Challenge: Nobody Has the Right to Use My Body

Posted: February 22, 2011 by Amy Hall in Do the Right Thing, Weekly Challenge

Judith Jarvis Thomson developed the famous abortion-rights “Violinist” argument back in the ’70s. You’ve probably heard it in a form somewhat like this:

Even if the unborn is a human being, abortion should still be allowed because my rights trump the rights of the baby. I’m not obligated to maintain the life of another human being against my will. Look at the violinist example: If you were to be kidnapped and surgically connected to a famous violinist who could only stay alive if he remained attached to you, you wouldn’t be obligated to use your body to keep him alive. You would be justified in disconnecting him from yourself, though he’s a human being. In the same way, a pregnant woman is justified in disconnecting the unborn baby.

If a woman brought up this argument in conversation with you, how would you respond? Take your best shot, and Alan will be here on Thursday to tell you how he responds to this challenge.

  1. Adrian Urias says:

    its not your body you are killing.

    the baby inside of you is not a stranger, as in the violinist example. so it is not analogous. mother has a prima facie duty.

    your rights do not trump the rights of the baby. my right to travel wherever i want in this country stops at a red light with pedestrians crossing. i cant run them over and kill them. so your right to whatever liberty does not trump the fundamental right to life.

    baby is not an intruder, violinist is.

    babies natural environment is in the womb, the violinsit just doesnt belong there.

    its not just disconnecting someone, its actively killing them.

  2. Adrian Urias says:

    Also, I would ask the woman if she herself has had an abortion. If the some of the stats I’ve seen are true and she is under some kind of distress for having an abortion, I might try and find the guilt, and totally sidestep the abortion arguments.

    My ex girlfriend had an abortion, and when we talked about it, she really tried to justify it, and I kept knocking her arguments down. Then I kind of felt like I was wasting my time…well, maybe not wasting my time, but maybe just playing games with her…I told her, You know, I’ve heard every argument, and you aren’t going to win this. At this point, she broke down and started crying and said she knew it was a person and she had murdered someone and it was wrong. I felt kind of bad because as much as I read all the prolife material, I really wasnt ready to handle her giving in and crying. All the studying of arguments can make you a bit detached, you know? I might not want to argue this point in public because I don’t want to risk having a crying girl on my hands in a public setting. It may be fun to discuss this in a detatched place like this, but its all too real for some people.

    I’m just rambling now. My point is, in a situation like mine, I decided to just hit the guilt, because my ex girlfriend knew it was wrong, and I suspect many other people know as well.

  3. Albert says:

    I would say she could disconnect the violinist because it’s not a sax player. :O)

    Just kidding. Actually, Adrian hit the nail right on the head.

    What I would ask the lady is if the situation would change if the violinist was her own 8 year old child?

    So now, she is, as a parent, responsible for that child until an age where they can take care of themselves. Until then, parents are, by law, instructed to maintain the lives of their offspring.

    So now if we look at the unborn child, it would fit that location doesn’t negate her responsibilities as the parent of that child.

  4. Luke Nix says:

    It seems to me that the premise “you wouldn’t be obligated to use your body to keep him alive” needs to be supported before the argument can go any further.

    The violinist is a human being; you are a human being. What gives you more value than him, that would found your right to not be obligated?

    What if you were dependent upon the violinist’s body for your survival? Would the violinist possess more value than you, thus the right to end your life by intentionally disconnecting you from his?

    This boils down to a subjectivistic view of value, thus rights. If you determine that you possess more value than someone else, then you are afforded rights over their life. But that right is given to you by you. The other person involved can do the same, just the other way around. The philosophical implications of this argument is that if humans do, in fact, possess equal rights, it is self-defeating, thus not livable. If humanity does not possess equal human rights, is this not an appeal to the stronger ruling the weaker? Slavery, anyone?

  5. Adrian Urias says:

    Luke, I’m not sure that is an accurate representation of Thomson’s argument. What she is basically saying is that if one day you found some stranger hooked up to you after being kidnapped, do you have an OBLIGATION to keep this person alive? Thomson cedes that the fetus is a person with rights. She isn’t arguing that you have more worth or that the other party has less worth. It’s just that you have no moral obligation to keep this person alive. If you decided to unplug yourself, you wouldn’t be penalized because this person was intruding, and you have no moral obligation to this person. If, however, you decided to keep the baby, or violinist, that’s supererogatory, but not necessary. Thomson grants that they are of equal worth, but the mother has no moral obligation to keep the baby alive.

  6. Daniel Gruhn says:

    The purpose of Thomson’s argument is to show how even if you grant right to life there are situations where it is still ok to terminate the dependent person. And just to keep it in context, Thomson wrote this before Roe v Wade. But the biggest problem I have found with her argument is that if you accept it, you can really take it much further than just fetal abortions.

    The violinist example is intended to be analogous to impregnated rape victims. She makes several other odd analogies (variations of the violinist arg, an expanding child, and wind distributed seed people) to represent various other situations the sum total of which are suppose to show how it does not seem reasonable to demand a woman have a duty to an inward person. If you haven’t read her paper, it is interesting.

    But like I said, if you accept her conclusion then I see no reason why you should not also accept post birth abortions and other kinds forced “euthanasia” acts. Use of her argument removes any duty towards any dependent regardless of age. And this removal of duty I find to be disturbing.

  7. Luke Nix says:

    Adrian, my mind is thinking that obligation (presence of or lack of) is based on value. If a human life is valuable, then what would allow for someone of equal value to NOT be obligated to preserve the life (the right to avoid this obligation)?

