Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Reflecting on Judith Thomson's violinist analogy and the argument from bodily autonomy

A recent symposium at the University of Colorado commemorated the 40th anniversary of what may be the most famous essay in contemporary moral philosophy (so most people have never heard of it): Judith Jarvis Thomson's 1971 "A Defense of Abortion." The event included David Boonin, a defender of Thomson's approach who is among the best philosophical defenders of abortion today, and Francis Beckwith, a critic of Thomson's argument and a leading pro-life philosopher, as well as Don Marquis and John Martin Fischer. Beckwith shares some of his remarks from the discussion here.

The argument from bodily autonomy

Most thinkers have agreed that the permissibility of abortion depends upon the moral status of the unborn human being who is killed. Thomson pioneered a different approach, sometimes called the Good Samaritan argument or the sophisticated argument from bodily autonomy. She argues that abortion is morally permissible even if the unborn is a full-fledged, rights-bearing "person," like you and me. Why? Because a person's right to life, she says, does not entail a right to the use of someone else's body for life support.

Thomson offers this famous analogy:
You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an 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 is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it's only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you." Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it?
Thomson believes this example is relevantly analogous to an unwanted pregnancy. Because (she assumes) you are not morally required to remain connected to the violinist in Thomson's story, a pregnant woman is not required to let the unborn child remain connected to her. So "unplugging" the child is permissible.

Three points

I wish to make three points in response to this and other versions of the sophisticated bodily autonomy argument.

(1) Almost all instances of abortion are direct, intentional killing, often by dismemberment. This is a gaping hole in the violinist analogy. "Unplugging" and allowing a natural death as an unintended side effect is not the same as intentionally killing and tearing into pieces. Even if a pregnant woman has no special obligation to the unborn, the active, intentional killing of abortion is not permissible.

(2) A pregnant woman does have a special obligation to the unborn. First, the pregnant woman has consented to an activity naturally oriented toward procreation, and so she (along with the father) bears responsibility for the consequence of her action: the coming into existence of a new human being who is dependent and needy by nature. That's why, as many have noted, the violinist analogy only seems relevant when a woman has become pregnant as a result of rape (a circumstance that accounts for less than one percent of Minnesota abortions). (I contend that abortion in cases of rape is still clearly wrong, for the other reasons listed here.)

Second, parents have obligations to their dependent offspring that they do not have to strangers (such as the famous violinist). Consider that deadbeat fathers are required to pay child support, even if they never desired to be fathers. Consider that if I abandon and let starve to death my two-year-old daughter, I will go to prison -- it simply does not work to say that my daughter is not entitled to my care and resources. If (as Thomson concedes for the sake of her argument) the unborn is a valuable person, like a two-year old, then the same parental responsibility that applies after birth seems to apply before.

Third, an unborn human being belongs in her mother's womb. Her location and condition are the same as that of every human being at that stage of life. She is dependent by her very nature. That is, she is not artificially "hooked up" to another person, but is developing naturally toward maturity in the only place she can -- this is how human procreation necessarily works. It seems very plausible to say that the unborn human has a rightful claim to the womb in which she grows. As philosopher Stephen Schwarz puts it, a mother "does have an obligation ... to let her [unborn child] live in the only place where she can now be protected, nourished, and allowed to grow, namely the womb."

Fourth, more broadly, as Francis Beckwith explains:
Human beings are persons-in-community and have certain obligations, responsibilities, and entitlements as members of their community that arise from their roles as mother, father, child, sibling, citizen, neighbor, etc. These roles are informed by institutions and ways of life that arose over time to account for, among other things, one's proper relationship to others, which depends on a person's degree of development (i.e., whether or not one is a child or an adult), the geographical proximity of those with whom one shares a common life, and what we owe those who cannot care for themselves due to age or infirmity. This also includes one's responsibility for protecting and nurturing vulnerable and defenseless human beings who come into being as a result of one engaging in generative acts that have the intrinsic purpose of bringing such beings into existence.

Because of these institutions and ways of life -- that have existed for generations and do not require one's consent in order to have normative force -- we often find ourselves in a network of relationships in which we are called upon to love those who sometimes can offer us very little in exchange for the good we provide to them.
Patrick Lee and Robert George articulate a deeper basis for this understanding:
[W]e are by nature members of communities. Our moral goodness or character consists to a large extent (though not solely) in contributing to the communities of which we are members. We ought to act for our genuine good or flourishing (we take that as a basic ethical principle), but our flourishing involves being in communion with others. And communion with others of itself -- even if we find ourselves united with others because of a physical or social relationship which precedes our consent -- entails duties or responsibilities. Moreover, the contribution we are morally required to make to others will likely bring each of us some discomfort and pain. This is not to say that we should simply ignore our own good, for the sake of others. Rather, since what (and who) I am is in part constituted by various relationships with others, not all of which are initiated by my will, my genuine good includes the contributions I make to the relationships in which I participate. Thus, the life we constitute by our free choices should be in large part a life of mutual reciprocity with others.
For the above reasons, even in the extremely rare cases when an abortion is not intentional killing (see (1), above), abortion (causing the death of the child) is impermissible on account of our obligations toward unborn human beings. For such obligations must at the very least preclude causing a great harm to the child (death) in order to avoid a significantly lesser harm for oneself (the burdens of pregnancy, however great).

Defenders of the bodily autonomy argument often object that obligations must be voluntarily assumed. But the first reason given for my second point (namely, men and women freely choose to have sexual intercourse, which is procreative by nature) seems sufficient to ground responsibility for the resulting child. Moreover, it is clearly false that obligations are always voluntarily assumed. Judge John T. Noonan relates the story of a Minnesota court case that makes this point well:
On a January night in Minnesota, a cattle buyer, Orlando Depue, asked a family of farmers, the Flateaus, with whom he had dined, if he could remain overnight at their house. The Flateaus refused and, although Depue was sick and had fainted, put him out of the house into the cold night. Imposing liability on the Flateaus for Depue's loss of his frostbitten fingers, the court said: "In the case at bar defendants were under no contract obligation to minister to plaintiff in his distress; but humanity demanded they do so, if they understood and appreciated his condition. ... The law as well as humanity required that he not be exposed in his helpless condition to the merciless elements." ... The American Law Institute, generalizing, has said that it makes no difference whether the person is a guest or a trespasser. He has the privilege of staying. His host has the duty not to injure him or put him into an environment where he becomes nonviable. The obligation arises when one "understands and appreciates" the condition of the other.
Thus, we seem to have some obligations as members of a community to persons who are weak, vulnerable and defenseless -- even if we are not related to them and are not responsible for their existence. It is far from clear how expelling an unborn child from the womb (leading to death), like expelling Depue from the Flateaus' house, could be permissible even if there is no consent to gestating the child (such as when the woman is a victim of rape).

Finally, while mothers have unique responsibilities, it must be emphasized that fathers do as well. Lee and George write:
[The father's] duty does not involve as direct a bodily relationship with the child as the mother's [this is a function of biology], but it may be equally or even more burdensome. In certain circumstances, his obligation to care for the child (and the child's mother), and especially his obligation to provide financial support, may severely limit his freedom and even require months or, indeed, years, of extremely burdensome physical labor. Historically, many men have rightly seen that their basic responsibility to their family (and country) has entailed risking, and in many cases, losing, their lives. Different people in different circumstances, with different talents, will have different responsibilities. It is no argument against any of these responsibilities to point out their distinctness.
(3) Many thinkers have proposed thought experiments that are much more analogous to pregnancy and/or abortion than Thomson's violinist story (which simply fails to capture the nature of pregnancy). These analogies highlight some of the key points mentioned above in (1) and (2), demonstrating why abortion is impermissible. I recently ran across this (student?) paper (via Life Report) that offers two excellent analogies that strongly support the conclusion that abortion is a grave moral wrong. Other thought experiments and real-life examples reveal implications of Thomson's view that are clearly unacceptable. Indeed, it seems to me that the criticism of the argument from bodily autonomy is extensive, powerful and decisive.

Final thoughts

If the unborn is an intrinsically valuable, rights-bearing human being, like a two-year-old, then she is owed the same basic care and regard as that which is owed a two-year-old. The bodily autonomy approach fails. In fact, arguably, the unique circumstances of pregnancy (e.g., the utter neediness and dependency of the unborn child) -- which Thomson thinks make abortion a justifiable form of homicide -- work to make abortion morally worse than other forms of wrongful homicide.

For more, see this earlier post, in which I also discuss the argument from bodily autonomy, and posts here and here, which cover debates involving the bodily autonomy argument (David Boonin was a participant in both).

For lengthy critiques of Thomson's argument, see Christopher Kaczor's The Ethics of Abortion (Chapter 7), Patrick Lee's Abortion & Unborn Human Life (Chapter 4) and Beckwith's Defending Life (Chapter 7).

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