A Defence of Abortion


Judith Jarvis Thomson has argued that pregnancies resulting from a rape or where the life of the mother is in danger should be terminated on moral grounds. In ‘A Defence of Abortion’ she begins by conceding that an unborn baby is indeed a person – the argument offered most often by those opposed to abortion – on biological grounds. She does not accept that a foetus is a person from the moment of conception, but proposes to concede this anyway. Her next move is to offer the following thought experiment.

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 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 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 dsafely be unplugged from you.’ Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice if you did, a great kindness. But do you still 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.

Thomson argues that in no way are we obliged to keep the violinist attached to us despite the fact that they are a person, although it would be “a great kindness” to do so. The idea is that the anti-abortionist is arguing for just such an imposition. She also argues that abortion is morally preferable to actively kill a foetus should a (potential) mother be in a position where her life is threatened.

As Thomson notes at the end of the paper, it could be argued that the mother’s responsibility to the child is entirely different to that of the kidnap victim to the violinist. Her response is to suggest that no special responsibility exists to a child that is conceived despite every precaution. She maintains that a very early abortion need not involve killing a person, that not all abortions are justified, and that abortion should be a choice that is always offered in some situations.

Judith Jarvis Thomson, “A Defence of Abortion” Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 1, no. 1 (Fall 1971).

An online copy of the paper is available here.


1. Do you agree with Thomson that it would be outrageous for the doctor to insist that you remained plugged in to the violinist for the rest of your life? If you agree, does this mean that you think that the right to decide what happens in and to your body sometimes does outweigh the right to life? If so, does it follow that a woman has a right to abort a foetus whether or not it has a right to life?

2. What is the distinction Thomson draws between something that it would be nice or noble to do and something that you have to do? Is this a safe distinction? What other examples might it be used in? Does it apply to abortion?

3. Imagine that a mother, finding her burden of care too great, kills her young child. This action is different from other sorts of murder, for not only does the woman in question fail to respect the child’s right to life, but also fails in her special duty (as a parent) to care for her child. But should such a duty only begin when a child is born? Why? If not, surely it follows that abortion is a violation of parental duty.


9 Responses to “A Defence of Abortion”

  1. #1 – The violinist would be dead in short order, the doctor only slightly later.

    #2 – The distinction is between choice and obligation. We have the choice to act, but not when an obligation has been placed on us. Under obligation there is no choice of action. From a moral perspective, is it a “Good Act” if you had no choice in doing it?

    #3 – I contest the validity of the premise. There is no difference in a mother killing her child than in killing anyone else. Murder is murder.

  2. 2 Jazmin

    Can you really class an abortion as murder when its only reason is to preserve life? The mother may have other children to look after, what would happen then, only that the children who are already in existence will have no mother! again what if the child that would be born, be so deformed that they have no quality of life, I feel that to call abortion murder, is to be judgemental with no facts.

  3. 3 Collette

    By using the famous violinist example Thomson is assuming that we understand that the violinist is a metaphor for an unborn child. Thus by her stating this, she is admitting to two things. 1. This ‘person’ is a person. By stating that this is a famous violinist she is admitting that this person, or baby, is actually a person which would seem obvious but is in fact a huge issue. Thomson, like many other pro choice advocates, do not believe that a baby inside of the womb is a baby so Thomson is in fact admitting that by unplugging oneself from this famous violinist is actually killing a person. Hence, she is accepting that “unplugging oneself” or choosing to get an abortion is killing a person. 2. Why does she make this violinist famous? We as society think of famous people being those in which we all think are important or those who help others and make us want to be around them. Thus by making this person famous in her example Thomson is implying that every baby is in fact important. So what is she actually trying to say? She’s trying to argue for abortion but her own argument is voiding her argument! It is amazing how easy it is to persuade people to think something because of their unwillingness to research and think it through.

  4. 4 Matthew

    Thomson makes it clear that the foetus is to be accepted as a person but denies that termination is a violation of a right to life. I think the violinist is famous to place greater pressure on the person to remain connected as is the case with a pregnant women.

