Helen Pringle in her article, “The case of the violinist and the fetus,” resurrects an old argument in order to shed new light on the abortion debate. She refers to the famous ‘violinist’ argument which Judith Jarvis Thomson first made in 1971 (“A Defense of Abortion,” Journal of Philosophy and Public Affairs 1, pp. 47-66).
Pringle is right to note that it is a controversial piece. She invokes the argument, but notes that it is not without its shortcomings. She then provides a modification of her own in an attempt to keep the spirit of the argument alive. I wish to address both in turn.
As to the original Thomson piece, it is as fundamentally flawed as it is appealing. The argument seeks to show a moral equivalence between the two situations when there is none. The differences are profound.
First, a mother/child relationship is not on a par with a stranger/stranger relationship.
Second, blood relationships entail genuine obligations that are not found in other less formal relationships. Parents are thus prosecuted for child neglect, while next door neighbours are not.
Third, a child is not an invader, stranger, trespasser or parasite. It is the natural guest of a mother’s womb.
Fourth, the violinist is artificially attached, while the baby is naturally housed.
The whole point of the Thomson piece is to suggest that a mother has no more obligation to her own baby than to a stranger. Indeed, her argument proves too much. Substitute the violinist for her own child in the story and what is the outcome? Should a mum have a right to cut the life support of her own baby? By Thomson’s reasoning, we have the right to kill any person who is dependent on us, at least if he or she curtails our liberty.
No one has complete freedom to do what they will with their own body, especially if another’s life is at risk. We may live in an age where personal autonomy trumps all other considerations, but the obligation of a mother to her own child is not negotiable. Nor should it be.
Helen Pringle however tries to offer a different tack, and uses the organ donation analogy. Is it any more helpful? Not at all. She is still mixing apples and oranges. To donate an organ does not (generally speaking) entail the loss of life. An abortion always does. The withholding of treatment (or the donation of organs), and the issue of abortion, are altogether dissimilar.
Moreover, she argues her case using this peculiar phrase: “that involuntary use of her body” That is an odd way to describe motherhood. First of all, was it an involuntary act in the first place that resulted in the pregnancy?
Aside from the issue of rape, which of course would result in what might be called an involuntary use of the mother’s body, the overwhelming number of pregnancies would be very much due to voluntary arrangements. One might argue that if the first act was voluntary, why not the second?
She then argues that no other class of persons are compelled to use their bodies in this way (if abortion were made illegal). That is not quite right. Firstly, as argued above, all people have a moral obligation not to take the life of innocent human beings, and mothers have a further obligation to preserve and protect their own children (just as fathers do).
Second, she seems to buy the personal autonomy argument to the max. She seems to think any obligation imposed upon us by another human being is a vexatious, burdensome and freedom-destroying shackle. In such a world of moral nihilism, no social obligation would be acceptable or possible. But the truth is, every day millions of people take on sacrificial obligations to others. Husbands to wives, wives to husbands, parents to children, and so on.
We all know that millions of sacrifices are made on a daily basis. Why? Because that is what love is all about. I may not feel like taking out the rubbish for a thousandth time. A mum may not feel like feeding the baby at 3am once again. A dad may not feel like helping his son get his homework done. These are all burdens which we bear, and bear gladly, for the sake of the beloved. But in the cold rationalistic world of Thomson, and perhaps Pringle, such considerations seem to hold no water.
That is what life and civilisation are all about. To view child-bearing as being “bodily conscripted to the state” is a bizarre way of describing the most natural, the most wonderful, and (dare we say it) the most sacred of human bonds.
Moreover, the same argument for autonomy and voluntary obligations could be made of children of any age. By the reasoning of these two women, if a woman feels chained to her three-year-old, and feels that her freedom is unduly restricted, taking the life of that parasite or trespasser would be appropriate.
Pringle ends her piece by hoping such considerations might help us all to think more carefully about “our moral duties to others, including unborn persons”. I hope it does. But I am afraid that Pringle may have imbibed too freely of the spirit of the age, the spirit that knows of no social or moral obligations, other than to oneself, and that can only understand the carrying of one’s own child as an unwanted burden and a nefarious obligation.