Violins and Rights Violations


Another of the stronger arguments for abortion has been put forward by Judith Jarvis Thomson. She begins by assuming (as most of us would) that abortion is actually killing another human being. She doesn’t necessarily believe that it is the case that abortion is murder, but she wants to make a strong argument for abortion. Thus, she takes the position which we take and then argues that our position still does not mean what we think it means.

So, Thomson—for the sake of the argument—says the unborn baby is a child in the womb. She then argues (1) that it is not always wrong to kill another human being; and (2) that it is not necessarily wrong to kill an unborn child. On the first point, Thomson argues that we kill soldiers in battle. We also kill criminals with execution. So, killing human beings is not inherently evil. There is such a thing as a just killing. The question is whether killing an unborn child is just or unjust.

On the second point, Thomson admits that it sounds like the right to life is stronger than the right for a woman to choose what happens to her body. But Thomson asks you to imagine you awoke one morning with a world famous violinist attached back to back to you. As it turns out, you are the only one who is able to support his blood type and kidney function; thus, you were chosen to give him life. Without you, this man can no longer live, and the world would be robbed of the greatest violin music in its possession. So, you simply must choose to keep the violinist alive. You did not ask for this assignment. You did not want this assignment (just like a woman using contraceptives did not ask for and did not want her pregnancy assignment). Would you be compelled to live with this human being attached to your back for 9 months? If you say no, then does that not argue that you are actually more concerned about your right to control your body than you are about the inherent right to human life? Doesn’t that make the point that abortion is not inherently evil?

Thomson develops the argument much more extensively than I can relate here. The end of the matter is simply this: Thomson argues that even if you can prove that abortion is killing a baby with the right to life, you have not yet proved enough. You need also to prove that the killing is an unjust killing. There is such a thing as a just killing of other human life. Just as we would recognize that it would be an undue burden to keep the violinist alive, so, too, must we realize that women are being asked to suffer an undue burden by keeping another human being alive. We may think it is good and right for women to do this, but this is a far cry from mandating such behavior for all women. Abortion may be killing, but it is not unjust killing in Thomson’s view.

So, how would we argue that abortion is an unjust killing (when the mother considers the baby an unwanted intrusion and an undue burden)?

To learn more of Thomson’s argument, click here. To read a portion of her argument, click here.

For a very good response, see Beckwith’s article here.

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