Our church just finished its prolife persuasion class wherein we spent a month discussing how to courageously articulate the prolife position, poke holes in the prochoice view, and defend life from the womb to the tomb in our individual spheres of influence. We believe in light of the best that philosophy, science, morality, and religion have to offer that all life is worth defending and protecting. Being human gives someone limitless value, worth, and dignity and to discriminate against innocent children in the womb is morally wrong. Philosopher and apologist Nancy Pearcey writes
The pro-choice position is exclusive. It says that some people don’t measure up, don’t make the cut. They don’t qualify for the rights of personhood. By contrast, the pro-life position is inclusive. If you are a member of the human race, you’re in. You have the dignity and status of a full member of the moral community.
All life is precious and ought to be defended simply because they’re a part of the human community. If what is in the womb is human (and we know he or she is), that is enough.
In the last post, we began discussing the problems with the first bodily autonomy argument for the prochoice position. “It is a woman’s right to choose to do whatever with her body she so desires.” We found that position to be simply lacking in such a way to support the wholesale destruction of innocent human beings in the womb. The second bodily argument is what is called the “right to refuse” argument. This argument has more scholarly debate and can be very off-setting to prolife defenders. Prochoice advocate and philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson popularized this argument with a famous analogy about a world-renown violinist. She writes
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.
Thompson’s analogy aims at showing that even though the fetus is a human, that does not mean it has a right to infringe upon the woman’s body. The argument essentially comes down to a person does not have a right to another’s resources even if those resources preserve life. Just as you do not have to stay hooked up to the violinist, a mother can refuse resources to the baby within her womb. What could be said to such an interesting argument for bodily autonomy?
The first response to this argument is to point out the dissimilarity between what is being compared. An analogy is only has helpful as the two things being compared. If they are too dissimilar, the analogy doesn’t work. Most people would grant that you do not have to stay hooked to the violinist. But, pregnancy is a completely different type of relationship. A mother to child relationship is somewhat more organic, natural, and binding than being hooked to a violinist you’ve never met. Greg Koukl aptly asks
What if the mother woke to find herself surgically connected to her own child? What kind of mother would willingly cut the life-support system to her two-year-old in a situation like that? And what would we think of her if she did?
The relationship between a mother and her child is of a different caliber and too dissimilar to Mrs. Thomson’s analogy. Francis Beckwith writes, “Never has something so human, so natural, so beautiful, and so wonderfully demanding of our human creativity and love been reduced to such a brutal caricature.”
The second response is the admission and common sense notion that the child is not an intruder breaking in and being hooked to your body or a parasite. The child is precisely where he or she belongs. If the child does not belong hooked to its mother, where in the world does it belong? Unlike the intrusive violinist, the child is a human being completely dependent upon the mother at this stage of development. It is in its natural environment through no fault of its own. That is not the case with the violinist.
The third response concerns the slight of hand concerning what is happening to the violinist and what actually occurs in abortion. In the analogy, the violinist would be unplugged from the person and lack something. The person pulling the IV out is simply refusing a life-saving service. The problem with this analogy is again the dissimilarity to abortion. When an abortion occurs, it isn’t merely a matter of refusing a service. It is the killing of a child through poisoning, dismemberment, crushing, or some other heinous method. It is more gruesome than withholding support. If the analogy between abortion and the musician was truly accurate, after the person unhooked the violinist, they and the Society of Music Lovers would then begin hacking him to pieces, slipping him hemlock, or sticking medical instruments through his body. That’s a little more accurate to what’s happening when a child is aborted. Furthermore, in the analogy, you simply unhook yourself and go on your way. In an abortion, a woman typically needs help to intentionally take the life of the unborn.
The fourth response with the analogy is the nature of pregnancy and how the baby came to be. Scott Klusendorf notes
Barring the case of rape, a woman cannot claim that she bears no responsibility for the pregnancy in the same way she bears no responsibility for the violinist. Merely going to bed at night does not naturally cause anyone to wake up attached to a total stranger. However, when a couple engages in sexual intercourse, they engage in the only possible activity that naturally leads to the formation of a child.
When two adults agree to copulate, they are assenting to the possible and natural outcome of such an act, a pregnancy. A violinist being hooked to you while sleeping does is not always in the realm of possibility when one lays their head of the pillow each night.
The fifth response concerns the implicit assumption made about pregnancy. In the analogy, the person connected to the violinist is virtually and physically stuck for nine months. They are basically in a prison cell despite doing nothing wrong. Is pregnancy analogous to this situation? Is a woman imprisoned by being pregnant? This is doubtful. Can a pregnancy be uncomfortable, inconvenient, and difficult? Absolutely. But it is reasonable for a just society to expect adults to live with some discomfort, difficulty, and inconveniences if doing so affords someone with the right to life and all the benefits that come with it. Pregnancy isn’t a prison sentence so we shouldn’t give a child the death penalty. The harm caused (death of a child) is not equal to the harms avoided (difficulties of pregnancy). We should expect more from people.
The sixth response is the point that this argument if consistently applied could lead to some ghastly other ends. Why would this not apply to a toddler that is dependent upon its mother’s breast milk for its life? Can a mother refuse the milk because her baby does not have a right to her resources? What about elderly parents? Can we take them out to the forest and leave them out to roam until exhaustion and deprivation take their toll? We have obligations to our children and our parents even if we don’t volunteer or want them. We cannot abdicate our responsibilities just because they are difficult, uncomfortable, or even physically taxing. We are talking about the difference between a mother’s lifestyle and the child’s life. Most thoughtful individuals recognize we have a duty to our children and their well-being over our wants and wishes.
The seventh response concerns the legal issues associated with parenthood and obligations. The fact that there is such a thing as tort law should suffice to show most people agree have an ethical obligation to help others if doing so could lead to harm. If something I do or fail to do leads to someone else’s harm, I could be on the hook before the law. Furthermore, Thomson’s argument ignores family law. Philosopher Francis Beckwith notes,”Thomson’s argument is inconsistent with the body of well-established family law, which presupposes parental responsibility of a child’s welfare.” Child-protection laws assume parents are held accountable for negligence and abuse. Parents can be found guilty before the law for depriving their children of life-saving medical treatments. These two strands of law are relevant to “right to refuse” argument.
The eighth response concerns the moral vision undergirding these situations. In both cases whether it is the violinist or the baby within the womb, they are treated as means to an end for the sake of those in power. This is problematic because human beings are subjects, not objects. They are ends in and of themselves. Furthermore, no one denies the claim to ownership of one’s own body. Yet that claim of ownership is a feeble excuse to kill another. People may disagree with the notion that you ought to go above and beyond to preserve life and help another even if it may cause great cost to yourself but most agree that we all have a moral duty not to kill innocent people. This is less about being a good Samaritan and more about just being a basic, good human being period.
This may all seem heady and unnecessary but we do well to answer stuff like the “right to refuse” argument at length, especially since such high-minded and tedious arguments are used for justifying killing innocent children. While Judith Jarvis Thomson’s argument does a good job of initially moving us and playing on our most basic moral intuitions, it is too dissimilar to an abortion and the situation of pregnancy. It appears compelling, but the cost of accepting it is just too high. Thomson’s argument is still considered one of the most powerful prochoice arguments and holds an almost mythical status within this debate. I find that her violinist needs a few more lessons.