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Where did the love go? Violinists are not babies

By Bill Muehlenberg - posted Monday, 28 February 2005

Helen Pringle in her article in On Line Opinion, "The case of the violinist and the fetus", resurrects an old argument in order to shed new light on the abortion debate. She refers to the famous “violinist” argument which Judith Jarvis Thompson first made in 1971 in her article “A Defense of Abortion”, in the Journal of Philosophy and Public Affairs.

Pringle is right to note that it is a controversial piece. She invokes the argument, but notes that it is not without its shortcomings. She then provides a modification of her own in an attempt to keep the spirit of the argument alive. I wish to address both in turn.

As to the original Thompson piece, it is as fundamentally flawed as it is appealing. The argument seeks to show a moral equivalence between the two situations when there is none. The differences are profound.


First, a mother-child relationship is not on a par with a stranger-stranger relationship.

Second, blood relationships entail genuine obligations that are not found in other less formal relationships. Parents are thus prosecuted for child neglect, while next door neighbours are not.

Third, a child is not an invader, stranger, trespasser or parasite. It is the natural guest of a mother's womb.

Fourth, the violinist is artificially attached, while the baby is naturally housed.

The whole point of the Thompson piece is to suggest that a mother has no more obligation to her own baby than to a stranger. Indeed, her argument proves too much. Substitute the violinist for her own child in the story and what is the outcome? Should a mum have a right to cut the life support of her own baby? By Thompson's reasoning, we have the right to kill any person who is dependent on us, at least if he or she curtails our liberty.

No one has complete freedom to do what they will with their own body, especially if another's life is at risk. We may live in an age where personal autonomy trumps all other considerations, but the obligation of a mother to her own child is not negotiable. Nor should it be.


Helen Pringle however tries to offer a different tack, and uses the organ donation analogy. Is it any more helpful? Not at all. She is still mixing apples and oranges. To donate an organ does not (always) entail the loss of life. An abortion always does. The withholding of treatment (or the donation of organs), and the issue of abortion, are altogether dissimilar.

Moreover, she argues her case using this peculiar phrase: "that involuntary use of her body". That is an odd way to describe motherhood. First of all, was it an involuntary act in the first place that resulted in the pregnancy?

Aside from the issue of rape, which of course would result in what might be called an involuntary use of the mother's body, the overwhelming number of pregnancies would be very much due to voluntary arrangements. One might argue that if the first act was voluntary, why not the second?

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About the Author

Bill Muehlenberg is Secretary of the Family Council of Victoria, and lectures in ethics and philosophy at various Melbourne theological colleges.

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