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Fatally flawed: the violinist argument for abortion rights

This was originally going to be a comment tacked onto the end of this post about abortion on Wizbang, but it got a bit long. Thank goodness for trackbacks!
In Paul’s post, he comments on John “Waffles” Kerry’s incoherent statement on abortion and the beginning of life:

A Catholic who supports abortion rights and has taken heat from some in the church hierarchy for his stance, Kerry told [The Washington Post], “I oppose abortion, personally. I don’t like abortion. I believe life does begin at conception.”

… Kerry has often said abortion should be “safe, legal and rare” …

Paul takes Kerry to task for saying that he thinks it should be safe and legal to kill babies … and I’m on board 100% with that observation. Now, some very thoughtful reader comments followed, including the following from Jack (who has his own blog, TigerHawk):

Actually, it is possible to argue that “life” begins at conception and believe that some abortions should be lawful without legalizing “murder.” It is not a politically attractive argument, but you can make it nonetheless.
There are actually two arguments.

The second argument turns on “duty to rescue” and our notions of personal autonomy. No American court, not even the Supreme Court, can require you to donate bone marrow, or even blood, to save the life of your autonomous child. That is your choice to make, and if you decide not to do it we may abhor your choice but we will not hold you down to extract the marrow.
Well, if we won’t require you to donate tissue to save the life of your already born child, why do we require you to “donate” tissue to the fetus that is attached to you? I’ve never understood that, and do not believe that we should. Therefore, separation from a fetus should be lawful, even if deplorable. [emphasis added]

This is a variation of what’s known as the violinist argument, first articulated in 1971 by Judith Jarvis Thomson. In her analogy a famous violinist develops a fatal kidney problem, so his friends rescue him by kidnapping a healthy bystander and plugging the violinist into the bystander’s kidneys. The kidnappers tell the victim that he shouldn’t unplug the violinist, since it would kill the poor musician … and after all the violinist can be safely unplugged after nine months (oh, how clever). Thomson then asserts that if it’s wrong to prohibit the bystander from defending himself from such an imposition on his body (however temporary), then it’s also wrong to prohibit a woman from “unplugging” an unwelcome fetus making similar demands on her body. Eileen McDonagh uses a variation on this theme today, but the basic argument’s the same.
Sounds pretty tightly reasoned, right? It can really flummox an inexperienced pro-life apologist. But it suffers from some critical flaws.

  • Unlike the violinist example, abortion isn’t “letting someone die”. It’s actively killing someone.
  • The violinist bears responsibility for allowing himself to be hooked up to the bystander. The unborn child neither consents to being conceived nor to being aborted. This matters. “Conception followed by eviction from the womb could be compared to capturing someone, placing him on an airplane, and then shoving him out without a parachute in mid-flight.” — Libertarians For Life
  • The mother’s womb is the baby’s natural environment. He’s not trespassing; it’s where he belongs.
  • A mother’s responsibility toward her child trumps her personal liberty. Greg Koukl puts it well:

    The violinist analogy suggests that a mother has no more responsibility for the welfare of her child than she has to a total stranger. … Blood relationships are never based on choice, yet they entail moral obligations, nonetheless. … 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.


John Kerry's campaign

Scratch one pro-abort analogy.

Correction: I mistakenly credited Kevin with Paul’s writing, and have fixed that oversight. My bad, Paul.