A Defense of Abortion

A Defense of Abortion

"A Defense of Abortion" is a moral philosophical paper by Judith Jarvis Thomson first published in 1971. Granting for the sake of argument that the fetus has a right to life, Thomson uses thought experiments to argue for the moral permissibility of induced abortion. Her argument has many critics on both sides of the abortion debate, [eg, Schwarz 1990, Beckwith 1993 and Lee 1996 on the pro-life side; Tooley 1972, Warren 1973, Steinbock 1992 and McMahan 2002 on the pro-choice side] yet continues to receive defense. [Kamm 1992; Boonin 2003: ch 4] Thomson's imaginative examples and controversial conclusions have made "A Defense of Abortion" perhaps "the most widely reprinted essay in all of contemporary philosophy". [Parent 1986: vii]

Overview of the essay

The Violinist

In "A Defense of Abortion", Thomson grants for the sake of argument that the fetus has a right to life, but defends the permissibility of abortion by appeal to a 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 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. [If he is unplugged from you now, he will die; but] in nine months he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you. [Thomson 1971: 48-49.]

Thomson takes it that you may now permissibly unplug yourself from the violinist even though this will cause his death: the right to life, Thomson says, does not entail the right to use another person's body, and so by unplugging the violinist you do not violate his right to life but merely deprive him of something—the use of your body—to which he has no right. " [I] f you do allow him to go on using your kidneys, this is a kindness on your part, and not something he can claim from you as his due." [Thomson 1971: 55]

For the same reason, Thomson says, abortion does not violate the fetus's right to life but merely deprives the fetus of something—the use of the pregnant woman's body—to which it has no right. Thus, it is not that by terminating her pregnancy a woman violates her moral obligations, but rather that a woman who carries the fetus to term is a 'Good Samaritan' who goes "beyond" her obligations. [Thomson 1971: 63; Boonin 2003: 133-134]

Third-party Participation - the “Expanding Child”

Thomson criticizes the common method of deducing a woman’s right to abort from the permissibility of a third party committing the abortion. In almost all instances, a woman’s right to abortion may hinge on the doctor’s willingness to perform it. If the doctor refuses, then the woman is denied her right. To base the woman’s right on the accordance or refusal of a doctor, she says, is to ignore the mother’s full personhood, and subsequently, her rights to her body. Thomson presents the hypothetical example of the ‘expanding child’::Suppose you find yourself trapped in a tiny house with a growing child. I mean a very tiny house, and a rapidly growing child—you are already up against the wall of the house and in a few minutes you’ll be crushed to death. The child on the other hand won’t be crushed to death; if nothing is done to stop him from growing he’ll be hurt, but in the end he’ll simply burst open the house and walk out a free man. [Thomson 1971: 52]

Thomson concedes that a third party indeed cannot make the choice to kill either the person being crushed or the child. However, this does not mean that the person being crushed cannot act in self defense and attack the child to save his or her own life. To liken this to pregnancy, the mother can be thought to be the house, the fetus the growing-child. In such a case, the mother’s life is being threatened, and the fetus is the one who threatens it. Because for no reason should the mother’s life be threatened, and also for no reason is the fetus threatening it, both are innocent, and thus no third party can intervene. But, Thomson says, the person threatened can intervene, by which justification a mother can rightfully abort. [Thomson 1971: 52-53]

Continuing, Thomson returns to the ‘expanding child’ example and points out::For what we have to keep in mind is that the mother and the unborn child are not like two tenants in a small house, which has, by unfortunate mistake, been rented to both: the mother owns the house. The fact that she does adds to the offensiveness of deducing that the mother can do nothing form the supposition that third parties can do nothing. But it does more than this: it casts a bright light on the supposition that third parties can do nothing. [Thomson 1971: 53]

If we say that no one may help the mother obtain an abortion, we fail to acknowledge the mother’s right over her body (or property). Thomson says that we are not personally obligated to help the mother but this does not rule out the possibility that someone else may act. As Thomson reminds, the house belongs to the mother; similarly, the body which holds a fetus also belongs to the mother. [Thomson 1971: 54]

