Abortion and Judith Thompson’s Violinist
“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 have 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 him 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?” (Judith Thompson)
Judith Thompson goes on to argue that the fetus, like the violinist, has no right to use your body unless you give it to him. Therefore, abortion, in the case of rape at least, is permissible. Let us grant that one may indeed unplug oneself from the violinist. May one take a gun and shoot him in the head? May one cut him into pieces? May one poison him if by doing so he will disconnect in the process? Of course not, that would be immoral. Possibly, you will ask why, because he will die in both cases. Yes, you are the cause of his death in either case. However, in spite of these similarities there is a difference. The man is sick. If you unplug yourself from him, he will die from his sickness. For if, he was not sick, he would not die from being disconnected. Nevertheless, if you shoot him, then he dies of the bullet you have put in his brain, and not of his sickness. For even if he were well, he would still die of the damage done by the bullet. Moreover, you are not responsible for this man’s sickness from his bad kidneys. If you were, you would have to let him use yours. However, you are, of course, responsible for the bullet in his brain, for the damage you caused to his body.
Thus, supposing that the violinist does not have a right to be hooked up to you, still the case is that you may do whatever you want to him. Judith Thompson, stated, “The man has a right to his life,” She focuses her attention on whether he has a right to what it would take to sustain his life. However, what she fails to notice, is that even if he does not have a right, this does not imply that whatever one does to him is morally permissible.
In the same way-that the fetus does not have a right to use the woman’s body unless she gives it to him-does not imply that whatever one does to the fetus is morally permissible. Rather, just as one may not stab the violinist in the throat or shoot him in the head, causing such severe damage to his body that death occurs, furthermore, one may not cut the fetus into pieces or poison him to death.
Thus, all Judith Thompson can hope to infer from the violinist example is that one may “disconnect” oneself from the fetus providing one does not fatally damage his body in the process. This means that of the six methods of abortion only those cases of prostaglandin chemical abortion (where the woman’s uterus is stimulated to contract and expel the fetus whole) in which the fetus is born alive and is not decapitated or fatally damaged by the violence of the contractions, and those cases of cesarean section abortion where the fetus dies of neglect rather than by the knife, that only these cases are possibly morally permissible types of abortion. Only those cases where the fetus is not fatally damaged by the procedure might be permissible (on Judith Thompson’s showing), for only such procedures might be cases of “disconnecting” oneself from a person. The other methods of abortion, dilation and curettage, dilation and evacuation, suction or vacuum aspiration, and salt poisoning, cause the death of the fetus by dismembering him or by poisoning him, and therefore are parallel to cutting the violinist to pieces or poisoning him to death, both of which are moral atrocities.
As regards the two procedures of abortion which might be morally permissible, let us consider only the strongest case, that of cesarean section abortion which invariably leaves the fetus intact? Judith Thompson argues, “Since a woman owns her body, the fetus can have no right to use it unless she gives him the right.” In cases of rape, she has clearly not given the fetus the right. Therefore, it is permissible for her to deprive the fetus of the use of her body by disconnecting herself from it even if it will surely die, since that does not violate any of the fetus’ rights. I submit that either the first premise is false, or the inference that therefore it is permissible to deprive someone of the use of something to which it has not been given the right is false.
The thrust of the first premise seems to be that if you alone own something, then you alone have the rights to it. No one else has any right to it unless you give it to him or her. Judith Thompson does not argue that one’s body is different from anything else one might own; therefore, her premise is a particular case of the more general principle:
If a person owns something, then no one can have a right to use that entity unless that person gives him or her the right. There are many normal intuitive counter-examples to this claim, such as owning an abundance of food and turning a starving beggar away. Here a person owns something, and the person has not given the beggar the right to use it, but it is not permissible to deprive or withhold it from him, especially if it means his death.
In the spirit of Judith Thompson’s article, I feel one must consider this scenario: suppose the woman who has been hooked up to the violinist owns the air in the room where they are. Suppose she is finical about what she breathes and has purchased canisters of oxygen. Suppose she designed a pair of rooms where oxygen is released steadily into, one room while nitrogen and carbon dioxide are pumped out into the other. After about a month, the oxygen one breathes in the first room is from the canisters. Any non-canister oxygen left is insufficient to live on. Suppose the woman and the violinist are in the first room and that there is plenty of oxygen for both. It is not morally permissible to shoot, stab, or poison the violinist, which in turn would fatally damage him. However, it is permissible to suffocate him to prevent him from turning this woman’s breathable oxygen into non-breathable carbon dioxide if she has not given him the right to do this to her oxygen? He will die, of course, but she does not mutilate or poison his body by putting a pillow over his face until he dies. Clearly, the fact that she owns the oxygen, and the fact that she has not given him the right to breathe it, does not therefore make it permissible for her to deprive him of it by suffocating him.
Is it permissible, then, for the woman to move the violinist into another room because it is her oxygen and she has not given him the right to use it? Surely, this is permissible. It is hers, and she does him no harm. What if the only other room is one filled with poisonous gases? What if the only other room is the one filled with nitrogen and carbon dioxide? What if the only other environment is one in which neither he nor any healthy person can live? Supposing there is enough oxygen for both of them, she must then allow him to breathe her oxygen. Because oxygen is a necessity even for healthy people, and one may not withhold it from someone when there is plenty for all at the cost of one’s life, not even if one owns it.
Therefore, either it is false that if a person owns something, and no one has a right to use that entity unless the person gives him the right. Or, it is false that it is permissible to deprive someone of the use of something to which he has not been given the right.
Moreover, we must ask: why may you deprive the violinist of the use of your kidneys when they are good enough to sustain you both and he will die without it? For two reasons taken together. First, the violinist can only require the use of your kidneys for nine months to stay alive if he is ill. If you deprive him of the use of them, he dies of a sickness for which you are not responsible. If you were responsible, you could not rightly disconnect him. Second, since to remain attached to a sick violinist filtering the poisons from his blood for nine months is as severe a case of extraordinary means of saving a life as one could hope to imagine, it is not incumbent upon you to accede to this situation to repair him. However, breathing air is the most ordinary of all means of sustaining life. Obviously, the fact that someone requires air to sustain his life does not mean he is sick. Thus, if one deprives him of air, then he dies not of some sickness for which you are not responsible, but from a deprivation of necessities for which you are responsible. Thus, it is incumbent upon you to let him breathe the air that you own.
Additionally, let us look at abortion. If the fetus is not sick, and one removes the fetus from the womb and it dies, the fetus dies because it has been taken out of that environment which is the ordinary means for sustaining life.
Some fetuses are sick, and they are spontaneously aborted. The ones, which are deliberately aborted, are healthy, or, at any rate, die under conditions, which would kill the healthiest of them. In abortion the fetus dies not of something for which one is not responsible; the fetus dies either because someone poisons the amniotic fluid it lives in, or because someone dismembers it, or because the fetus is taken out of the natural environment in which it lives. Even supposing the fetus does not have a right to be “hooked up” to a woman, to use her body, still it is outrageous to suppose she or a doctor may poison, dismember, or let the fetus die in an environment that cannot support its life.