When you discuss your pro-life beliefs with abortion advocates, you may come across what is often touted as the “strongest pro-choice argument.” The argument was originally made by Judith Jarvis Thomson in A Defense of Abortion in 1971. It goes like this:
[Imagine] 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…” Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation?”
The implied answer to this question is obviously no. The takeaway, as I was told recently on Twitter, is that “no one has a right to depend on someone else’s body for survival against their will.” What do you think? Are pregnancy and the hypothetical situation described above analogous? I don’t think so.
If a child outside the womb has a right to depend on her mother’s body…, then a child inside the womb has a right to depend on her mother’s body for survival as well.
A Better Analogy
Let’s consider another hypothetical situation. Imagine a mother who has a newborn in a part of the world where she doesn’t have access to anything other than her own breast milk to feed her baby girl. Besides nursing, there just aren’t any other options. As tragic as this situation is, would it be morally permissible for a mother in this situation to refrain from breastfeeding her child? No. If she were to do so, not only would she be in violation of a moral principle but, according to our legal codes, she would be guilty of a crime (child neglect).
Here we have a counterexample that undermines the universality of the principle that no one has a right to depend on someone else’s body for survival. In our hypothetical scenario, the child would have a moral and legal right to depend on their mother’s body for survival. Why? Because we recognize that parents have a moral and legal responsibility to care for their children (e.g., to feed them).
So, the question becomes, is pregnancy more analogous to the first (artificial attachment) or second (natural conception carried to term) situation? Clearly the second. The only differences between our hypothetical child outside the womb and a fetus are location and means of nourishment (umbilical cord and placenta vs. breastfeeding). These differences are immaterial. If a child outside the womb has a right to depend on her mother’s body in situations where the mother’s body is the only available means of survival, then a child inside the womb has a right to depend on her mother’s body for survival as well.
Editor’s Note: Read more of Jonathan’s writings on abortion and the pro-life cause: