Judith Jarvis Thompson’s “A Defense of Abortion” presents a profoundly influential argument that draws a distinction between possessing the right to life and the right to life support. The argument is famous for its images and colorful thought experiments. Consider:
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 is now 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 now you’ve 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.
Most of us think the director of the hospital is wrong to appropriate another human being’s body for the sake of keeping another person alive, and that the individual in the thought experiment has the right to “unplug” from the violinist. Thompson, however, acknowledges that the right to “unplug” does not entail the right “to secure the death of the unborn child.” The problem is compounded by the acts of violence that abortion entails. In his new book against abortion, Christopher Kaczor makes the thought experiment more colorful:
Consider the violinist analogy again, with the “unplugging” replaced by the means of freeing yourself from the violinist that impinges on his bodily integrity and includes his death. Imagine for instance that you are to separate yourself from the violinist by poisoning him or taking an ax to his body or by tearing him limb from limb or by putting through an incredibly powerful suction machine (akin to a jet engine, say) that would leave him in recognizable pieces on the other side. If we were to separate ourselves from the violinist by any of these means things begin to look a bit different.