A violinist-type argument that applies to consensual sex

One of the most famous papers in the ethics of abortion is Thomson’s ‘A Defense of Abortion‘, primarily because of the violinist analogy. Through it, Thomson hopes to show that, even if we grand the fetus is a person from the moment of conception, abortion remains morally permissible. The key passage:

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.” I imagine you would regard this as outrageous, which suggests that something really is wrong with that plausible-sounding argument I mentioned a moment ago.

This experiment (and others like it) have spawned hundreds of papers trying to analogize and counter-analogize exactly the right situation for pregnancy, to conclude what duties the woman has towards the fetus.

One of the more common complaints (at least in the blogosphere) is that this would only ‘cover’ pregnancies through rape. After all, in this case the woman found herself hooked up to the violinist without he knowledge (and, let’s assume, against her will if they asked her). For most pregnancies, however, the woman has consented to sex with at least the knowledge that there is a possibility or risk she would become pregnant. So surely in those cases she does have a duty to support the fetus, and so she falls short of minimal decency if she withdraws her bodily services to the fetus via abortion?

Well, consider this instead.

One morning, you are visited by the Society of Music Lovers. They tell you of the plight of the Famous Violinist, and inform you that you are the only known match they could find. They tell you that to save his life, you would have to be hooked up to him for nine months before you could both go on your way, and are fastidious in informing you about the risks of the hooking-up process. Although not a member of the Society, you love the Violinist’s music, so you give enthusiastic consent. After establishing that you are fully informed and you are still happy to help after a week, you are booked in for hooking-up, and you are in the bed next to the unconscious violinist.

Sadly, your attitude changes a month later, and you cease to want to stay hooked up for nine months, or any longer – perhaps your musical tastes change, or you think the violinist is ugly. It is now your settled view you want to be unhooked. What should happen now?

Here I have stacked the decks to make the analogy as unsympathetic as possible. Here, our donor is not only aware of the risk of being hooked up, but rather gives explicit and informed consent to being hooked up. Further, the donor changes their mind for pretty meritless reasons. So this is a violinist analogy to a woman who – in full receipt of the facts – intentionally desires to be pregnant, yet later changes her mind for poor reasons.

It still seems pretty intuitive that the woman is ‘within her rights’ to unhook herself. The reason why I think is that the entire course of action the donor performs is supererogatory: the violinist benefits despite the donor having no particular duty to help him. Although it is regrettable the donor backs out because of poor reasons, we shouldn’t stop him from doing so – after all, you at least provide the violinist with a month of life he would otherwise not have had, which is more than you were ever required to do in the first place. So it is acceptable for women to terminate pregnancy even if they explicitly consented to being pregnant with a child – and, a fortiori, it is acceptable for women to terminate pregnancy if they merely tacitly consented to the risk of being pregnant with a child. (This also matches the law in cases of transplant as donors always have the right to ‘opt out’).

There may be other disanalogies in the violinist example which means it does not properly apply to most or all pregnancies. However, it looks like the consent issue is not one of them.

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