The Unconscious Violinist – 50 Years On

By Matthew John Minehan.

2021 marks 50 years since the publication of Judith Jarvis Thomson’s seminal paper, ‘A defense of abortion’, in which she introduced the world to a very famous and very unconscious violinist. It also marks mere months since Thomson’s passing in November 2020. For both these reasons, a fresh look at her argument is timely.

For readers unfamiliar with Thomson’s thought experiment, here is a very brief summary: Imagine you wake up one morning connected to an unconscious violinist whose survival depends on the use of your kidneys for nine months. Is it morally permissible to disconnect from him? Despite the fact the violinist is a person with a right to life, Thomson believed it would be an act of kindness, not obligation, to stay connected.

For Thomson, the lesson is that if the violinist’s personhood and right to life do not give him a right to the use of your body, then nor should a fetus’s hypothetical personhood and right to life give it a right to the use of its mother’s body.

In my new paper, I accept Thomson’s for-the-sake-of-argument premise that fetuses have a right to life, but I challenge her argument in two main ways:

Firstly, by reframing the violinist scenario so that it is no longer presented from the perspective of the co-opted kidney surrogate, but from the perspective of someone operating behind a veil of ignorance: ‘Imagine that one morning you are back to back in bed with another person. One of you is conscious and the other unconscious. You do not know which one you are.’ What rule is it rational to develop in this case? From a contractarian perspective, I suggest, it is rational to require the surrogate to remain connected to the violinist.

Secondly, I develop my own novel thought-experiment: The self-aborting fetus. My motive was to come up with a situation where person A depends on person B in much the same way that a regular fetus depends on its mother and the violinist depends on his kidney surrogate, but where the mother is now the dependent party rather than the life-sustainer. By developing a scenario where the mother is the person in need, I hope to identify any biases we might have in favour of the mother.

In short, I ask my readers to imagine a world where some fetuses develop at a faster than usual pace and can self-abort (i.e. give birth to themselves) after three months of pregnancy. The downside of a self-abortion is that the mother will die from a nutritional deficiency, however she can take medicine to override the self-abortion. If she overrides the self-abortion, both she and the fetus will live, however the fetus will experience six months of discomfort until it is born at a normal time.

It seems to me that most of us would think it was reasonable for the mother to suppress a self-abortion in order to save her own life. After all, this will ensure both of them keep their lives, and it will only inconvenience the fetus for a matter of months. Yet doing so would violate Thomson’s principle that no one has a right to the use of another person’s body against that person’s wishes. In short, I suggest that if it is justifiable to override a self-abortion and compel a fetus to remain in the womb, then it should likewise be justifiable to compel a kidney surrogate to remain connected to a violinist.

Thomson showed how creative examples such as the unconscious violinist and also the rapidly growing child can produce insights into the real-world problem of abortion. My hope is that the self-aborting fetus example is a useful addition to the long line of thought experiments inspired by Thomson.

Not many philosophers still have a single paper routinely debated fifty years after it was published. Vale Judith Jarvis Thomson.


Paper title: Moral status of the fetus and the permissibility of abortion: a contractarian response to Thomson’s violinist thought experiment

Author: Matthew John Minehan

Affiliations: Australian Graduate School of Policing and Security, Charles Sturt University

Competing interests: Nil

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