Thompson’s argument is a powerful one, but he claims that after he had thought about it a while, he realised that it was fatally flawed.  Is it?  Let’s look at Koukl’s response.

The Slippery Slope

Koukl says that Thompson is using a “logical slippery slope” argument.  Now, I know this is a bit ad hom, but Koukl clearly has not the faintest idea of what the “slippery slope” argument is and why it can amount to a fallacy.  He says:

The logical slippery slope works like this. When one thing is immoral, and a second is logically similar in a morally relevant way, the moral quality of the one “slips over” into the other. For example, murder is immoral, and some think capital punishment is similar enough to murder to make capital punishment immoral too.

That is not how the slippery slope works at all.  The slippery slope argument is an assertion that if some small step is taken then it will lead to a series of further steps which will end with some wholly undesired and undesirable situation being forced upon us.  The fallacy lies in assuming, without further proof, that the taking of those first steps must inevitably lead to the undesirable consequences and that it will be impossible to stop short of those consequences.

Bad Analogy?

Koukl continues:

The key question in any slippery slope appeal is whether the two situations are truly similar in a morally relevant way. If not, then the illustration is guilty of a logical slippery slope fallacy. The analogy fails and the argument falls apart.

As we have already seen, Koukl has mis-called the fallacy.  But, OK, a bad analogy is a bad analogy and if Thompson’s analogy is flawed then her argument will be defective.

Koukl believes that many relevant distinctions can be made between the violinist scenario and pregnancy and he proceeds to spell them out as follows.

  1. It’s only natural..

First, the violinist is artificially attached to the woman. A mother’s unborn baby, however, is not surgically connected, nor was it ever “attached” to her. Instead, the baby is being produced by the mother’s own body by the natural process of reproduction.

Koukl is the author of “Tactics”, a handbook for aspiring Christian apologists.  In Chapter 10 of that book this is what he has to say about arguments which seek to justify anything because it is natural:

Since living according to nature would result in all kinds of barbarism, how does it make sense to invoke the natural state of things to justify anything?

Arguing that whatever is natural must be right is known as the Naturalistic Fallacy.  Koukl correctly called it out in his book, but appears not to have noticed that he is guilty of it himself in this article. That the foetus is there naturally does not make it right. That the violinist is there unnaturally does not make it wrong.

  1. Murder First, Abortion Second

Thompson ignores a second important distinction. In the violinist illustration, the woman might be justified withholding life-giving treatment from the musician under these circumstances. Abortion, though, is not merely withholding treatment. It is actively taking another human being’s life through poisoning or dismemberment. A more accurate parallel with abortion would be to crush the violinist or cut him into pieces before unplugging him.

Here Koukl has already subtly shifted Thompson’s analogy from causing death by removing the violinist from life-sustaining treatment to “withholding life-giving treatment”, which is a rather different thing.  His reason for doing this is to suggest that in Thompson’s scenario, the violinist will die merely through an omission (withholding treatment) rather than from active intervention. In fact, it is clear from Thompson’s article that the violinist is not merely to have life-giving treatment held back, he is to be forcibly removed from the supply of it, which is a very close parallel to abortion.

But how important to his argument is the distinction that Koukl wants to make anyway?  If  it is “significant” as he claims, then we are entitled to ask whether Koukl would have no objection to abortions which did not involve the prior poisoning or dismemberment of the foetus.  I suspect that if pressed Koukl would find that removal of the foetus, resulting inevitably in death, was every bit as objectionable, on his view of things, as removal preceded by poisoning or dismemberment. But there is a “yuk” factor to poisoning or dismemberment which is useful to Koukl’s agenda and so, although it appears to have no bearing on his real objection to the procedure, he makes much of it.  Like the Fat Boy in Pickwick Papers, he wants to make our flesh creep.

In fact, many abortions will not involve poisoning or dismemberment of the foetus.  Medical abortions will result in the expulsion of the foetus by bringing about a miscarriage.  In most surgical abortions the foetus is drawn out with the rest of the contents of the uterus. This will not necessarily damage the foetus, but in any event, for what it is worth (and remember, it is Koukl who attaches importance to it, not me) such damage as occurs will be during and as a direct result of removal rather than prior to removal.

