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The case of the violinist and the fetus

By Helen Pringle - posted Tuesday, 22 February 2005

Debate in Australia on the rights and wrongs of abortion never seems to go away. As soon as the debate reaches a resolution in one area it flares up in another. However, the debate in Australia seems to have one fixed point, which concerns the claims of the fetus to personhood. Both “pro-life” and “pro-choice” groups in Australia conduct the present debate as if the legality of abortion hinges on whether the fetus is a person. But does resolving this question really determine whether abortion should be proscribed at law?

No, responds the American philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson. In an article published some 30 years ago, Thomson tried to show that even to assume the full personhood of the fetus would not, without further argument, establish the impermissibility of abortion. Thomson’s question is: To exactly what duties in others does the right to life of the unborn give rise?

Thomson asks you to imagine that you are kidnapped one night, and you wake up in hospital to find yourself plugged into the body of a famous violinist suffering a serious kidney ailment. The doctors apologise profusely, blaming the Society of Music Lovers for the kidnapping. While assuring you that you will remain plugged in for only nine months, the doctors remind you that the violinist has a right to life, and that his life can be maintained only by remaining plugged in to your circulatory system.


The point of Thomson’s analogy is that a right to life does not entail a right to the use of other people’s bodies, or an obligation on their part to allow their bodies to be used by even the vulnerable and the needy.

Thomson’s article is the most widely reprinted piece in contemporary public philosophy. And possibly the most controversial. I do not know of another argument that arouses such hostility from all sides of the abortion debate. This hostility stems in part from the rather bizarre analogies used by Thomson, the plugged-in violinist being the least strange of them.

I think that Thomson’s general point can however be made in a more straightforward, simple and persuasive way. Consider for example cases of tissue or organ donation. The widely accepted moral, legal and political principle here is that such donations may not be compelled. And this is so on the ground that to require a person to donate a part (even a renewable part) of their body to another person is a form of involuntary servitude, or indeed slavery. Not even parents may be legally forced to donate, say, a kidney to their dying child. Courts in the US have famously refused to force parents to donate even their (renewable) bone marrow or blood to save their children.

This widely accepted principle against bodily compulsion applies also to changes of mind. Let us say that a mother voluntarily promises one of her kidneys to her dying child, but then reneges (for whatever reason) on her promise. The child has no legal basis on which to force the mother to surrender the promised kidney.

Now surely it would be selfish not to donate a kidney to one’s child in need. And it would be heartless and cruel to change your mind after making such a promise. But the law will not compel the performance of such agreements, because to do so would be to countenance contracts of slavery.

Neither the analogy used by Thomson nor that of organ or tissue donation quite fits pregnancy and abortion. Nothing is quite like pregnancy, or quite like abortion. But these analogies do help us to see a principle at issue here. To require that a woman carry an unborn child to term is to demand something that is required of no other person in our society: the involuntary use of her body by another. And a law outlawing abortion would hence effectively require of women as a class what is required of no other class of persons in our society. For that reason, such a law would be a discriminatory imposition on the autonomy of women as a class. To outlaw abortion is to compel women, and women alone, to use their bodies in a certain way - in effect to be bodily conscripted to the state.


This way of looking at questions of abortion clarifies that a demonstration of the personhood of the fetus would not entail that abortion should be outlawed. Perhaps even more importantly, it also has a lesson for some of those on the “pro-choice” side of the debate: that abortion is not just a matter of destroying a few cells but does raise very serious questions about our moral duties to others, including unborn persons.

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About the Author

Helen Pringle is in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales. Her research has been widely recognised by awards from Princeton University, the Fulbright Foundation, the Australian Federation of University Women, and the Universities of Adelaide, Wollongong and NSW. Her main fields of expertise are human rights, ethics in public life, and political theory.

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