Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Rape, Abortion, and the Violinist

Analogies are not always appropriate but I’ll present Judith Jarvis Thomson’s Defense of Abortion from 1971 that framed the Roe v. Wade debate at the time. The essay is quite a bit longer and presents other arguments in favor of abortion rights, but here is one part:

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."

The strength of this analogy is that Thomson is not denying that a human life is involved, or even that of a legal “person”, she is asking whether the lives of all persons should be protected, and to what extent that protection should be mandated by law. Does the individual have any determination as to how their body should be used. We can try to convince the life-giving donor to acquiesce to a certain moral code, but is it right, or even possible, to mandate it?  

What is your moral responsibility to the violinist, and what is the government’s role in protecting the life of the violinist at your expense? Can personal morality be legislated to this degree? Certain moral codes, such as that of the Roman Catholic Church, are very clear on the sanctity of human life, no matter the “method of conception”, even if it is rape.

Mitt Romney has said that he will protect the woman’s right to abortion is cases of rape-- this week anyway--but that could change by January since he seems to waver on this and every other issue. Alternatively, Paul Ryan, who could very well be the President in the event of Romney’s death, is very adamant about his views. He says that human life is so precious that abortion should be disallowed in all instances except where the mother’s life is in danger.  Ryan says that rape is merely a “method of conception”, and the method of conception doesn’t matter.

Personally, I find this clip chilling. But in Ryan's defense, this is exactly the stance of the Republic Party platform.


Thomson continues later in her 1971 essay:

My argument will be found unsatisfactory on two counts by many of those who want to regard abortion as morally permissible. First, while I do argue that abortion is not impermissible, I do not argue that it is always permissible. There may well be cases in which carrying the child to term requires only Minimally Decent Samaritanism of the mother, and this is a standard we must not fall below. I am inclined to think it a merit of my account precisely that it does not give a general yes or a general no. It allows for and supports our sense that, for example, a sick and desperately frightened fourteen-year-old schoolgirl, pregnant due to rape, may of course choose abortion, and that any law which rules this out is an insane law.

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