Quick Response #5: Women Have the Right to Refuse the Use of Their Bodies—The Violinist Argument

Emily Albrecht responds to Judith Jarvis Thomson’s Violinist thought experiment as presented in Thomson’s paper “A Defense of Abortion.” Is abortion analogous to unplugging from a sick person or refusing to donate your kidney? Is abortion justified because of our “right to refuse” the use of our bodies to others?

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Script Text

No paper has had as much of an impact on the broader abortion debate than Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “In Defense of Abortion.” It’s in that paper that she presents her famous Violinist thought experiment. A woman is kidnapped by the Society of Music Lovers and connected by some medical device to a famous violinist, who will die of a disease unless she remains hooked up for the next nine months. Thomson invites us to agree that the woman has the right to disconnect from the violinist and, therefore, she also has the right to “unplug” from the fetus during pregnancy, EVEN IF the fetus is a person. 

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According to the Violinist Argument, a woman has the right to refuse the use of her body at any time, for any reason. That’s why Trent Horn calls arguments like the Violinist thought experiment “Right to Refuse” arguments.

Right to refuse arguments have an initial plausibility that some other bodily rights arguments lack. We generally believe that individuals have bodily autonomy, ESPECIALLY in the negative sense that they can tell people to leave their body alone. This kind of bodily autonomy is one of the ideas that helps us state why sexual assault, for example, is so clearly wrong. Pro-life people shouldn’t try to address the violinist by denying the existence of bodily autonomy.

Instead, we argue that even something as important as bodily autonomy has limitations. To begin this argument, we have to look a bit closer at the Violinist compared to pregnancy. Thomson doesn’t tell us, but there’s actually a third option for the woman in the Violinist scenario besides unplugging or staying connected: she can kill the violinist. If he’s dead, after all, he has no need for her organs and she can leave the hospital. Thomson suppresses this choice because DIRECT KILLING, NOT UNPLUGGING, is the choice which most accurately matches up to abortion.

There is no way to just “unplug” from the fetus to stop being pregnant. Abortion always involves lethal violence targeted at the unborn human.  I don’t want to think about what happens in abortion procedures, but in this case, the details matter. In the earliest stages of pregnancy, the woman ingests a drug to separate the embryo from the placenta, which is how he gets his oxygen. After he suffocates, she takes a second pill to cause cramping in the uterus to expel the now dead embryo. Once the embryo is too big for the woman to safely have a chemical abortion, the abortion practitioner uses suction or forceps to dismember the fetus. If the fetus is too big for a dismemberment abortion, he is first given a shot of digoxin to stop his heart and then the woman gives birth to her dead baby. If someone killed a toddler by either suffocation, lethal injection, or dismemberment, no one would suggest it wasn’t violence. These are lethal actions against a helpless, innocent person. Abortion is not merely unplugging, it is KILLING—and Thomson assumes for sake of argument that the fetus is a person.

The only way to justify abortion through bodily autonomy is to argue that bodily autonomy gives you something like the right to kill in certain circumstances. And that’s precisely what the pro-life position denies. We do not believe you have the right to kill people. THAT’S the limitation we place on bodily autonomy.

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