Abortion Judith Jarvis Thomson Agrees Philosophy Essay
In her ingenious abortion analogy – "The Plugged-in Violinist" - Thomson argues that it would be completely outrageous if women did not have the right to abortion.
"You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with and unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has 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 now is plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it's only nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you."... What if it were not nine months but nine years? Or still longer? What if the director of the hospital says, "tough luck, I agree, but you've now got to stay in bad, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life...because... all persons have a right to life... a person's right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him." I
imagine that you would regard this as outrageous." - Thomson, Judith Jarvis. The Problem of
Abortion 2nd Ed: A Defence of Abortion, 174-175. Belmont, CA: wadsworth. 1984.. Print.
Would one be morally obliged to stay plugged in, in order to prolong the violinist's (fetus's) life? To answer this question above, we must look further into whether or not the unconscious violinist (early stage fetus) is a person.
If one looks only at actual characteristics of an early human fetus rather than also considering its potential characteristics, "some opponents of abortion," as Peter Singer clarifies, "will admit, the fetus compares unfavorably with many nonhuman animals." Furthermore, Patrick Lee. Robert George agree that that, " it is when we consider it potential to become a mature human being, they will say, that membership of the species homo sapiens becomes important, and the importance of the life of the fetus far surpasses that of any chicken, pig or calf" (138).
According to Clifford Grobstein, in Patricia Donovan's: When Does Personhood Begin?, persons are part biological and part something else. He states that, "Biological criteria are not enough to define personhood. Being a person involves subjective awareness, including personality, a sense of self and consciousness" (41-42). Furthermore, he adds that, " … as the central nervous system matures, behavior begins." Behavioral experts as Grobstein claims, often consider that the unborn (midway into the third trimester), are possibly at the stage where consciousness and subjective awareness is developed. If we were to agree that the fetus at the third trimester is in fact a person, the fetus would then indirectly adopt certain rights to life identical to that of a postnatal person. In addition, Lee and George state that, "... you can only do wrong if you wrong an existing individual" (144), which means that, if persons are individuals, and fetuses (at a certain stage of development) are persons, it is morally wrong to wrong a fetus since it is an existing individual. In other words as Peter
Singer says, "Once the fetus is sufficiently developed to be conscious... abortion should not be taken lightly" (136).
Regarding the counter argument of rape (the "kidnapping" in her analogy), one has to consider that, the abortion is done before the fetus reaches the stage of consciousness and subjective awareness – "personhood", according to Grobstein. As Singer suggests, "the earliest time a fetus can feel pain...
considering the point at which the brain is physically capable of receiving signals necessary for awareness" (137) is roughly 18 weeks into the pregnancy. The use of abortion at or after this stage
according to Singer and Grobstein would be regarded as morally wrong since it inflicts pain and violates the prenatal person's right to life. Consequently, so as long as the unconscious violinist remains unconscious, it is not right nor wrong, rather accepted for one to opt out of being plugged since at that point he lacks the characteristics of personhood and the ability to feel pain. On the contrary, a utilitarian may argue that keeping him alive outweighs disconnecting him. It would result in two people being alive rather than one and also boost his chances of regaining his biographical life which would consequently promote the pleasures of the Society of Music Lovers.
James Rachels differentiates between "having a life and merely being alive." He points out that, "being alive, in the biological sense, is relatively unimportant" (5). In contrast, a biographical life – "...the sum of one's aspirations, decisions, activities, projects, and human relationships" - is valuable and important. The violinist at his current unconscious state, similarly parallels with Rachels' "Hans Florian" scenario.
"Consider the recent case of Hans Florian and his wife. They had been married for thirty-three years when he shot her dead. She was a victim of Alzheimer's disease, which attacks the brain,
and for which there is no known cause or cure. The effects of the disease are devastating. The deterioration of the brain can be traced through several stages, as the victim loses all semblance of human personality. Soon after the onset of the disease, Mrs Florian began to lose the ability to do simple chores and, at the same time, began to develop abnormal fears. She could not
drive or write, and would panic when her husband would leave the room. As the disease progressed, he would have to feed her by forcing her mouth open, and he would bathe her and change her clothes several times each day as she soiled them. Then her vocabulary shrank to
two words: 'fire' and 'pain', screamed in her native German. Finally, she had to be placed in a
nursing home for her own safety. Although her condition was irreversible, it was not
'terminal'--she could have lived on, in this deranged state, indefinitely." - Rachels, James. The End of Life: Euthanasia and Morality, 2-3. Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press. 1986. Web. 02,22,2013.
