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Pulse
15 August 2022

On 24 June 2022, the Supreme Court made a landmark 5-4 decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which established the constitutional right to abortion in the United States in 1973. The ruling is a triumph for pro-lifers (both religious and non-religious) who have been working hard for five decades to see this day.

But the ruling has sparked anger among pro-abortionists and the liberal justices who had argued for the constitutionality of abortion as a basic right. CNBC reported the scathing dissent of the court’s liberal judges who wrote:

The majority has overruled Roe and Casey for one and one reason: because it has always despised them, and now it has the votes to discard them. The majority thereby substitutes a rule by judges for the rule of law.

Using the familiar rhetoric of rights, equality and freedom, justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, in expressing their outrage at the ruling, write:

The majority would allow States to ban abortion from conception onward because it does not think forced childbirth at all implicates a woman’s rights to equality and freedom.

They continue by arguing that the ruling in many ways violates the woman’s control over her own body and also the way she wishes to live her life. ‘Today’s Court’, they write, ‘does not think there is anything of constitutional significance attached to a woman’s control of her body and the path of her life.’ ‘A State can force her to bring a pregnancy to term, even at the steepest personal and familial costs,’ they add.

Nothing is said about the moral status of the foetus (and his or her freedom, equality and rights) as attention is focussed, as it is usually the case with liberal discourse on abortion, only on the woman. Much is made in particular of the ‘bodily rights’ of the pregnant woman, as the statement by the dissenting justices makes clearly evident.

The assertion that the woman has the right to control her own body has without doubt become one of the most powerful pro-choice slogans in modern society. In this article, we briefly examine the arguments made by one of the most influential voices that justify abortion on the basis of the bodily rights of women – that of Judith Jarvis Thomson.

THOMSON’S ARGUMENT

In 1971, the American philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson published an article entitled, “A Defense of Abortion” in The Journal of Philosophy and Public Affairs that became the most famous and influential argument for abortion on the basis of the woman’s right to her own body.

Known as the ‘Violinist’ argument, Thomson maintains that even if the unborn child is intrinsically valuable and has moral rights – an assumption that is held by many if not all pro-lifers – abortion is still morally permissible.

She writes that it is ‘of great interest to ask what happens if, for the sake of argument, we allow the premise [that the unborn is intrinsically valuable]. How, precisely, are we supposed to get from there to the conclusion that abortion is morally impermissible?’

More specifically, Thomson wants to show that even if the unborn has the right to life, it does not follow that the pregnant woman is morally obligated to use her body to sustain its life. In order to demonstrate this, Thomson uses the fictitious story of someone who wakes up to find that he has been artificially connected to a famous violinist who is dependent on his kidneys to survive.

I reproduce the story in full:

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 now is plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it’s only 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 still longer? What if the director of the hospital says, ‘Tough luck, I agree, but you’ve now 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 the 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 that you would regard this as outrageous …

For some, Thomson has, as it were, checkmated the classical conservative pro-life argument against abortion that centres on the intrinsic value of the foetus. She has presented what some have regarded as a compelling argument that the moral status of the unborn child is inconsequential to the woman’s decision to end the pregnancy.

The persuasive force of her argument has led some conservatives to change their minds.

ANALYSIS AND CRITIQUE

Although some would say that Thomson has clinched the game for the pro-abortionists, closer scrutiny and analysis would make the serious inconsistencies and problems with her analogy and argument clearly evident. Space allows me to very briefly highlight some of them.

Basic flaws

We begin with some of the basic but critical flaws in Thomson’s violinist analogy.

The most obvious problem with this analogy and the parallel it hopes to establish is that there is a profound difference between a woman who is pregnant with a child and a victim of a kidnapping who is artificially attached to a renal patient. The child is not surgically attached to its mother. It is the result of the natural process of procreation.

The problem with Thomson’s analogy is that it presents the unborn child as an invader of sorts, thereby distorting the mother / child relationship into one that is at best characterised as a stranger / stranger relationship, and at worst that of a host and a predator.

Another basic flaw is that in a pregnancy, the child in the womb – although dependent on the mother – cannot be said to be receiving treatment, as is the case of the violinist. Thus, it is totally misguided and misleading to regard abortion as withholding treatment, when it is actually the deliberate taking of a human life.