Pregnancy Resulting from Voluntary Intercourse – “People-Seeds”

To illustrate an example of pregnancy due to voluntary intercourse, Thomson presents the ‘people-seeds’ situation::Again, suppose it were like this: people-seeds drift about in the air like pollen, and if you open your windows, one may drift in and take root in your carpets or upholstery. You don’t want children, so you fix up your windows with fine mesh screens, the very best you can buy. As can happen, however, and on very, very rare occasions does happen, one of the screens is defective; and a seed drifts in and takes root. [Thomson 1971: 59]

Here, the people-seeds flying through the window represent intercourse, despite the mesh screen, which functions as contraception. The woman does not want a people-seed to root itself in her house, and so she even takes the measure to protect herself with the best mesh screens. However, in the event that one finds its way in, unwelcome as it may be, does the simple fact that the woman knowingly risked such an occurrence when opening her window deny her the ability to rid her house of the intruder? Thomson notes that some may argue the affirmative to this question, claiming that “…after all you could have lived out your life with bare floors and furniture, or with sealed windows and doors” [Thomson 1971: 59] . But by this logic, she says, any woman could avoid pregnancy due to rape by simply having a hysterectomy – an extreme procedure simply to safeguard against such a possibility. Thomson concludes that ultimately the fetus may have a right to its mother’s body, and thus a right not to be killed in an abortion; but the example raises issue of whether all abortions are unjust killing. [Thomson 1971: 59]


Critics of Thomson's argument (see the table below) generally grant the permissibility of unplugging the violinist, but seek to block the inference that abortion is permissible by arguing that there are morally relevant differences between the violinist scenario and typical cases of abortion.

The most common objection is that Thomson's argument can justify abortion only in cases of rape. In the violinist scenario, you were kidnapped: you did nothing to cause the violinist to be plugged in, just as a woman who is pregnant due to rape did nothing to cause her pregnancy. But in typical cases of abortion, the pregnant woman had intercourse voluntarily, and thus (it is argued) has either tacitly consented to allow the fetus to use her body (the tacit consent objection), or else has a duty to sustain the fetus because the woman herself caused the fetus to stand in need of her body (the responsibility objection). Other common objections turn on the claim that the fetus is the pregnant woman's child whereas the violinist is a stranger (the stranger versus offspring objection), or that abortion kills the fetus whereas unplugging the violinist merely lets him die (the killing versus letting die objection).

Defenders of Thomson's argument [Boonin 2003: 133-281] reply that the alleged disanalogies between the violinist scenario and typical cases of abortion do not hold, either because the factors that critics appeal to are not genuinely morally relevant, or because those factors are morally relevant but do not apply to abortion in the way that critics have claimed. A summary of common objections and responses is given below.

Less common objections to Thomson's argument include:
*the natural-artificial objection [Parks 2006] : pregnancy is a natural process that is biologically normal to the human species. The joined condition of the violinist and donor, in contrast, represents an extreme and unusual form of "life support" that can only proceed in the presence of surgical intervention. This difference is morally relevant and therefore the two situations should not be used to model each other;
*the conjoined twins objection [Himma 1999, Parks 2006] : the relationship between conjoined twins represents a more complete analogy to pregnancy than the relationship between the violinist and the kidney donor. Because the fatal separation of conjoined twins is immoral, so is abortion;
*the different burdens objection [Schwarz 1990] : supporting the violinist is a much greater burden than normal pregnancy, and so unplugging the violinist is morally permissible whereas aborting the fetus is not;
*the artificiality objection [Wiland 2000: 467. "The story of the unconscious violinist, some argue, is a complete fiction. There is no Society of Music Lovers, there are no famous violinists in need of kidney transplants, and there are no kidnappers forcing others to donate their bodies for the good of another."] : our intuitions on bizarre thought experiments of the sort used by Thomson are unreliable and provide no warrant for the conclusions they are intended to support; and
*the duty to sustain the violinist objection [Hershenov 2001] : despite the common intuition, one "does" have an obligation to support the violinist, and likewise the fetus.

Defenders of Thomson's argument have responses to these less common objections as well. For example, the analogy between typical pregnancy and conjoined twins has been challenged on the basis that the pregnant woman, having existed for many years before the fetus came into existence, has a prior claim to the use of her own body, whereas conjoined twins come into existence at the same time and thus do not have a prior claim to the use of their shared body parts. [Boonin 2003: 245-246] Of course, critics have replies to these responses [Parks 2006] , and so the debate goes back and forth.

Table of criticisms and responses


Tacit consent objection [eg Warren 1973; Steinbock 1992]

The pregnant woman voluntarily engaged in sexual intercourse foreseeing that a fetus may result, and so has tacitly consented to the fetus using her body; no such consent occurs with the violinist (or pregnancy due to rape).

*Tacit consent cannot be inferred where contraception was used. [Thomson 1971: 57-59]
*Engaging in a voluntary action while foreseeing a certain result does not entail that one has tacitly consented to that result. [Boonin 2003: 154-164]
*Even if the woman has tacitly consented to the fetus making demands on her body, it does not follow that she has consented to sustain it for the entire nine months of pregnancy. [Boonin 2003: 164-167]

Responsibility objection [eg Beckwith 1993; McMahan 2002]

The pregnant woman voluntarily engaged in sexual intercourse with the result that the fetus stands in need of the use of her body. The woman is thus responsible for the fetus's need to use her body and so the fetus has a "right" to use her body. No such responsibility occurs with the violinist (or pregnancy due to rape).

* The woman is responsible for the fetus existing, but as she could not have caused the fetus to exist "without" being dependent on her, she is in a relevant sense "not" responsible for the fetus's need to use her body. [Boonin 2003: 167-188]
* Thomson raises this objection herself and concludes it is not convincing. First, she offers an argument that lends support to the view that abortion is justified at least in the case of rape. Second, she points out that one cannot drive a wedge between rape and other cases simply by appealing to the fact that in other cases the woman is responsible for there being a fetus that needs assistance, since the woman is also to some extent responsible in cases of rape (e.g., she could get a hysterectomy or "never leav [e] home without a (reliable!) army"). Therefore she concludes that abortion is morally permissible in at least some cases where intercourse is voluntary. [ Thomson 1971: 55-59 ]

Stranger versus offspring objection [eg Schwarz 1990; Beckwith 1993; McMahan 2002]

Parents have special obligations towards their offspring (as shown, for example, by laws requiring child support payments and by the fact that child abandonment is morally wrong). The fetus is the pregnant woman's offspring, and so she has a special obligation to sustain it; the violinist is a stranger and so you have no such obligation.

*Special obligations do not arise from mere biological relatedness; they can only be assumed, either explicitly or implicitly. [Thomson 1971: 64-65; Boonin 2003: 228-234] For example, by taking the baby home from the hospital one implicitly agrees to care for it.
*Even special parental obligations do not require parents to undergo organ donation or other direct use of their body (such as pregnancy) for the sake of their offspring. [Boonin 2003: 249-254]
*From the fact that it is morally permissible for a society to enact child support laws, it does not follow that there is any obligation (to the child) to pay child support independently of such laws. [Boonin 2003: 247-249]
*The wrongness of child abandonment may suggest we have some positive duties towards others; but it would not follow that those duties are strong enough to require sustaining the fetus. [Boonin 2003: 233 n 60]

Killing versus letting die objection [eg Schwarz 1990; Beckwith 1993; McMahan 2002]

There is a morally relevant difference between killing and letting die. Abortion typically kills the fetus and thus is impermissible, but unplugging the violinist merely lets him die and so is permissible.

