Answering the Pro-Choice “Violinist Argument”

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Last week, I received a comment on my article, “A Rational Defense of the Unborn.” The commenter writes that he “disagree[s] with the claim that the fetus having personhood leads to the conclusion abortion is morally impermissible.” The commenter uses a hypothetical as the basis for disagreeing with the personhood argument against abortion: if someone has a rare disease and my blood is the only life-saving treatment, am I morally responsible for saving that person’s life?

The author of this comment presents an interesting counter to the pro-life stance with a bodily autonomy argument. The argument may sound familiar because it is the famous “violinist argument” which was first presented by philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson in her book A Defense of Abortion published in 1971. You can read the full argument here

I’ll start with the author’s main claim, “By banning abortion the government would be limiting bodily autonomy and would give the fetus rights over the mother which are antithetical to the values the nation was founded on”. The term bodily autonomy is thrown around frequently in abortion debates, so it’s best to define it. A quick Google search yields that there is no official definition of bodily autonomy, only articles defining it in the context of a pro-choice argument. However, the definition of autonomy according to Merriam-Webster is “the quality or state of being self-governing” and the definition of bodily according to Merriam-Webster is “of or relating to the body”. Hence, the definition of bodily autonomy is the freedom to self-govern one’s body. 

Note that the term “bodily autonomy” is never used as a foundational principle of our government. I argue that our government was designed to prevent total bodily autonomy. Total bodily autonomy would mean that someone can do whatever they want regardless of the consequences. At its core, our government was designed to protect the rights of its people–including protection against threats to our rights from others. Therefore, someone’s right to bodily autonomy ends when the rights of others are impeded. Alternatively stated, my bodily autonomy does not give me the right to punch you because the right to do whatever I want with my arm ends when your face is in the way. The shortcoming of bodily autonomy causes the commenter to stray from the central question of abortion: what are the unborn?

He uses the violinist argument to avoid the central question by claiming that it does not matter if the unborn are people with rights; they still do not have the right to use the mother’s body. The author presents this situation as a defense of abortion: there is someone with a rare blood disease and the author needs to transfer his own blood to the individual for nine months so he can overcome the ailment. The author then presents two hypotheticals: he originally consents to the procedure or he is forced against his will to do the procedure. He concludes that in both cases it is morally permissible to “detach” from the diseased person because they have no right to his blood. I agree with this specific conclusion. 

However, while this scenario may seem analogous to a pregnant woman and abortion, it is an unfair comparison. The author’s mistake is that he equates an action to let someone die and an action taken to kill someone. In other words, failing to save someone is not the same as directly murdering them. Think about it this way: if the healthy individual unplugs from the diseased person, the person is then left to his natural state and will eventually perish. The unborn child in the womb, however, is in its natural state and if left alone will develop into a fully functioning human being. An abortion is an action taken to remove a human being from his or her natural state, directly resulting in an unborn child’s death. In the end, my conclusion remains the same: the unborn are innocent lives with value rooted in their belonging to a rational kind, bodily autonomy does not grant someone the right to impede the rights of others, and since abortion is the direct termination of the unborn, it is morally unacceptable.

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