“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 now is 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.”
I have presented to you here Judith Thomson’s famous ‘defence of abortion,’ published in the Journal of Philosophy and Public Affairs in 1971, two years before the landmark Roe v. Wade decision which legalised abortion across the United States.
Accepting the fact that the unborn is a living, distinct human being to that of the mother (and for the record, the science is settled on that matter), Thomson created this thought experiment to justify the practice of abortion on the grounds of defending private property rights. After all, killing is justified in certain circumstances, particularly in self-defence – which is the case in this scenario – as Thomson argues that the violinist (foetus) is a mere parasite because it is stealing the resources of the host to whom they are attached.
A compelling case – at first. It quickly becomes clear that, under closer inspection, the violinist’s strings begin to bend considerably, only to break entirely once the scenario undergoes a full cross-examination.
The violinist analogy can be compared to when detectives, who have a severe case of confirmation bias, uncover a shred of faulty evidence at the scene of the crime, whilst neglecting to examine the whole area where more concrete evidence is waiting patiently to be found.
This tunnel-vision focus on solving the case leads to the conviction of the innocent, causing a huge perversion of justice (and yes – I’ve just given the analogy, an analogy). The violinist analogy is guilty as charged on this; it looks at one part of the process, one point on a timetable and concludes (incorrectly) that the foetus is nothing but a criminal. To dismiss the violinist analogy, it is vital to touch upon the law of causation – a function of the legal system utilised to determine guilt.
The law of causation operates under the ‘but-for’ test; the defendant would be liable for damages/injuries sustained by the claimant (victim) only if the defendant was the one responsible for causing them. This is decided on a case by case basis – I’m not going to bore you with legal precedence (I left that behind in A-Level Law).
Under this premise, if the violinist analogy was to surface in the real world, the intended host would be justified in withholding their body/resources to assist the violinist, unless their past actions resulted in the violinist needing that type of care in the first place, which they didn’t in the analogy as the violinist would die of natural causes via ‘the fatal kidney ailment.’ Thomson ignores this vital element, thereby ensuring that no accurate comparison between the violinist analogy and real-life pregnancy can be made (barring in cases of rape – a topic which will be covered in a future article).
Actions come at a price which individuals must take responsibility for, primarily because actions cannot be separated from consequences.
For example, one simultaneously cannot overspend and avoid the consequence of going broke. As your parents always told you; actions have consequences. Taking all of this into account, the (almost always) voluntary actions of the mother and father in engaging in sexual intercourse resulted in the foetus being brought into existence.
In addition, from pregnancy to adulthood, both inside the womb as well as after it is born, the child is in a vulnerable state which naturally places the parents under a duty of care, as their children are dependent on them for survival. Therefore, parents are prosecuted with the full force of the law if they neglect their children. This is also why absent fathers must pay child maintenance in the UK, as a part of this responsibility to their children.
Alternatively, couples who adopt children assume this duty of care, taking full responsibility for the well-being of the children. In turn, once conception occurs, there is only one way for the unborn child to develop, which entails living inside the mother’s womb and so, if a crime has been committed – as Thomson explicitly suggests – then the mother would be paying reparations to the child (in the form of carrying it to term) for placing it in that state in the first place. It is not the case of the child successfully invading and occupying its mother’s womb. Perhaps the only solid comparison between the violinist analogy and pregnancy that exists is that there was only one method for the violinist to be healed.
Photo from James McNellis on Wikimedia.