If it were not possible to remove the violinist without some bodily harm being done to him in the course of the operation, ought that to change our attitude?  The question which is at the heart of Thompson’s thought experiment is this: Is every person an end in themselves or is it permissible to use another person as a means to an end? If the woman is an end in herself then it will follow that she can’t be obliged to surrender herself for use as a human life-support system.  If she is obliged to remain attached to the violinist, then she is being used as a means to an end –that of keeping the violinist alive.  If removing him will inevitably result in the death of the violinist then some might feel that it doesn’t much matter whether the violinist is killed prior to removal or removed first and then left for the death to follow.  Some might actually think that killing him first in those circumstances would be the better course, but whether you think that or not, it can’t alter the principle of the woman’s right to put an end to another person’s use of her body.

  1. Mommy Dearest

Third, the violinist illustration is not parallel to pregnancy because it equates a stranger/stranger relationship with a mother/child relationship…..The violinist analogy suggests that a mother has no more responsibility for the welfare of her child than she has to a total stranger.

What do we mean by the “mother/child” relationship? Do we mean the biological relationship? While the foetus is in the womb, it is to all intents and purposes a stranger. The “relationship” the mother has with it is entirely different to the relationship that develops between a mother and child when as two independent individuals the one cares for and protects the other.

Koukle continues on this theme:

This error becomes immediately evident if we amend Thompson’s illustration. What if the mother woke up from an accident to find herself surgically connected to her own child? What kind of mother would willingly cut the life-support system to her two-year-old in a situation like that? And what would we think of her if she did?

We wouldn’t think much of her, that’s true.  But that is because we would expect the relationship to be based on the mother knowing and loving the child as an individual, not on a simple biological relationship.  What we might really be wondering in those circumstances is whether the mother could ever have really loved that child, what sort of life must the child have led prior to this, under the care of a woman who had obviously not bonded with him?

Let’s take amend Koukl’s amendment.  Suppose the mother wakes up to find herself connected to her own biological child – which she gave up for adoption at birth two years ago and has had no contact with since?  Then is it still so obvious that the woman is obliged to surrender her body for the child’s use?  If it were the adoptive mother on the other hand, that would be a different matter.  Of course the person who has taken on the task of caring for that vulnerable member of society should be demonstrating that she is up to the job and has the all the love and commitment towards him that the job demands.  We’d be shocked if the adoptive mother demanded separation because it would show she was an unfit mother and should never have been allowed to take care of the child in the first place.  But that has no bearing on what we can expect from a woman who has never “met” her child and doesn’t want him anyway.

  1. Trotting Out the Toddler

If it is moral for a mother to deny her child the necessities of life (through abortion) before it is born, how can she be obligated to provide the same necessities after he’s born? Remember, Thompson concedes that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception. If her argument works to justify abortion, it works just as well to justify killing any dependent child. After all, a two-year-old makes a much greater demand on a woman than a developing unborn.

Thompson is mistaken in presuming that pregnancy is the thing that expropriates a woman’s liberty. Motherhood does that, and motherhood doesn’t end with the birth of the child. Unlike the woman connected to the violinist, a mother is not released in nine months. Her burden has just begun. If Thompson’s argument works, then no child is safe from a mother who wants her liberty.

“Trotting out the Toddler” is Koukl’s phrase, not mine.  It is his favourite gambit in anti-abortion arguments.   In “Tactics” he writes:

When someone justifies abortion by saying “Women have the right to choose” use…”Trotting Out the Toddler.” Ask if a woman should have the right to kill her one-year-old for the same reason.

Koukl is missing the essential point of here.  The issue in abortion and in the Thompson’s violinist case, is that what the woman wants is not the death of the foetus or the violinist per se.  She is not willing to allow her body to be used as another person’s life-support system. Putting an end to that use will result in death, but that is not the actual aim.

Once the child is born and can live an independent existence, then there is no comparison with the situation that the pregnant woman finds herself in.  If a woman does not want a child who has been born and is capable of surviving outside the womb she has options (adoption, foster care etc.)  apart from killing it.  Trotting Out the Toddler really is a slippery slope argument.  It is fallacious because there is no seamless slide from believing that a woman should be allowed to end her pregnancy to believing that she should be allowed to kill her children.