*The objection would not apply to 'merely extractive' methods of abortion (such as hysterotomy) where the fetus is extracted intact and then allowed to die rather than killed. [McMahan 2002: 383-4; Boonin 2003: 193]
*Those who oppose abortion do not hold that merely extractive abortions are less objectionable than other methods of abortion; so they cannot consistently raise the killing versus letting die objection. [Boonin 2003: 189 n 41, noting however that this is an "ad hominem" reply]
*Killing is not in and of itself worse than letting die, or is not sufficiently worse to undermine the violinist analogy. [Thomson 1971: 156-159]
*Even if killing is substantially worse than letting die, it is justified in the case of abortion because letting die would require a merely extractive abortion, which under current technology involves substantial risk to the pregnant woman. [Boonin 2003: 199-211]

Intending versus foreseeing objection [eg Finnis 1973; Schwarz 1990; Lee 1996; Lee and George 2005]

There is a morally relevant difference between intending harm and causing harm as a foreseen but unintended side-effect. In most cases, abortion intentionally causes the fetus's death and so is impermissible; whereas unplugging the violinist causes death as an unintended side-effect and so is permissible.

*Intentionally causing death is not in itself worse than causing death as an unintended side-effect, or is not sufficiently worse to undermine the violinist analogy. [Thomson 1971: 156-159]
*If the intending versus foreseeing distinction is morally relevant, this is presumably because intending harm usually involves a failure of respect towards the victim that foreseeing harm usually does not. But intentionally causing the fetus's death through abortion (in order to avoid the dangers to the woman of a merely extractive abortion) seems no worse from the point of view of respect than causing the fetus's death as an unintended side-effect; so the distinction does not undermine the analogy between the violinist scenario and abortion. [Boonin 2003: 222-227]

ee also

* Abortion debate
* Violinist (thought experiment)
* Abortion



* Beckwith, F. 1993. "Politically Correct Death". Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, ch 7.
* Boonin, D. 2003. "A Defense of Abortion". Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ch 4.
* Finnis, J.. "The Rights and Wrongs of Abortion". "Philosophy and Public Affairs" 2:2 (Winter 1973): 117-145.
* Hershenov, D. "Abortions and Distortions". "Social Theory and Practice" 27:1 (January 2001): 129-148.
* Kamm, F. 1992. "Creation and Abortion". Oxford: Oxford University Press.
* Lee, P. 1996. "Abortion and Unborn Human Life". Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, ch 4.
* Lee, P and R George. "The Wrong of Abortion". In A Cohen and C Wellman, eds. 2005. "Contemporary Debates in Applied Ethics". Oxford: Blackwell: 13-26, at 20-21.
* McMahan, J. 2002. "The Ethics of Killing". New York: Oxford University Press.
* Parent, W. 1986. "Editor's introduction". In J Thomson. "Rights, Restitution, and Risk". Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press: vii-x.
* Parks, B. D. "The Natural-Artificial Distinction and Conjoined Twins: A Response To Judith Thomson's Argument for Abortion Rights". "National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly" 6:4 (Winter 2006): 671-680.
* Schwarz, S. 1990. "The Moral Question of Abortion". Chicago: Loyola University Press, ch 8.
* Steinbock, B. 1992. "Life Before Birth: The Moral and Legal Status of Embryos and Fetuses". Oxford: Oxford University Press, at 78.
* Thomson, J. "A Defense of Abortion". "Philosophy and Public Affairs" 1:1 (Autumn 1971): 47-66.
* Thomson, J. "Rights and Deaths". "Philosophy and Public Affairs" 2:2 (Winter 1973): 146-159.
* Tooley, M. "Abortion and Infanticide". "Philosophy and Public Affairs" 2:1 (Autumn 1972): 37-65, at 52-53.
* Warren, M. "On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion". "Monist" 57:1 (1973): 43-61.
* Wiland, E. "Unconscious violinists and the use of analogies in moral argument". "Journal of Medical Ethics" 26 (2000): 466–468.

External links

* [http://spot.colorado.edu/~heathwoo/Phil160,Fall02/thomson.htm A Defense of Abortion] , full text
* [http://homepage.mac.com/francis.beckwith/downloads.htm Francis Beckwith's Published Articles] , contains PDFs of a number of his critiques

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