  8. Daniel Gruhn says:,Fall02/thomson.htm

    I just skimmed the article that I linked in the above, it should be the complete version of Thomson’s arguments; for those interested in reading the full version. Note my above complaint with her arguments though, she tries to address them at the bottom but I think my complaints still hold. I see no reason why a new born or toddler should be viewed as any less of a nuisance/undue burden than a fetus for they require more effort to maintain.

    I don’t actually think children/our future should be seen as nuisances/burdens.

  9. Dawn says:

    The first thing I would need is some more information from the person making these claims. Like this one: “my rights trump the rights of the baby.” I would like to know what rights are being referred to. It is entirely possible she is claiming some rights for herself that are not legitimate. If she is talking about the right to life, (as in the mother’s life is in real jeopardy) then this may be true in a certain sense that the mother’s right to life trumps the baby’s right to life. But I suspect that is not the right that is being referred to.

    There also seems to be some dancing around the fact that we are responsible for the consequences of our actions. This statement “I’m not obligated to maintain the life of another human being against my will” could only make any sense if the pregnant woman was raped. As in, she did not engage in the sexual act willingly. But even if we granted it as true, this would still eliminate 99.5% of all abortions. But most women who have abortions did engage willingly in behavior that is known to produce children. The use of birth control is not a guarantee that pregnancy will not result.

    The way this violinist argument seems to be used in the above quote fails, because the unborn child is not an intruder that was implanted into a woman’s womb. It was created there. The point being that the womb is an unborn child’s natural environment.

    It seems to me that a more accurate analogy, when it comes to the obligation issue, would be someone who walks up to a baby making machine and presses the on button. It seems obvious that the individual who does this would have obligations to the life that is created as a result.

  10. It’s sad that it’s against your will to nurture rather than kill your baby. What kind of rights do family members have toward each other? Ephesians 5:25, NLT: For husbands, this means love your wives, just as Christ loved the church. He gave up his life for her.

  11. Lisa Hoffman says:

    Dear Judy, though your essay follows the rules of logic, the scenario you describe is highly improbable. There are many more essays that justify the right to life that are also logical, yet they did not need to introduce bizarre and far fetched scenarios as analogies.

    ps- Stop blaming the baby. It’s not like he or she had any control over being put in the womb.

    Having never taken any formal logic courses, my response probably stinks, but it’s my $0.02. The more unrealistic the analogy, the less reasonable the argument is in my book.

  12. This specific objection may work for victims of rape, but what about conception by voluntary intercourse (I know Thomson’s paper handles that as well, but I’m just addressing this issue now)? The analogy doesn’t work for that. I don’t have a lot of knowledge on how the unborn are aborted, but from the methods I’ve heard they’re not just “letting the baby die”, they’re actively disposing of the baby.

  13. yakamoz says:

    “ps- Stop blaming the baby. It’s not like he or she had any control over being put in the womb.”

    If we’re going to pretend it’s a person, then yes, it actually did have control. A zygote connects itself to my uterus – usually one to two weeks after sexytime, mind you. And it injects various chemicals (that put my life at risk in many ways) into my body so that my body won’t reject it. And then on top of all that, it eats my dinner. That’s just rude.

    If it’s a person equal to me, it doesn’t get any special bonus rights to hook itself up to my body and inject me with dangerous chemicals.

    • Amy Hall says:

      I have to admit, your lack of a sense of duty towards your children is a little unnerving, and probably pretty unusual. Most women would gladly give their dinner to provide for their children. And most would give much more than that.

  14. yakamoz says:

    Also 90% of the time we’re not talking about anything remotely close to a baby. We’re talking about the pharyngula stage, when it’s still really difficult even for embryologists to differentiate an embryo from a tumor (it happens).

    Sometimes embryos even attach themselves to their twins, causing fetus in fetu. Does the second embryo have a ‘prima facie’ responsbility to let the fetus in fetu live off of it for … uh well forever? It’s a life, right, even if it may not have ever develop a head?

  15. Lisa Hoffman says:

    Yes, you are correct, that zygote is indeed a fellow human being.

    So the baby at the zygote stage utilizes his or her critical thinking skills (because to be able to exert control over a given situation, you would need to reason) and decides on their own free will that they want to survive, therefore they will selfishly implant in the womb of the mother? Just like they decided to bring male and female together to mix the sperm and the egg and create themselves?

    I’m sorry you jeopardized your mother’s life by implanting your dangerous toxins into her womb. I apologized to my own mother for putting her very existence at stake, but she said no worries- she’d give her life for her children in a heartbeat.

    I tried to explain to her the process of implantation and the enzymes the baby secretes in order to try to “have it’s own way” with a woman’s body. She pointed out that if this were the case, then explain the mother’s selfishness in excreting estrogen and progesterone, which keeps the uterus hospitable for the implantation and survival of the baby until the placenta is established.

    The baby secretes chemicals to survive, but mom’s hormones build a whole nursery for the baby. Engineering at it’s finest.

  16. * Every life has the same value: if we do not accept this, we have to face the utilitarian paradox.
    * Murder is defined as the intentional taking of human life. There are no exceptions.
    * The canonical point in time where an bunch of cells begins to be a human being is conception, as from that point on it is genetically complete and starting a journey that will end with an adult, unless anybody or anything interferes.
    * If you accept “You shall not kill”, that includes violinists. 😉
    * The alternative of raising the baby in the mother’s womb is intentionally taking his or her life, but that would be murder, because it is a full human being, and every life has the same value.
    * Giving young mothers-to-be (or not) a sense of shame kills babies.
    * Only if compassion is shown to mothers who decide against abortion, and financial aid is provided to them can abortion die out.