“A Defense of Abortion”
By Dave Andrusko
I’d like to take a few minutes to discuss “Thomson’s ‘Defense of Abortion’” for reasons I hope you find interesting.
The author of the piece is Prof. Francis Beckwith and the “Thomson” he refers to is philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson. In 1971 Thomson published a piece that Beckwith describes as “perhaps the most famous and widely republished article in contemporary moral philosophy.” That is no exaggeration.
For pro-lifers of a certain age—that would include old-timers like me—reading and rebutting Thomson’s defense of abortion took up more time than I care to remember. Prof. Beckwith aptly summarizes her famous violinist analogy.
“You are asked to imagine that you have been kidnapped and rendered unconscious by a vigilante gang of classical music aficionados who have surgically connected you to an unconscious violinist for whom you are alone anatomically suited to be his organic dialysis machine until he fully recovers nine months later. You awake and are told that the violinist will die if you unplug yourself from him. Thomson argues that even though the violinist has a right to life, you nevertheless have a right to unplug yourself from him.”
I bring up Thomson’s “A defense of abortion” for two reasons. I am not suggesting that there are not esoteric debates today—the rough equivalent of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin—but back in those days pro-abortionists developed an entire cottage industry grinding out wild analogies to defend abortion.
Thomson was particularly effective because she seemed to simultaneously accept that the unborn is a living human being (or “person”) who still can be killed because (as Beckwith summarized her point) “no one, including a fetus, has a right to use another’s body against her will.”
Second, besides establishing the importance of vowing never to get off on rabbit trails (like Thomson’s), there were nonetheless some exceptionally helpful comments that showed up in response online.
One gentleman in particular pointed out the many weaknesses in Thomson’s analogy. To just name a few, his wife, like mine, was perfectly capable of working up until a couple of days before she delivered. She was not inert, like the violinist, let alone “a living dialysis machine.” The power of the analogy is not its rigor, it is the distasteful imagery—which bears no resemblance to a real-life pregnancy—which serves the purpose of shutting off further thought.
And, as the writer points out, let’s make it more like abortion. “Imagine …in order to separate from the violinist one had to dismember him or her while she begged for mercy or screamed in pain; it’s not obvious to me that one has a moral right to do this. Especially given that the violinist will be separated naturally after 9 months, and you will hardly know he is there for the first couple of months.”
Thomson’s specious analogy, although four decades old, is helpful because it reminds us to keep our eyes always focused on the true nature of the unborn child, his/her natural developmental journey, and not to be swayed by arguments that reduce the child to baggage.
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