Friday, August 21, 2020

The Unconscious Violinist

The pro-choice position is that women have the right to do what they want with their bodies, but the pro-life position claims that the fetus is not the woman's body; it's the fetus's body. Since the right to swing your arms ends where another person's nose begins -- that is, your right to do what you want with you body ends where your use of your body harms someone else's body -- then if the fetus is an actual person, this would bear on whether a woman has the right to abort it. One problem with this is that the the woman and the fetus are organically connected, so the relationship between the mother and the fetus would be a unique one (really, the only example I can think of that's even remote comparable is conjoined twins), and that's a detail that could potentially change the equation.

Judith Jarvis Thomson is a moral philosopher and she came up with an argument that has greatly influenced the abortion debate. She grants these pro-life claims for argument's sake in order to construct a thought experiment. Say you wake up in a hospital bed and discover you're hooked up via tubes and whatnot to another person who is unconscious. Then you're told that this person is a famous violinist, a great artist, and has a kidney disease or something, and the only way to save him was to hook him up with someone else who closely matches his various biological conditions so that this other person's kidneys will filter his blood as well as your own -- and congratulations! your kidneys fit the bill. After nine months, everything can be disconnected and the violinist can be woken up, cured of his disease or condition. So do you have the right to refuse to take part in this procedure?

Thomson says yes. Granted, the unconscious violinist is a person; granted he will not survive without this procedure, this does not entail any responsibility on your part to allow your body be used as an object or tool to keep him alive for the next nine months. As a person, the violinist has the right to live, but he does not have the right to use someone else's body for his own purposes. So even if the fetus is a human being, a person, it does not have the right to the use of the woman's body.

Some people have raised objections to this. For one thing, at best, it would only apply to pregnancy by rape. Thomson argues that the fetus is using the woman's body in a nonconsensual way, but if the woman chose to have sex, the parallel between Thomson's thought experiment and abortion doesn't hold. We could add the detail that the woman attended a party with the understanding that there was a nontrivial chance of her being hooked up to an unconscious violinist for nine months afterwards. But this muddies the waters enough so that it isn't obvious that she has the right to unplug herself from the violinist. She knew that was a possible outcome of going to the party. Honestly, the first time I heard the Unconscious Violinist Argument, I thought it was an argument against abortion because of this point.

Another question we can ask is, how long is too long? What if she only has to be hooked up to the violinist for nine days? Or nine minutes? We can stand on principle here so that no amount of time is acceptable, but would you really think not having your autonomy overruled for nine minutes is more important than the violinist's life? What about nine days? Nine weeks? Or, to add another wrinkle, what if it's only nine hours but you know you only have fifteen hours to live and this will prevent you from accomplishing what you want during this time?

Again, this is all granting the pro-life position that the fetus is a person which is eminently contestable. I would conclude that the abortion issue does not have an obvious solution one way or the other, and if you're really confident of your position, maybe spend some more time thinking on it. I actually grew up with one side being the obvious, unquestioned one and then had some ideas presented to me which had never occurred to me, and after some contemplation, I switched teams.


Alex said...

There are some other factors that seem to change the analogy. What if for those 9 months you aren't chained to a bed. You can largely go about your life as you did before, granted several caveats - you sometimes ache in your feet and back, you have some trouble sleeping, you're hot all the time, you don't fit in your clothes, you can't drink alcohol, etc. But otherwise, you can work, socialize, travel (all but the last couple of months), etc.

In other words, the Unconscious Violinist thought experiment makes it sound like you're incapacitated for 9 months, but that part of the analogy doesn't hold.

I also wonder if it makes any difference if the only way to cut off the unconscious violinist from your support is to violently kill the violinist so that he or she stops using your resources. It seems that would make an emotional difference to me. It's one thing to cut off life support that I'm providing and allow someone to die naturally. It's another to violently kill them (perhaps by dismembering) so that they stop using the life support I'm providing.

Does it make a difference if the unconscious violinist is young, with an entire lifetime ahead? Not sure about that one, but we seem to react differently to the untimely death of a child vs. an adult.

Jim S. said...

Another disanalogy is that pregnant women often (not always) have an emotional attachment to their babies/fetuses/whatever you want to call them. But the person in the thought experiment has no such attachment to the violinist, even if they love music.