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Destringing Thompson’s Violinist

By Aurora C. Griffin and James P. McGlone

Thanks to advances in radiology, neonatology, and other medical technologies, we are able to observe, treat, and deliver babies much earlier than ever before. With these advances, it is becoming increasingly difficult to argue that the fetus is anything but a living human person, leaving pro-choice advocates with little room to make their case. From the moment of conception, the embryo is a unique, self-integrated organism, directing its own development on a continuous, uninterrupted path toward infancy, childhood, and adulthood. Science settles the question at the heart of the abortion debate—that of fetal personhood—in favor of the unborn.

This is where the debate has its natural conclusion. However, some wish to continue the abortion debate as an issue of “bodily autonomy.” These individuals hold up Judith Thompson’s violinist thought experiment as proof that abortion is morally justifiable, even if the fetus is a human person. Thompson begins by postulating that the fetus is a human, thus declaring common ground with pro-lifers in an attempt to undermine their position. She draws an analogy between pregnancy and the situation of a woman whose vitals were attached in her sleep to those of a dying violinist. When she wakes up, Thompson asks, does the patient have the right to unhook the violinist and end his life? Thompson asserts that she does on the grounds that he "threatens her bodily autonomy.” She further concludes that a pregnant woman has a similar right to “unhook” herself from her unborn child. However, even if the woman’s right to kill the violinist is accepted, this analogy is deeply flawed and does not justify a right to abortion.

The first shortcoming of Thompson’s theory is the false parallel made between having sex and being hooked up to a violinist in the middle of the night. Women don’t just wake up pregnant; pregnancy almost always is a natural consequence of deliberate actions on the part of the mother, a consequence for which she must bear some moral responsibility. The only exceptions would be the small fraction of pregnancies resulting from rape. Only in these cases, which make up about 1 percent of abortions in the U.S. each year, can Thompson’s imaginative scenario have any relationship to the circumstances of pregnancies, and even in these cases, her argument fails for other reasons.

Perhaps Thompson’s most egregious oversight is her failure to recognize the moral importance of the parent-child relationship. Parents have special responsibilities to their own children—an intuitive concept, enforced by American family law. Until their children reach adulthood, parents are legally and morally obligated to care for them. They must provide a safe and healthy environment for their children, whether they are adolescents, toddlers, infants, or still in the womb. A person who refuses to feed his own children breaks the law: He can and should be sentenced to time in prison. On the other hand, a person who does not feed someone else’s child commits no prosecutable crime. Thompson’s argument completely ignores this crucial distinction.

This flaw proves fatal to the violinist argument, as can be illustrated by modifying the original thought experiment. Suppose, for example, that the violinist were the patient’s own two-year-old daughter. The thought experiment would yield a very different outcome: No mother in her right mind would allow her own child to die, even if she were “threatening her autonomy.” Parenting requires personal sacrifice: All children limit bodily autonomy! This imposition does not justify the deliberate taking of a human life.

A third, philosophically broader failing of the violinist analogy involves the instrumentalization of the human person. In any given moral decision, a person can be treated as a means to an end or as an end in himself. Traditional morality holds that people should always be treated as ends in themselves, while the progressive view implicitly asserts that some people are to be treated as ends, others as simply means. That is, it allows those with power over others, such as the mother over her child or the patient over the violinist, to use that power to their own ends.

And so Thompson, champion of those who perceive the abortion debate as an issue of bodily autonomy, falls short of proving her point by presenting a situation absolutely without analogy to pregnancy. Her attempt to justify abortion despite fetal personhood reduces her argument to a poorly conceived notion of rights, one in which parents owe nothing to their children and in which some people have a basic human right to kill other people. If some people are means and others ends, who falls into which category? What’s to stop us from killing the old, the disabled, and any others who threaten our bodily autonomy? Such considerations return the debate to the question of fetal personhood, and proponents of abortion are left having to contend that a self-developing organism with a unique set of human DNA is something other than a nascent human person. With such an unviable position as this, is it any wonder Thompson and others have sought a way out?

Aurora C. Griffin ’14, a classics concentrator, lives in Pforzheimer House. She is a member of Harvard Right to Life. James P. McGlone ’15 lives in Grays Hall.  He is the Vice President of Community Impact for Harvard Right to Life.

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