Unstringing the violinist
Abortion cannot be justified as merely withholding support, it is much more than that. It is intentionally killing an innocent human being.
Hey everyone. Scott Klusendorf here, president of Life Training Institute. Welcome to the Case for Life Podcast, where we try to help you think more clearly on abortion. Today I want to jump into a very popular and widely spread essay. In fact, it’s the most widely read essay on abortion in the world. And it was put forth by Judith Jarvis Thompson at m i t in 1971, and it’s simply entitled A Defense of Abortion.
And I’m not going to take and give you 30 reasons why this. This argument is bad that she puts forward, but I think you need to know a couple of points because you’re going to run into it and the argument goes like this, even if the unborn are human, and even if they are persons with a right to life, they do not have the right to use the body of the mother to sustain their own lives if the mother wishes to withhold that support and abortion properly understood.
Is the withholding of support that a mother has not consented to give. That’s the basic argument that Thompson is making and guys like David Boin have come along and, and reiterated this argument and others too, and you will get it when you engage people. The funny thing is they will cite it as their own, but it really isn’t their own.
They’re borrowing it from Thompson. They just think they thought it up, and usually they do a poorer job of articulating the argument than she does. So let’s go right to the source and not. Um, uh, use the poorly formulated versions of the argument. Let’s go right to her own view of this. Thompson gives an analogy to try to make her point.
She says, imagine you wake up one morning and you find that you’ve been kidnapped and you’ve been taken to a local hospital where you have been surgically connected to a world famous violinist who’s been put there by the Society of Music lovers. And this world famous violinist has has an underlying pathology, a kidney ailment.
That is killing him. And you alone have the right organ and blood type to sustain his life. So after doing a database search of the entire world, you were selected while you were sleeping, you were taken from your home, anesthetized and hooked up to this violinist. And you wake up in the morning and you’re rubbing your eyes trying to figure out what has happened to me.
And while you’re waking up, You try to disconnect from the violinist, but the hospital staff appears at your bedside and says, hold it. Wait. You can’t disconnect. Here’s why. He’s a person with a right to life. He has an ailment and needs your body to survive, and if you disconnect, he dies. And you’re thinking, wow, this is inconvenient.
And then Thompson asks a great question. She says, it would certainly be nice if you let your body be used that way, but must you. Now that may throw you back a little bit. It should. The first time I heard this argument, I, I went, whoa, here’s somebody who is granting our major premise that it, that the unborn are human.
They’re granting that they are persons with a right to life. They’re almost 90% to our view. And then they have the audacity to say, but guess what? Pro-lifer you lose anyway because you cannot force one human to use his or her body to sustain the life of another one. A parallel example might be being forced to give a blood transfusion to someone who needs it.
It might be nice if you did that, but are you required by law to do it? And of course, most of us would say probably not, though it might be. You know, kind of bad if you were just that callous to do not do something that could help someone, but legally you would not be required. And Thompson says, therefore, being hooked up to that violinist is parallel to a woman being hooked up to her own child.
And just like you can’t force, you can’t be forced to sustain the life of the violinist. So we cannot force mothers. To sustain the lives of offspring they wish not to support. They may withhold that support if they wish to. That’s the basic line of argument you’re going to hear. Let’s talk a little bit about what’s wrong with it, and I want to give you just a couple of things to keep in mind.
There’s a lot that could be said about this and in my book, the Case for Life, I give you multiple reasons why this argument fails, but I want to give you the two biggies that I think you need to keep in mind. Number one. If Thompson is right, that you being hooked up to that violinist is parallel in morally relevant ways to you being hooked up to your own child.
I think her case carries the day and it’s over. We lose because she has taken a very bold stance here, granting our major premises and saying we’re still wrong. So if she can show that you being hooked up to your own child in pregnancy, Is morally relevant to you being hooked up to this stranger violinist?
I think she carries the day, but of course, I don’t believe the parallels work. And let me just walk you through the biggies. Here’s the biggest objection to her argument. While Thompson may argue that you don’t have to give support to someone who needs it by using your body, she is not. Successfully argued that you can slit your victim’s throat in the name of withholding support.
In other words, abortion is much more than merely withholding support. It’s intentionally killing another human being through dismemberment poisoning, or whatever other means we use. I think Frank Beckwith puts it real well. Calling abortion merely as the withholding of support is kind of like suffocating someone with a pillow and calling it the withdrawing of oxygen.
There’s a whole lot more going on here than merely withholding support. I think we can also point out that. What’s killing the violinist is his underlying pathology. What kills the unborn in abortion, our intentional act of dismembering him. In fact, pro-abortion philosopher Kate g Greeley at Oxford University, who doesn’t hold the pro-life view by any means, but who is a thoughtful, engaging critic of our view, has pointed out that Thompson’s argument and boon’s extension of it.
Utterly fails because although the argument may prove you may withhold support, it doesn’t prove you get to intentionally kill. And she points out that this is the major thing that Boin and Thompson overlook. They downplay the intentional killing and, and simply punt to, you have a right to withhold support.
But again, just because I don’t have to be required to give you. A blood transfusion doesn’t mean I can kill you intentionally in the name of withholding support, which is what abortion is, and gly is absolutely correct about that. And notice that critique is not coming from pro-life sources, it’s coming from pro-abortion sources.
Even philosopher Maryanne Warren, who doesn’t hold our view. Agree. She says, just because you own a house doesn’t mean you get to kill the people who live in it. And she takes on this whole notion that abortion is merely withholding support. No, there’s much more going on. You’re literally going into that house to use Maryanne Ann Warren’s analogy.
And you’re not only. Refusing to give the housing to the people who are in there. You’re cutting them up and putting their body parts in the garbage in the name of evicting them and withholding support from them. And this overlooking of abortion as much more than merely withholding support, I think is the fatal flaw, no pun intended, with Thompson’s argument, and you’re wise to zero in on that.
That I think is the most important thing to zero in on. There’s other things we could say about this argument. That’s the main thing you wanna look at. A abortion is much more than withholding support. And B, what’s killing the, the, the violinist in this case is his underlying pathology. Not the mere factor withholding support, the disease is killing him.
And you may have a right to withhold your support. You don’t have a right to stab him in the head in the name of doing it. And that’s what abortion is. And that’s the fundamental problem with Thompson’s arguments in the case for life. We talk about problems with bodily rights, arguments in general. For example, if the woman has an absolute right to bodily.
Rights and autonomy when pregnant. What would be wrong with her creating a fetus for the express purpose of donating his body so that it could be used useful for medical research? Let’s say at week five, she says, I want my fetus killed, not through abortion, but I want to kill the fetus for the purpose of procuring organs for those who may need them, perhaps a relative, perhaps a friend.
And if it’s true that the woman has an absolute right to bodily autonomy that can’t be infringed upon. What would be wrong with creating a fetus for the express purpose of using his body parts to treat disease and other people? There are other things we could say, but that’s the main thing with Thompson’s argument, that abortion is much more than merely withholding support.
It is intentional killing, and she overlooks that. David Boin overlooks that. Most people you talk to that use this argument will overlook it. You want to bring them back to that central point. That abortion is intentional killing of an innocent human being. It is not merely withholding support.