Amy posted this on the Stand to Reason blog, and it got a ton of comments.
The “Violinist” argument for keeping abortion legal is an illustration created by Judith Jarvis Thompson for the purpose of clarifying our moral intuitions about abortion by considering a parallel situation. The Violinist story goes like this (see the full, original story here): A woman wakes up to find she’s been attached without her consent to a famous violinist who needs the help of her kidneys for the next nine months in order to live. If the woman detaches herself from him, he will die.
According to Thompson, since it’s clear that the woman ought not be forced by law to remain attached to this man (though he is a person with rights), in the same way, the law ought not force a woman to remain attached to an unborn child who is similarly using her body to live (though he is a person with rights).
In response to this bodily rights argument, Stephen Wagner, Josh Brahm, and Timothy Brahm (along with others—see acknowledgments) have developed a new illustration that more closely parallels the situation of a pregnant woman (including those who are pregnant by rape), which they call “The Cabin in the Blizzard.” From Stephen Wagner’s paper, “De Facto Guardian and Abortion”:
Imagine that a woman named Mary wakes up in a strange cabin. Having gone to sleep in her suburban home the night before, she starts to scream frantically. She goes to the window and sees snow piled high. It appears she is snowed in. On the desk by the window, she finds a note that says,
“You will be here for six weeks.
You are safe, and your child is, too.
There is plenty of food and water.”
Since she just gave birth a week ago, she instinctively begins tearing through each room of the cabin looking for her infant son. She finds an infant in a second room, but it is not her infant. It is a girl who appears to be about one week old, just like her son. Mary begins to scream.
Pulling herself together, she goes to the kitchen area of the cabin and finds a huge store of food and a ready source of water. The baby begins to cry, and she rightly assesses that the baby is hungry. Mary sees a three-month supply of formula on the counter in the kitchen area.
Now imagine that the police show up at the cabin six weeks later, and Mary emerges from the cabin. After determining she is in good health, albeit a good bit frazzled, one policeman says, “We’ve been investigating this situation for some time. The Behavioral Psychologists from the nearby University of Lake Wobegon are responsible. We’ll bring them to justice. We’re so glad you’re okay. Is there anyone else in the cabin?”
Mary said quietly, “There was.”
“There was?” The police hurry past her to the cabin. They search the cabin and find the infant formula unopened on the counter. They find the infant dead on a bed. The coroner confirms that the infant died from starvation.
We can see that Mary was wrong for not feeding the baby in this situation, regardless of the fact that she did not consent to these demands being placed on her. As Wagner points out, our moral intuition tells us her obligation to feed the child exists even if her only option is to use her own body to breastfeed that child, causing her great discomfort.
Another problem with the violinist argument is that it neglects the fact that the baby is there as a result of the woman’s own decision to have sex without being ready for a baby. In the violinist example, the woman is a helpless victim of some group of music lovers. But in a real pregnancy, the woman had to have made a decision that resulted in the baby being born, (except in the case of rape).
Triablogue explains it thus:
Thompson seems to make a distinction between consent to pregnancy and consent to sex (as Beckwith and others point out). But it seems that pregnancy is the designed result of sex, even though it may not be the desired result. It would seem that our sex organs have the purpose of being ordered towards procreation. Applying this to the violinist then: What if I engaged in an activity, say, spelunking, that regularly created rare kidney diseases in violinists? Say that every time I dropped 50 ft into the cave, a violinist was almost sure to develop the disease that only I had the blood type to correct or fix. If I did so, should I not be hooked up to him, voluntarily or not? Say that there was protection, some kind of spelunking helmet. Say that it was not 100% effective. If my helmet ripped, should I be attached to the violinist? Or say I tried to “pull up” before I hit 50 ft. Unfortunately, it felt so good to decend that I pulled up a little too late and my right foot passed the 50 ft mark. Should I be attached to the violinist? I don’t see why not. Indeed, say that the statistical evidence was that the first two people that ever spelunked together would eventually cause 6 billion violinists to come down with rare kidney diseases, I dare say the Society of Music Lovers, and almost everyone else for that matter, would call for abstaining from spelunking unless you agreed to take care of the violinists until they got better. This seems fatal to Thompson’s argument.
It’s very helpful illustration for dealing with pro-abortion people who admit that unborn children are human persons, but who still think that women should have a right to terminate their pregnancy.