I am writing a series of posts on the ethics of abortion. This series is based on a unit I teach in my ethics class almost every semester.
You can read the first part in the series here in which I describe what ethics is; why abortion can be an ambiguous ethical issue; and why ethically ambiguous issues are difficult to think and talk about. I also explain the goal of this blog series.
The Focus of this Article
In this post, I want to explore an article by a philosopher named Judith Jarvis Thomson titled “An Argument in Defense of Abortion”. This article makes an argument for why abortion is moral in some cases. In some of my future posts, I will explore articles from other perspectives.
Content/Trigger Warning: This post focuses on the ethics of abortion pertaining to cases of pregnancy resulting from rape and incest.
One of the reasons why abortion is such a difficult topic is that many people believe, understandably, that the fetus is a human being and that killing a human being is wrong.
At the beginning of her article, Thomson points out that there may be times when killing a human being is permissible (Thomson 1). And it is important that Thomson makes this point because we know that there are indeed times when many people believe killing a human being is morally permissible—for example, perhaps in situations of self-defense or capital punishment.
So, we might wonder if there are times when aborting a fetus is ever morally permissible. Thomson thinks there is. To prove her point, she describes her famous thought experiment or example called the World Famous Violinist Scenario. (Thomson uses a lot of thought experiments in her article, and if you are unfamiliar with philosophical thought experiments, they make strike you as really strange. If you like, you can read the footnote at the end of the post to understand what a thought experiment is and why they can be helpful.)
In the World Famous Violinist Scenario, Thomson asks you to imagine that one night in your sleep, you are kidnapped, and when you wake up, you find that you have been hooked up to a World Famous Violinist (WFV). It turns out that the WFV’s kidneys are failing, and he also has a rare blood type. Your blood type matches him and so the Music Lover’s Society has kidnapped you and, without your consent, hooked you up to the World Famous Violinist so that you can keep him alive. If you are disconnected from him, he will die (Thompson 2).
Photo by Miti, Courtesy of Unsplash
When you wake up, you find that you will have to stay hooked up to the World Famous Violinist for nine months. The doctor attending you says, more or less, “We’re sorry this happened to you. If we would have known it was happening, we would have stopped it, but now that is has happened, you must stay hooked up, and that’s just the way it is” (2).
Let’s Reflect on the Matter
To help us think about this issue from a different perspective, let’s imagine that rather than you being kidnapped and hooked up to the WFV, it is your father or brother or son. Why might you or someone feel that it is unjust for your father, brother, or son to be kidnapped and hooked up to the WFV against his will for nine months?
Why don’t you take a minute and consider some reasons you, or someone else, might think that forcing someone to stay hooked up to the World Famous Violinist in this scenario is wrong.
If you are like a lot of people, you might reply with some of these answers:
Because you cannot use people’s bodies this way against their will.
Because if people do not have control of their own bodies, they are basically slaves, and people can do with them whatever they want.
Because if the father, brother, or son must stay hooked up to the WFV for nine months, then they won’t be able to take care of their family, go to work, go to school, and to pursue their life goals.
Because staying hooked up for nine months might permanently prevent them from achieving some of the moral goals they set for themselves or from reaping the benefits of their hard work. (For instance, let’s say it is your son that is kidnapped and hooked up to the World Famous Violinist, and let’s say your son had recently been offered a full-ride scholarship to a university to play basketball. Being hooked up to the WFV for nine months would not only cause him to lose this scholarship but to lose a year of training and, perhaps, the opportunity to ever play college basketball. This would deprive him of the just reward of his hard work.)
Photo by Marcus Spiske, courtesy of Unsplash
And you are right: It is indeed wrong to use people’s bodies this way. When we do so, we use people as an object or a tool to accomplish our goals, rather than treating them as valuable in themselves. Someone could volunteer to stay hooked up to the WFV, and we would likely consider that a heroic act, but to force someone to do it is unethical, whether that person is a man, woman, boy, or girl. (You can read more about ethics here.)
Similarly, someone might decide to donate a kidney to someone who needs it, and we would likely think that was a heroic act, but we would believe it is unethical to force someone to donate a kidney.
If we think it is right to kidnap a person in the way portrayed in the WFV scenario, this would justify anyone kidnapping anyone else to save someone’s life—for example, it would justify kidnapping someone and taking one of their kidneys to save the life of someone whose kidneys are failing.
Once again, ask yourself, “Is it right for someone to kidnap my son, brother, father, husband and do this to them?” It is not. And it also would not be right to do this to someone’s daughter, sister, mother, or wife. People and their bodies cannot be used in this way.
What is the Purpose of This Thought Experiment?
Thomson uses this thought experiment to argue that it is wrong to force a woman to carry a pregnancy to term that results from rape or incest just like it is wrong to force a kidnapped person to stay hooked up to the World Famous Violinist. To do so is, in essence, to use a woman as a thing—for example, a receptacle–to carry a child, rather than to treat a woman as valuable in herself.
Thomson suggests that the argument that a woman cannot have an abortion in cases of rape and incest is the extreme position (Thomson 2-3), and she argues that this position is not as common as is once was, although you may be aware that recently several states took this extreme position and tried, or succeeded, in passing bills that banned all abortions, even for pregnancies caused by the result of rape or incest. Some states even banned or tried to ban abortion in cases in which the pregnancy threatened a woman’s health.
She points out that when people hold the extreme position on abortion—the position that abortion is always wrong, even in cases of rape, incest, or threats to the mother’s health—they usually hold this position based on several arguments.
One of those arguments is that it is wrong to kill an innocent person, and abortion is killing an innocent person, so it is wrong (3).
Thompson points out, however, that this argument is incorrect. In another thought experiment she asks us to consider a scenario (this one has a sci-fi twist) in which a woman (or man) is trapped in a very tiny house with a rapidly growing child. (The child in this scenario has been genetically modified in some way and is going to grow into a giant.) The woman cannot escape the house, and she is going to be crushed to death (4). Thompson argues that killing in self-defense is ethical, and therefore, killing in this situation, even killing an innocent child, is ethically permissible because it is an instance of self-defense (4).
Photo by Arwin Basdew, courtesy of Unsplash
A second argument for the extreme position with abortion is that directly killing someone is always murder and is morally impermissible and, therefore, so is abortion (3).
Thompson argues against this by returning to the World Famous Violinist Scenario. She asks us to consider a situation in which it turns out that the person hooked up to the World Famous Violinist would save the WFV’s life but would die as a result of staying hooked up (6).
She points out that it is ethically permissible for someone in this situation to unhook themselves from the WFV, even if doing so directly kills the person. She points out that the right to life is only a right not to be killed unjustly, not a right to use anyone else’s body, especially if it kills the other person (6).
She thinks this scenario also disproves the argument that in the case of a woman’s life being endangered by carrying a child to term, we must let that women die, rather than aborting the child (6).
A Review and Recap
There are a variety of reasons why a woman might have an unwanted pregnancy. Acts of rape and incest are one of those reasons, and those cases deserve their own special examination. That is what this post has been about. Some, although certainly not all, opponents of abortion believe that it is unethical for a woman to get an abortion, even in cases of rape and incest.
Thomson asks us to consider in her article that forcing a woman to carry a pregnancy to term that is the result of rape or incest is ethically similar to forcing someone who is kidnapped and hooked up to a World Famous Violinist to stay hooked up to the violinist for nine months when they have not consented to such an act.
Thomson asks us to consider that forcing a kidnapped person to stay hooked up to the World Famous Violinist is unethical because it takes away people’s control of their own body (in essence, it enslaves their body) and treats them as a means to another person’s end, rather than being valuable in their own right. Treating someone as a means (as subordinate) to someone else’s end is unethical in all major ethical systems (as well as, I would argue, all religions including Christianity.)
Therefore, just as we believe it would be ethical for someone to unhook themselves from the violinist, Thomson suggests it is ethical for a woman to terminate a pregnancy that results from rape or incest.
One possible weakness to this part of Thomson’s Argument: It is important to note that the act of unhooking one’s self from a violinist is much different from the act of having an abortion. The former is much less violent than the latter. This does not negate Thomson’s point that forcing a woman to carry a pregnancy to term that is a result of rape and incest treats the woman as an object. It is, however, a point for further consideration.
A Strength of Thomson’s Argument: While Thomson doesn’t state this directly her article brings to our attention the fact that there is a difference between feeling grief over something happening and having an ethical justification for preventing it from happening. For example, someone might understandably feel a lot of grief over a woman having an abortion because of rape or incest. Nevertheless, because something is sad or tragic does not imply that there is ethical justification for preventing it from happening. As another example, someone might feel grief that a World Famous Violinist dies because someone hooked up to him on life support unhooked himself. This does not mean, however, that it was unethical for the person to unhook himself. Sometimes we equate the sadness of something with the impermissibility of something, which is a false equivalency. For instance, all instances of killing in self-defense are sad because death is sad. This does not, however, mean that all acts of killing in self-defense are unethical.
Another Strength: Many people recognize that it is ethically wrong to kidnap and force someone to stay hooked up to the World Famous Violinist or, for example, to force someone to donate their kidney to someone. Nevertheless, they will still believe that women should be forced to carry to term a pregnancy conceived as a result of rape or incest. Why this discrepancy? Although Thomson doesn’t discuss this specifically, her World Famous Violinist thought experiment invites us to consider that some of our views on abortion may be the result of people historically viewing women as primarily as child bearers, rather than as people valuable in themselves. Thus, some of our view on abortion may be governed by gender stereotypes, rather than clear, ethical reasoning. Gender stereotyping does seem to play a part in, for example, someone thinking it is ethically wrong to force a man to stay hooked up to a World Famous Violinist for nine months, but it is ethically permissible to force a woman to carry a pregnancy caused by rape or incest to term.
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Judith Jarvis Thomson. A Defense of Abortion. 1971. https://rintintin.colorado.edu/~vancecd/phil215/Thomson.pdf
 There are certainly people who believe killing is wrong in almost all circumstances—even in war and capital punishment. People who hold a pacifist position usually believe this. However, many pacifists also believe that it is right to defend one’s self, even if defending one’s self required that we kill another person. My point in this footnote is not to argue for or against pacifism. It is simply to indicate the range of beliefs people hold about ethical killing and to note that even many pacifists believe there are at least some situations in which killing is ethically justified.
 Philosophy (which is my discipline) aims to understand, among many things, what we can know from reason alone. Because of this, some philosophers use thought experiments, which are a type of fictional story (many of them have a sci-fi twist), to examine philosophical issues from a different, and hopefully illuminating, perspective. Sometimes we are so close to an issue, it is hard to think clearly about it. Thought experiments can sometimes help us gain objectivity.
 I am a Christian, and sometimes I have heard Christians make the argument about pregnancies occurring from rape and incest (or which threaten a woman’s life), “Well, God allowed the pregnancy to happen, and he can bring good things out of a bad situation.” This argument becomes absurd when taken to its logical conclusion. If it were true that a woman could not do anything about a pregnancy that occurred because of rape and incest because “God allowed it”, it would mean that we never had the ethical right to prevent or fight back against something unjust that happened to us because God allowed it. By this same reasoning, if a burglar entered your house and threatened your family, you shouldn’t do anything about it because “God allowed it” and could bring good things from it.
 I have recently heard people argue that very few abortions performed because of rape and incest or that it is almost impossible for a woman to become pregnant during rape. These objections, and their legitimacy, are not the particular focus of this post, and I will address them in a future one.