The fact that Mrs. Florian was still alive, Rachels would say, is insignificant since respiration, circulation and breathing are only signs of biological life. In the case of the violinist, he is struck unconscious and therefore only living a biological life strictly dependent on the person he is plugged in to. In the context deciding between life or death, Rachels asks, " Is a life, in the biographical sense, being destroyed or otherwise adversely affected" (5)? He answers this by stating that, "some unfortunate humans, such as Mrs Florian, do not have lives, even though they are alive; and so killing them is a morally different matter." He announces that, "Mr. Florian was not destroying her life; it had already been destroyed by Alzheimer's disease", hence he was not behaving immorally (6). In other words, while the violinist remains unconscious and lacking characteristic of personhood and continuation of a biographical life, unplugging oneself from him wouldn't be regarded as behaving
immorally. However at the moment where the violinist regains these characteristics of personhood, the potential outcome to resume his biographical life is very likely and therefore should not be interfered with. Thus, as long as we agree that a fetus is a human person at the point where it gains characteristics of personhood, the potential that it will gain a biographical life in due time would mean that abortion at or after this point is morally wrong. Consider what would happen in the scenario where a fetus reaches
this point, but the carrier falls terminally ill and is bound by life support.
According to Section 287: Subsection 1 and 2, in the Canadian Criminal Code, anyone including oneself is liable to imprisonment for life if they intend to procure a miscarriage.
"Every one who, with intent to procure the miscarriage of a female person, whether or not she is pregnant, uses any means for the purpose of carrying out his intention is guilty of an
indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for life." - Canada. Canadian Criminal Code: Section 287, formerly Section 251: Subsections 1 and 2. Supreme Court of Canada. 01,28,1988. Web. 03,09,2013.
It follows that, exceptions are only made to those who are qualified medical practitioners. They must, "in good faith (or by consent of the carrier) use in an accredited or approved hospital, any means for the purpose of carrying out his intention to procure the miscarriage of the female person" (S.287, S.s. 4). Not forgetting that we agreed that a fetus at a certain point is accepted as a human person, procuring a miscarriage at that point (even by the legal means above) would still be morally wrong since (as stated before) it is an existing individual. Hence, if abortion is wrong, then any action taken by the qualified medical practitioner that results in killing the fetus (as a byproduct) would also be wrong. As Rachels and Singer would acquiesce, one is left with the need to prolong the pregnant and terminally ill
patient's suffering, disregarding the use of any form of euthanasia since its byproduct is killing the developing prenatal person which would put an end to the idea of a potential biographical life – according to Lee and George, "a potential rational being" (144).
"...the relevance of the potential of the human fetus and that this potential is important, not because it creates in the fetus a right or claim to life, but because any-one who kills a human fetus deprives the world of a future rational and self-conscious being. If rational and self-
conscious beings are intrinsically valuable in a way that other conscious beings are not, to kill a
human fetus is to deprive the world of something with special intrinsic value, and therefore wrong." - Singer, Peter. Practical Ethics, 139. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979. Print. 02, 27, 2013.
However Singer also claims that, "...beings of especially high intrinsic value cannot serve as a reason for objecting to all abortions..." (139). He supports this claim with a Himalayan mountain-climbing scenario.
"Suppose, a woman has been looking forward to joining a Himalayan mountain-climbing expedition in June – climbing being one of her passions and this expedition being a rare opportunity to climb in a region new to her – but in January she learns that she is two months pregnant. She and her partner have often discussed the kind of family they want to have, and they both want to have two children sometime within the next five years. This pregnancy is unwanted only because the timing is so bad." - Singer, Peter. Practical Ethics, 139. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979. Print. 02, 27, 2013.
Seeing that, a two month fetus is at or after either points in development (18 weeks or midway through the third trimester) where it would start developing subjective awareness, consciousness and the ability to feel, abortion due to bad timing in this case, would be valid to the same degree as to unplugging oneself from the unconscious violinist.
As we see now, giving women an absolute right to choose what happens to their own bodies may challenge other rights. Although valid in certain cases, Thomson's analogy must build on more conditions since prenatal humans can be regarded as persons at a certain stage of development and thus, killing them at or after this stage would be morally wrong since it violates a persons right-to-life.