  5. 5 Garret

    This is certainly a difficult issue. You have two rights here, the right of the mother and the right of the baby.
    The philosophical method I use to determine orders of right here would have to be that the mother is an actual life, the baby is potential. Actuality should have precedence over potential.
    It is not a thing that should be taken lightly. Destruction of potential human life has serious moral consequences. But I have a problem ruling against the wishes of the actual…however, we put limits on the decision- i.e. no abortions after three months.
    I find the example here(the violinist) rather laboured.

  6. 6 Deb

    Obviously some of those Pro Choice Advocates have never been pregnant, intentional or not, ergo they have some pre conceived notion that a fetus is not a person and does not sustain a “life”. Our cells are all alive, a females egg is a part of her living system as is the male sperm. When the two live objects per chance do meet whether it be due to consentual meeting or “I was so drunk I had no idea I was in bed with a violinist” and incidentally conceive, then life springs from life, I suspect. Certainly two dead inanimate objects aren’t going to wiggle their way towards each other if there’s no life energy therein….An egg and a sperm are alive. When they meet and fertilize, they produce a life. That life is called an embryo for three months when it becomes a fetus. That fetus developed a heartbeat at the moment of conception which means if it’s heart is beating, it must be alive……Ergo, as it grows within it’s mothers uterus, it is alive…that’s why the physicians call it “feeling life “at about 4 months…or movement of said fetus, which does, by the way, roll and tumble, kick and poke, jab and bulge and punch. What moron among you would dare say that something that is moving about of its’ own volition inside you causing you to feel it’s movements, is not life ? When you dispose of a life….there’s that word again…L I F E……then you take it’s life away….which is to kill it, cancel it, finish it, slay, zap, put an end to, put to sleep, etc….then it’s dead. If it happens to be a human being, which babies are….then you’ve KILLED it which is also called MURDER, HOMICIDE, LIQUIDATION, etc…..Plain and simply put Abortion is the intentional killing of an embryo or fetus…allowed to arrive where it is for whatever reason……Rape, Incest, Drunken stupor ? Here’s an idea !!!Give birth to it and place the child up for adoption. Some preganancies are wanted others are not. With a drug store on every corner, there’s no reason why anybody this day and time should EVER have to have a pregnancy unless they want one. Of course, those cute young ladies with their sexuality hanging out that calls to every available male in town are most likely going to blame someone for being raped or induced into a drunken stupor so that they have no earthly idea what’s happened to them anyway. Destiny is in our hands at times. People who use abortion as birth control have no idea what life is. They need to get one.

  7. Deb – It doesn’t seem as if things moving of their own ‘volition’ is an adequate criterion for life. Magnetism and chemical attraction also effect this kind of action. Perhaps someone with a better knowledge of these things than my own could clarify this. In any case, no-one is disputing that a foetus is alive – that’s the whole point of debates about abortion – we call this a ‘straw man’ argument in philosophy.

    You suggest that no-one ever need have a pregnancy unless they want one, but this seems to be an usual use of the concept of agency. You’re suggesting that rape victims are always responsible for their own rapes?! To my mind this is a reactionary and dangerous view which is uncommon to hear coming from a woman. But is it morally valuable?

  8. 8 nedved

    Her argument does two things: it ignores the crucial difference between the obligation that parents have to provide their children with normal and natural means of sustinence (or some replacement for those things), and artificial and extraordinary means of sustinence. It also theoretically justifies infanticide, and proves that abortion is no different from infanticide.

    Imagine that a baby needed a bone marrow transplant, and its mother was the only donor whose marrow type matched. Strictly speaking, the mother would not have to provide it with one. This is because bone marrow transplants are artificial and extraordinary.

    But suppose a baby was born into an environment in which there was no replacement available for its mothers breastmilk. It either breastfed, or starved to death. It would have a right to breastfeed, and the mother could not refuse to allow it to. This is because breastfeeding is a normal and natural means of sustinence.

    If the mother refused to allow the baby to breastfeed, and it died as a result of this, she would be committing infanticide. No one who supports JJT’s argument can consistently argue that abortion is any different from maternal infanticide.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: