I am always astonished at how enamored abortion advocates are with Thomson’s bodily autonomy argument. To me, it just exposes the core cold-heartedness of the abortion defense quest. I think the argument demonstrates the utter moral ineptness underlying the whole premise of elective abortion. Pro-abortion proponents probably fancy it because it is the only pro-abortion argument that is not mere question begging. It stands alone as the sole exception in that it “grants” (even if for the sake of argument) personhood status to the unborn. The idea that pregnant mothers have an absolute right over their body in every way – regardless of what negative effects may come upon other persons as a result - is what gives the argument its thrust.
Thomson gives the well-known violin analogy, which I will cite here:
“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."
The pro-abortion argument “works” in this scenario (in a sense) as far as it goes, but is the analogy accurate? Is abortion merely detachment and is being pregnant akin to being hooked up to a helpless violinist? If the answer is “no” to either question – as I think it is – then the analogy (and the argument) fails.
First is the problem of the person who is attached. In the analogy, it is a complete stranger who presumably has his own parents. In pregnancy, the person attached is the daughter or son of the mother! The child is not a parasite, invader or predator; for the mother’s womb is where it belongs, the womb is its natural and normal environment. Furthermore, the unborn has no intent to do the mother any harm, either purposely or inadvertedly (I wish the same could always be said the other way around). Legal scholar Eileen McDonagh argues in a way similar to Thomson and paints the child as a “trespasser”.
Remember, it was the mother’s action that brought the baby into this situation in the first place; it is not as if the baby slipped in unannounced when the mother was not looking … you could even say the baby was “summoned” by the mother.
Another huge problem is the nature of the attachment. To quote Greg Koukl,
“the violinist is artificially attached to the woman. A mother's unborn baby, however, is not surgically connected, nor was it ever "attached" to her. Instead, the baby is being produced by the mother's own body by the natural process of reproduction.”
Another big problem is abortion is not mere detachment; it is active termination. It is not merely withholding nourishment or unplugging, it is bloody and violent. To be true, the analogy would have to go more like this:
“After unplugging the unconscious violinist from my body, I asked a hit man to terminate him. The professional hit man came into the hospital room with a drill, bore a hole into the back of the violinist’s skull (right at the base of his neck) and subsequently sucked the violinist’s brains out into a bag. The hit man then threw the violinist’s body into a large furnace and promptly incinerated him – along with hundreds of other dead violinists. After that, I paid the man and merrily went on my way.”
Now I pose a question: which takes more care; a baby in the belly or a toddler out of the tummy? Obviously, the toddler is the greater “imposition” than the unborn. As a parent of three kids, all under four years old, trust me, the toddler is harder. Now if the mother is not obligated to care for a person dependent upon them in a passive way – via a tube or what have you – then why would the mother be required to engage in the much more active task of parenting the toddler?
Here we have another major flaw in Thomson’s analogy: it proves too much. If valid, then we should exonerate women like Susan Smith of North Carolina (who drowned her two children in the bathtub), Amy Grossberg (who with the father of the child gave her newborn a skull fracture before leaving the body in a dumpster) and Melissa Drexler (the infamous “prom mom”, who gave birth in her high school’s bathroom during prom and left the child – dead - in the trash before going back to dancing). Or we could just excuse it.
Case in point is another bright from MIT – Steven Pinker – who sees this all as simple evolutionary biology:
“parental investment is a limited resource, and mammalian mothers must "decide" whether to allot it to their newborn or to their current and future offspring. If a newborn is sickly, or if its survival is not promising, they may cut their losses and favor the healthier in the litter or try again later on. In most cultures, neonaticide is a form of this triage. Until very recently in human evolutionary history, mothers nursed their children for two to four years before becoming fertile again. Many children died, especially in the perilous first year . Most women saw no more than two or three of their children survive to adulthood, and many did not see any survive. To become a grandmother, a woman had to make hard choices….” – November 2 1997 New York Times Magazine “Why They Kill Their Newborns”
"Several moral philosophers have concluded that neonates are not persons, and thus neonaticide should not be classified as murder. Michael Tooley has gone so far as to say that neonaticide ought to be permitted during an interval after birth. Most philosophers (to say nothing of nonphilosophers) recoil from that last step, but the very fact that there can be a debate about the personhood of neonates, but no debate about the personhood of older children, makes it clearer why we feel more sympathy for an Amy Grossberg than for a Susan Smith."
Why more sympathy for one than the other; both acted as if it was unreasonable to expect them to have any obligations towards their own children – much like Thomson’s argument. In short, if Thomson’s argument works for abortion, it works for neonaticide, too. What is neonaticide, you ask? It is the term Peter Singer used to create a middle ground between abortion and infanticide. Further, does not Thomson’s argument teach us that we have the right to kill anyone who inhibits our liberty in any way? Hence, Thomson’s analogy from the violinst is an analogy for violence.
Another way that it proves too much is that it has to reject wholesale the idea that parents have any obligations or duties towards their offspring. Once again, Greg Koukl comments on this:
“Blood relationships are never based on choice, yet they entail moral obligations, nonetheless. This is why the courts prosecute negligent parents. They have consistently ruled, for example, that fathers have an obligation to support their children even if they are unplanned and unwanted.”
He further adds,
“Thompson is mistaken in presuming that pregnancy is the thing that expropriates a woman's liberty. Motherhood does that, and motherhood doesn't end with the birth of the child. Unlike the woman connected to the violinist, a mother is not released in nine months. Her burden has just begun. If Thompson's argument works, then no child is safe from a mother who wants her liberty.”
Another key difference, following John Wilcox, is that the Thomson analogy presents pregnancy as inherently bad. In fact, it is viewed as a diseased state. In most cases, pregnancy is healthy and safe for both mother and child. In fact, one reason the woman is pregnant in the first place is due in part to the fact that she is healthy – her reproductive organs are definitely working well, that’s for sure.
It is true a woman may experience nausea and insomnia, especially during the first trimester. Up until the 1960’s doctors in Canada and Europe would prescribe a drug called Thalidomide to fix this. Eventually it was discovered the drug caused severe birth defects, such as malformations, abbreviated arms or no arms at all. (thalidomide.ca/en/information/history_of_thalidomide.html)
Interestingly enough, both David Boonin and McDonagh list nausea and insomnia as part of the physical cost of pregnancy (one even calls it a serious injury to the mother). Richard J. Poupard asks a key question:
If it is permissible … for a mother to kill her unborn child in order to stop experiencing these symptoms, it ought to be permissible for her to take a medication such as thalidomide that would cause sub-lethal harm to her child in order to treat her symptoms, since, although the fetus would be harmed, he or she would not be harmed as much as in elective abortion.
How can Thomson et al. avoid this inescapable conclusion to their argument? Earlier in his article, Poupard puts all this in perspective:
If the right of bodily autonomy is absolute, as it needs to be defend the act of intentionally killing a human person, how could we fault the mother … which is worse: causing harm to a child or intentionally killing that same child? If autonomy, then it is unreasonable to disallow her to harm the same child using the same reasoning.
As a foster parent I have seen up close many abused children. My wife and I have had kids in our care who screamed bloody murder anytime I would go to hug them because of what they anticipated. We have had kids who smelled like smoke for a month after we first received them because they were so saturated with it. We had a child who was so dirty he turned the bathtub mud-black the first time he took a bath at our house on the night we got him. We have had children with Star Trek-like bugs literally coming out of their ear holes (and other various sundry holes as well). We have had infants who were neglected so badly by their birth parents that a fire man had to give CPR to resuscitate them; we are talking about a one-month old baby here! We have had a two-year old who walked with a permanent limp (resulting in an oddly humorous gait) because his father had beat him so severely. We even had one toddler whose scrotum was beat black and blue – I am not exaggerating – and a fractured skull and broken arm to match. This little boy was two years old and only weighed 20 pounds – severely underweight. I even remember one baby girl who screamed shrills of terror every night in the other room because her birth mother was on acid and the baby was having residual hallucinogenic trips.
When I reflect on this, I can not help but think that we are living in a brave new culture that increasingly treats precious human life as the undesired dirt on the bottom of an otherwise clean shoe. Abortion is just one more way we use to scrape off the human refuse … I can not help but think that Thomson and her arguments are only sharpening the knife.
*To his credit, Jim Lippard does recognize the analogy isn’t quite tight when he says, “The problem with this scenario is that it isn't quite analogous to pregnancy except in case of rape.” I wonder if Jim is aware that some pro-choicers do say pregnancy is almost identitical to rape. Eileen McDonagh comes to mind.
Eileen McDonagh, Breaking the Abortion Deadlock: From Choice to Consent (New York, Oxford University Press, 1996).
John Wilcox, “Nature as Demonic in Thomson’s Defense of Abortion,” The New Scholasticism 63 (Autumn 1989), 463-484.
David Boonin A Defense of Abortion (Cambride, England: Cambrideg Univ. Press, 2003), 137.
“Suffer the Violinist: why the Pro-Abortion Argument from Bodily Autonomy Fails” Christian Research Journal vol. 30, no. 04 2007, 32-40.