Friday, October 6, 2017
The Case of the Imaginary Violinist
Anyone who argues the pro-life position is likely to come across a series of logical fallacies about bodily autonomy. Often this is packaged in the form of a story about a fictional violinist. This illogical and highly implausible story was created by Judith Jarvis Thomson, an MIT professor, in her 1971 essay A Defense of Abortion. It involves asking someone to imagine that they are forcibly medically connected to a violinist with failing kidneys, so that their kidneys are doing the work for both of them for a period of nine months. Since in this fictional tale the violinist would otherwise die, the subject in question is not given a choice in the matter. Thompson’s point was that if someone has an ethical right to refuse such a scenario, they must surely also have the right to refuse to support their unborn child within their own body for nine months.
At its core this is nothing but a perfect illustration of the logical fallacy of false analogy. It is therefore rather dumbfounding how often it has been thrown around in supposedly serious argument. Let’s unpack this monstrosity and see where the argument falls apart in the case of abortion.
Firstly, this fictional story and the real world position of being a pregnant woman are intrinsically dissimilar situations. Note that in this story, the violinist is referred to with male pronouns. That he is both adult and male is clearly intentional. Most people strongly dislike the idea of being personally responsible for the support of an adult man. Were this an analogy about an adult being forcibly connected to a dying child, it would not have the same emotional appeal that Thomson intended. But in the case of abortion, we are in fact speaking of an adult being held responsible for the support of a very young child.
The violinist in the story is a stranger. Well, sadly, many of us don’t feel obligated to go out of our way to help strangers, so the use of a stranger in the story is intentional. But what if, instead, this were a story about a young child who is also a family member? What if it were, instead, one’s own biological child who lie dying? That scenario would cause this fable to lose so much of its emotional appeal as to be made entirely impotent as abortion propaganda. And yet, when we are speaking about abortion, that is exactly the scenario we are referring to: that of a parent providing life-sustaining support for their own child. We cannot compare a person’s obligation to a stranger to the unique nature and responsibility of the mother-child relationship.
We can further break this analogy down and see how it fails to make sense in other situations. For example, would someone be obligated to take a poor, out-of-luck adult violinist into their home to feed, clothe, and look after them for eighteen years? How about if they needed to be fed 8-12 times per day? How about if they were also incontinent and needed their diaper changed every 2-3 hours? Of course not. But that is exactly what a parent must do for their own child. Thus, in order to buy into this story, one would be left taking the absurd stance that a parent has no special obligation to support or sustain the life of their own child, which is actually exactly what abortion proponents are claiming.
We must also remember that abortion is a willful and unnatural act of destroying life. Abortion is not simply removing a child from their mother’s physical support. In most cases it is far more violent. If we wanted the case of the violinist who never was to be a more accurate analogy to pregnancy and abortion, we would have to insist not only have the right to choose to unplug from the violinist, but to have him torn limb from limb to make sure he is dead. Then, perhaps, we would also have to allow for his organs to be removed and sold. This is what is actually happening in many cases of abortion.
It is an entirely unethical and ridiculous position to take to say that someone has the right of bodily autonomy even when that autonomy willfully and intentionally takes away the life of one’s own child. And yet this story has become a perfect example of the “big lie technique,” which is yet another logical fallacy. This is the kind of argument they are relying on when abortion apologists make reference to a woman’s “basic right to bodily autonomy.” Although when examined closely it is both irrelevant and illogical as it concerns the issue of abortion; it has, by frequent repetition, been used as justification for an act which is in itself unjustifiable.
[Today's guest post by Karen B. is part of our paid blogging program.]