Thompson’s argument was particularly effective because she attacked her opponent’s position at its highest.  She conceded the full personhood of the foetus for the purposes of the argument, something which I doubt that she would actually accept otherwise.  Koukl’s response fails because he doesn’t address her argument at its highest.  He tries to subvert it by sneaking in the weaker scenario – that removing the violinist is “withholding treatment” when it is actually physically removing him from the only thing which is keeping him alive.  He attacks aspects of the argument which are surely peripheral to his real case (whether there is violence prior to removal).  He fails to see the actual issue – it is the rights of the woman not to be used rather than the death of the foetus/violinist which is the goal.  This makes him blind to the lack of parallel in his own favourite argument and he trots out a toddler who has no place here.

Thompson’s argument is more intelligently addressed by Christina Dunigan on her blog, Real Choice.  Her response can be found here:

Next month I propose to try and deal with it.


12 thoughts on “The Violinist Re-Strung

  1. I’m pro choice but I hope you don’t respond to these arguements with what you just wrote. They are very weak counters.

    • James, I do respond to the arguments with these arguments, obviously. That is why I have posted them on my blog. You will find that in a more recent post I have developed them somewhat but the Violinist analogy remains a powerful response to the anti-abortionist.
      Your view on the weakness of them as counters would carry a lot more weight if you would say why you consider them weak.

      • You say the woman does not want her unborn child dead, but simply to not allow the use of her body. If I hold my son’s head under the water have I killed him or merely withheld support (oxygen). The point I’m making is withholding support can be murder. And a court of law recognises this too. Recently in the UK a mother and father withheld support in the form of food from their son. But that was clearly murder as their son’s death was intended. That’s not an analogy completely parallel to pregnancy but you get the idea.

  2. To understand my OP you first have to understand Judith Jarvis Thompson’s original article. No offence, but you don’t seem to have done that.
    Central to her argument is the notion of bodily autonomy. It is quite simply pointless to start talking about holding your son’s head under the tap or parents withholding food from their children, because both these examples are entirely unconnected with issues of bodily autonomy. To describe them as “not an analogy completely parallel to pregnancy” understates the matter somewhat. Both analogies do not impact on Thompson’s argument at all because neither one engages with her central issue of bodily autonomy.

  3. Hi France. As you seem to appreciate a frank exchange of views, I’m sure you’ll appreciate my frank and honest suggestion that one should call something exactly as it is. You are Not Pro-Choice. You’re instead “Pro the violent destruction of the most innocent and defenseless human life”. I.e you’re “Pro-Abortion”, whereas I’m “Pro-Life.” However I’m use to liberal activists hijacking noble and dignified terms. Such liberal activists then often indulge in an unprincipled perversion of the true meaning of words. It seems the only means that liberal activists can use to get their point across is to resort to redefining and perverting the truth in order to claim the moral high ground. The “Pro-Choice” label is just one of many examples of the unprincipled means that liberals stoop to in order to give their causes a veneer of respectability, when if you scratch below the veneer you can see how rotten, hypocritical and dishonest their beliefs truly are.
    Moreover whenever I ask a pro-abortion person (who harps on about “bodily autonomy”) if they’d have any problem with their boyfriend or husband sleeping around – then they all cry foul.

    • Paul,
      I am pro-choice because I support the right of the woman to choose. To be “pro-abortion” I would have to limit my support to those women who chose termination.
      I would be even more opposed to forced abortion (such as happens in some parts of China) than I am to refusal of abortion services (as happens in Northern Ireland0. For that reason I cannot accurately be described as “pro-abortion”.

      • Your self identifiying as “Pro-choice” is about as meaningful and descriptive as saying that my two pet dogs are “Pro-Choice ” (especially when they’re presented with the option choosing either a pig ear or a stick) when it comes to their choice of what to chew on. You can therefore claim Jonty and Max as one of your Pro- Choice fellows.

      • Paul, I don’t think anyone needs to be an intellectual giant to see how silly and off point your comment is.

        Jonty and Max are not “pro-choice” but if you’d like to get them to type the next comment then I’d be happy to talk to them. I’m sure I’d get more sense out of them than out of their master.

      • I said my dogs are pro choice. I never said they were literate, pompous or overly precious when faced with their own intellectually bereft hypocrisy.

      • You may say they’re not pro-choice but that’s just your opinion. Moreover since when does their definite “Pro-Choice” position presuppose literacy?

  4. I’m curious to know the basis for a pro abortionist self identifying as “pro-choice” while prejudicedly labelling opponents (ie a truly Pro-Choice person upholding the choice of an an unborn human) “anti-abortionists”.

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