Troubling Implications

Thomson’s argument concerning the woman’s right to control her own body even if it means killing her unborn child has many troubling implications. As Richard J. Poupard explains:

The bodily rights argument is compelling if and only if we grant that a woman’s right to control her own body is so sacrosanct that carrying another human being inside of her has no bearing on that right. In other words, for this view to prevail, we must concede that because of the autonomy she has over her body, a pregnant mother has the absolute right to do whatever she wants with it in order to retain that autonomy, regardless of what it does to the child she is carrying. This includes killing the child in the case of elective abortion.

But Thomson’s arguments have even graver implications. If her justifications for abortion on the basis of personal liberty are sound, they can be used to sanction the killing of any dependent person if his or her existence restrains the liberty of another. As Greg Koukl has put it:

In the end Thomson’s … arguments prove too much. They allow us to kill any human being who is dependent upon us, young or old, if that person restrains our personal liberty.

Moral Volunteerism

Implicit in Thomson’s violinist analogy is the view that has been dubbed as ‘moral volunteerism’. As Francis Becker puts it,

By using the violinist story as an illustration of how the principles about which relationships should be ethically applied, Thomson seems to be saying that moral obligations must be voluntarily accepted to have moral, and thus legal force.

But this surely flies in the face of the way in which morality and the law are universally understood and practised.

Becker’s scathing critique of Thompson’s approach is therefore justified:

Because Thomson does not adequately address what most of us recognise as the deep connection between sexual intercourse, human reproduction, and the pre-political obligations of parents to offspring … her argument languishes in a one-dimensional universe of autonomous adult-choosers who are artificially constructed by Thomson to lack the precise number of natural moral obligations that her science fiction scenario is employed to demonstrate in the first place.

Limits to Bodily Freedom

Although the freedom to exercise control over one’s body is in some ways important, the fact remains that in civilised society that freedom is – and should be – limited. Reason and common sense tell us that in any society unbridled liberty would lead to only anarchy and chaos, not civilisation.

Every individual in modern society is governed by laws, which are put in place to ensure that the freedom that is their right to exercise does not result in irresponsible conduct. These laws remind free citizens of their moral responsibilities to the community to which they belong.

Surely one of the most primal of such moral responsibilities is that of the mother to her helpless and unborn child.

Wrong to Harm, Right to Kill?

The argument that says that because bodily autonomy is absolute, the pregnant woman has the right to kill the child in her womb has introduced a nonsensical contradiction to morality and the law. It has brought about the situation in which it is perfectly legal to kill a child through abortion, but it is a prosecutable offense to harm it.

For example, in the 1950s the drug thalidomide was used to treat nausea and insomnia in pregnant women. Physicians, however, soon discovered that this drug was responsible for causing serious birth defects such as the malformation of ears, the absence of arms, and phocomelia (hands or feet attached to shorted arms or legs).

Thalidomide was banned in the United States in 1961.

What if a pregnant woman, in the name of bodily autonomy, insists on taking thalidomide to treat her nausea and insomnia knowing full well that it would severely harm her baby? Should she be allowed to do so? Should her doctor prescribe it for her? Would society applaud her actions and for her courageous insistence on her right to bodily autonomy?

The answers to these questions are obvious. Yet, they demonstrate all too clearly the moral confusion that clouds our minds. Richard Poupard puts it this way:

If the right to autonomy is absolute, as it needs to be to defend the ultimate act of intentionally killing a human person, how could we fault the mother in this case? Which is worse: causing harm to a child or intentionally killing that same child? If a mother can kill a child because it is intruding on her bodily autonomy, then it is unreasonable to disallow her to harm the same child using the same reasoning.

CONCLUSION

The rhetoric of personal autonomy has a powerful sway over our society and culture. It has been used to defend and justify murder, the deliberate and wilful taking of human life. It has been used to legitimise practices such euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide and abortion.

In our world, personal and bodily liberty have become sacrosanct – an inviolable principle, and a hallowed natural right – and are used to promote what Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI have called ‘the culture of death’.

Reflecting on the pervasiveness of this phenomenon, the celebrated Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, Robert George, writes:

Contemporary liberal political theory abets the culture of death. My point in so bluntly saying so is not to be polemical or even provocative; rather, it is to be soberly descriptive; self-described liberal political theorists in the United States and elsewhere have, over the past two decades or so, quite explicitly set for themselves the task of justifying and defending the regime of abortion, euthanasia, and, increasingly, infanticide that constitutes the culture of death in contemporary world.

Christians who think that all this is mere rhetoric are surely blind to what’s happening right before their very eyes!


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.