[Editor's Note: Sanctity of Human Life Sunday is January 22, 2012]
I remember exactly where I was the first time I heard Judith Jarvis Thompson's "Violinist" argument. I was driving south on the 405 freeway in Los Angeles listening to a radio talk-show. It shook me up so much I almost had to pull over.
Not only was the argument compelling, but Thompson made a stunning concession when she acknowledged the full personhood of the unborn. Having conceded what pro-lifers were trying to prove, she short-circuited their argument from the outset.
My first impulse was to throw in the towel. The argument couldn't be answered, I thought. This is often the case with carefully worded philosophical treatments. At first glance they appear compelling. On closer inspection, though, the flaws begin to show. In this instance, the problems with Thompson's argument are fatal.
The Violinist Argument
The details of Judith Jarvis Thompson's argument are important, so I will quote her illustration in full. Entitled "A Defense of Abortion," it first appeared in 1971 in the Journal of Philosophy and Public Affairs.
I propose, then, that we grant that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception. How does the argument go from here? Something like this, I take it. Every person has a right to life. So the fetus has a right to life. No doubt the mother has a right to decide what shall happen in and to her body; everyone would grant that. But surely a person's right to life is stronger and more stringent than the mother's right to decide what happens in and to her body, and so outweighs it. So the fetus may not be killed; an abortion may not be performed.
It sounds plausible. But now let me ask you to imagine this. 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.
Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says, "Tough luck, I agree, but you've now got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person's right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him." I imagine you would regard this as outrageous, which suggests that something really is wrong with that plausible-sounding argument I mentioned a moment ago.
Judith Jarvis Thompson correctly shows that an additional step is needed to bridge the gap between the premise that the unborn is a person and the conclusion that killing the unborn child is always wrong. What's needed is the additional premise that taking the life of a person is always wrong. Killing, however, is sometimes permissible, most notably in self-defense.