A violinist-type argument that applies to consensual sex

One of the most famous papers in the ethics of abortion is Thomson’s ‘A Defense of Abortion‘, primarily because of the violinist analogy. Through it, Thomson hopes to show that, even if we grand the fetus is a person from the moment of conception, abortion remains morally permissible. The key passage:

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? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says. “Tough luck. I agree. but now you’ve got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but 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 you would regard this as outrageous, which suggests that something really is wrong with that plausible-sounding argument I mentioned a moment ago.

This experiment (and others like it) have spawned hundreds of papers trying to analogize and counter-analogize exactly the right situation for pregnancy, to conclude what duties the woman has towards the fetus.

One of the more common complaints (at least in the blogosphere) is that this would only ‘cover’ pregnancies through rape. After all, in this case the woman found herself hooked up to the violinist without he knowledge (and, let’s assume, against her will if they asked her). For most pregnancies, however, the woman has consented to sex with at least the knowledge that there is a possibility or risk she would become pregnant. So surely in those cases she does have a duty to support the fetus, and so she falls short of minimal decency if she withdraws her bodily services to the fetus via abortion? Continue reading “A violinist-type argument that applies to consensual sex”