Posted by: bridget | 19 June 2007

Debunking the Pro-Choice Argument, Part VI

Many pro-choicers compare pregnancy to forced use of one’s body – that which is akin to rape or forced organ donation. They assert the woman’s right to bodily integrity above the rights of the fetus, as no one has the right to force another to undergo mild physical suffering to save the lives of others. Judith Jarvis Thomson elucidated this line of thinking in her famous thought experiment involving a violinist who is hooked up to a person in the middle of the night.

We don’t force people to donate organs to keep others alive; how can we force women to use their bodies to sustain the life of a fetus?

First, Ms. Thomson’s thought experiment: Her analogy is predicated on the unwilling and unknown implantation of a violinist into an innocent sleeper; the friends of the violinist hook him up to the sleeping person, as that person is the only one in the world who can provide sustenance to the violinist. Without this person’s body, the violinist will die: as violinists are people, too, this would be an atrocity. She acknowledges that her thought experiment is limited to cases of rape (where the host body takes no action to cause this situation); nevertheless, she extends it to all instances of abortion.

The most obvious logical fallacy is to take the precise nature of the atrocity and deem it irrelevant. Thomson’s thought experiment – and the idea of being forced to live with another person feeding off of one’s body – is that the host did not volunteer for, consent to, or provide a mechanism for this situation. The abortion debate is focused on the right of a woman to evict the unwanted child balanced against the right of a child to its life. A woman’s volitional act is certainly relevant to an analysis of the first right; the fact that it is not applicable in rare situations does not render it any less important. Ms. Thomson does nothing with her thought experiment save provide a colourable argument to a right to an abortion after rape.

Furthermore, the perspective of the analogy can be reversed: why should the prohibition against forced organ donation not be applied to a woman who seeks an abortion to save her own life? If we do not force organ donation, why may a mother have an operation performed upon the fetus (one which is far more invasive and destructive than a nephronectomy) to save her own life?

The only principle that would allow abortion but preclude forced organ donation is: one may destroy the body of another for one’s own medical gain, so long as one does not actually commandeer any part of that body.

The forced organ donation issue – and Thomson’s thought experiment – neglect to consider several factors: the identity of the person who attaches the two beings together; the fact that, although a right may exist, a remedy for breach of that right does not; and, as per above, the balancing of the right of a woman to her bodily integrity against her child’s right to life.

Stating the obvious: women don’t get pregnant by voodoo, storks, or the patriarchy. While she may be upset that another being requires her body for its very survival, the mother created that need and, more importantly, that child in question. Without her volitional act, her child would not exist. She is hardly in a position to complain that such a need is foisted upon her.

Thomson’s thought experiment and the organ donation analogies fail in that it is always some ephemeral being who creates the violinist’s disease, and it is mere chance that the particular victim is the only person able to sustain the violinist’s life. The more apt analogy is that a woman attaches a violinist to herself, and, by so attaching him, destroys his ability to live independently.

Even beings who are attached together against their will lack the right to kill the other. A Siamese twin is not allowed to kill his brother to prevent his brother’s use of the organs on his half of the body. Biology does not distribute its benefits and burdens equally; we are not allowed to redistribute or alleviate those burdens by bringing harm to each other.

Pro-choicers deem abortion to the exercise of the right to bodily integrity. They forget that a right to something does not mean that every remedy is appropriate. For example, the right to bear arms does not include the right to possess such arms by theft, even if one is too poor to afford his own weaponry. Likewise, women justifiably assert the right to bodily integrity and the right to not have their beings commandeered for the sustenance of another; however, it does not logically follow that abortion is an appropriate mechanism to exercise that right.

The organ donation analogy establishes a right to an artificial womb, if there were to be such a thing; however, it does not establish the right to murder. It does not even logically follow that a child lacks a right to its mother’s womb. Siamese twins have a right to each other’s bodies; does that right evaporate simply because one person benefits more from the interconnectedness than the other?

A woman who asserts her right to bodily integrity does not give up her corresponding duty to exercise her right without aggressing against another person. There is no means by which a woman can cease to be pregnant without harming her child; thus, we have a right without a remedy.

Related Posts

  1. Part I: If you can’t trust me with a choice, how can you trust me with a child? And, It’s wrong to bring unwanted children into the world.
  2. Part II: Why should a blob of tissue have more rights than a woman?
  3. Part III: If you don’t support abortion, you don’t support women.
  4. Part IV: Pro-lifers want to legislate morality; you can’t be pro-life and libertarian.
  5. Part V: Since so many babies die of spontaneous abortion, how can you be pro-life unless you want to save them first?
  6. Part VI: What about this violinist? If we don’t force people to donate organs, why do you want to force people to remain pregnant?
  7. Part VII: If abortion is murder, pro-lifers should want to imprison women
  8. Part VIII: Sherry Colb on abortion.


  1. Excellent and thorough response to an often-used piece. I’ve see various pro-choicers play the violinist story as a trump card. They had not idea of the logical fallacies.

  2. excellent argument.
    i suggest you add a page to your blog that compiles all your debunking abortion posts!

  3. Neil,

    I’m considering re-writing the violinist story to make it reflect reality. Siamese twins seem to be a much better analogy to the situation of pregnancy… and we would hardly let one twin kill the other in his sleep, or, if one twin happened to lose consciousness, to have him killed so that the conscious one could live life unencumbered by the other twin.


    Thank you. :) I have to put all of the previous ones in a list of links, but I never thought of doing it all on a page. Like the idea! :)

  4. I have heard this argument from pro-choice advocates before and my response has always been the same- I am appalled. It is a cold and heartless position. It is one of those things that makes you want to rethink that old saying, “Any man who is a conservative while young is heartless, any man who is a liberal when older is mindless.” Of course I am paraphrasing.

  5. TT: It is cold and heartless, but, at the same time, is it cold and heartless to let people die because we don’t want to force people to donate organs? There’s a lot to be said for bodily integrity – and it should be protected, IMHO. You went to law school – our laws do function in cold, heartless ways. I’m just trying to point out that you can accept their premises, but it still doesn’t give you the right to abort.

  6. Another well reasoned treaties. Why don’t we just concede the language of this argument to the left and say we to believe in a woman’s right to choose, but what they need to understand is that the choice was made during unprotected sex. Giving them a mulligan or another trip to the plate for another choice denies another “person” the right to choose life for themself. What is it they don’t get about this……….? ….. steve

  7. But Steve… that’s punishing women for having sex!

    Yeah, I can’t understand why the fetus can’t choose to maintain its bodily integrity; lacking the ability to express that choice, it ought to have a guardian to care for its interests. If the mother is determined to kill it for her own sake, she’s clearly not an appropriate medical proxy.

  8. “It is cold and heartless, but, at the same time, is it cold and heartless to let people die because we don’t want to force people to donate organs?”

    The key difference (as you pointed out) is that the person in need of an organ transplant usually isn’t responsible for their condition (leaving aside lung transplants for smokers).

  9. TT – right on. Another key difference (which we see with Siamese twins) is that we don’t allow people to change the status quo, if such a change is harmful to another. We require Siamese twins to stay together, if separation would kill one but not the other; we (should) require that a mother bear her child. We don’t, however, move organs from one person to another. Legally and morally, we aren’t responsible for the bad hand dealt to other people but are responsible for the hand dealt to us.

  10. […] Part VI: What about this violinist? If we don’t force people to donate organs, why do you want to force peo…? […]

  11. […] Part VI: What about this violinist? If we don’t force people to donate organs, why do you want to force peo…? […]

  12. this is a very good set of posts.

  13. […] Debunking the Pro-Choice Argument, Part VI […]

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