“Don’t hesitate to rescue someone who is about to be executed unjustly.” — Proverbs 24:11 (Good News Translation)
In 1971, in her defense of abortion rights, Judith Jarvis Thomson [i] published an essay [ii] which used the imagery of a violinist attached to an unknowing, unwilling person. It has become one of the most famous analogies ever created within the abortion debate and is still used today [iii].
“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.” [iv]
She begins her article by admitting that an unborn fetus is a human being, a person, and ends it by stating that she really didn’t mean that. It has all been a pretense, “for the sake of argument.”
“I am inclined to think also that we shall probably have to agree that the fetus has already become a human person well before birth. Indeed, it comes as a surprise when one first learns how early in its life it begins to acquire human characteristics. By the tenth week, for example, it already has a face, arms and less, fingers and toes; it has internal organs, and brain activity is detectable…I propose, then, that we grant that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception.” [v]
“…we have only been pretending throughout that the fetus is a human being from the moment of conception. A very early abortion is surely not the killing of a person…” [vi]
Well, which is it? This is inconsistent. She says that by the tenth week (2-1/2 months, 70 days), the fetus already has recognizable human characteristics, including detectable brain activity, but then follows up with the idea that an abortion before this (no definite time mentioned) really wouldn’t be killing a human person. It has already become a human person (her words), but it is still OK to abort it so long as it’s very early in the pregnancy.
The question that begs to be asked is this: if a fetus very early in the pregnancy is not a human person, then when does it become one? Thomson refuses to be drawn into that trap, evading it quite adroitly by making this comment, and I quote, “But I shall not discuss any of this.” I shouldn’t wonder, because there is simply no way to determine any point in the timeline from conception to birth when it is possible to distinguish between ‘person’ and ‘non-person’. It is easier to just avoid talking about it.
” It is concluded that the fetus is. or anyway that we had better say it is, a person from the moment of conception. But this conclusion does not follow. Similar things might be said about the development of an acorn into an oak trees, and it does not follow that acorns are oak trees, or that we had better say they are.” [vii]
“Similar things” follows the same line of reasoning. We really can’t tell when an acorn becomes an oak tree, but we do know that it isn’t one right now. Everyone knows that acorns aren’t oak trees even if we say that they are and “we had better say they are.” Well, of course, an acorn is not an oak tree, which is the adult version of an acorn that has sprouted and grown over many years, probably decades, maybe centuries. By the same token, newly conceived zygotes or embryos are not yet adult human beings. You can’t get around the fact, though, that given enough time and the proper environment, both the acorn and the zygote WILL become what they were intended to be–fully-grown and mature.
To be honest, the comparison of an acorn to a fetus is wrong. If the analogy is to be used at all, it should be that an acorn is comparable to a zygote or an embryo before it has implanted into the uterus. Acorns are buried in the soil, grow, and eventually poke into open air above the soil line to assert themselves as individual oak trees. Embryos implant into the uterus, grow, and are eventually birthed into open air, where they assert themselves as individual human beings.
An acorn is created [viii] when the pollen (sperm) from a male flower is joined to the ova (egg) from the female flower, in the same sort of way as in human fertilization. Coincidentally, there are millions, perhaps billions, of pollen sperm available at mating time, but only one sperm is necessary to fertilize any female flower, again comparable to human fertilization.
Difference in species, difference in methodology, same principle.
Let’s move on to the “famous violinist” hypothetical situation quoted above. This is generally considered to be equivalent to a rape in which the woman or girl becomes pregnant. An extreme case, one of the “hard” ones. Also, very infrequent. In 2018, according to the State of Florida [ix], out of 70, 083 elective abortions, rape [x] was listed as the primary reason in only 101 cases. By extension, rapes which result in pregnancy are rare [xi]. In fact, according to these statistics, more than 95% of the abortions which occurred were done for the sake of personal convenience, i.e., social/financial reasons or choice. Some rapes do cause pregnancies, but this is not a valid reason to justify abortion on demand which is available to any woman who simply does not want to be pregnant.
Thomson creates another hypothetical situation. Imagine that you are trapped in a house, a very tiny house, with a rapidly growing child. [Note: it is interesting how she uses the terms fetus, baby, and child interchangeably throughout the essay without ever attempting to de-humanize the unborn person. In this respect, she is at least more honest than so many others who have attempted to remove all traces of humanity and person-hood from the debate. See here [xii] and here [xiii].
“…you are already up against the wall of the house and in a few minutes you’ll be crushed to death. The child on the other hand won’t be crushed to death; if nothing is done to stop him from growing he’ll be hurt, but in the end he’ll simply burst open the house and walk out a free man.” [xiv]
Supposedly this refers to an ectopic pregnancy [xv], although Thomson never says so. She describes the situation as life-threatening for the woman unless someone comes to her rescue. If you are not relieved of this pregnancy, your son will destroy your house by bursting it open. You will be crushed to death, but he will walk away, without any onus of responsibility or obligation–a free man. Along with the one used in the violinist case, these are scare tactics, and Thomson doesn’t hesitate to use them. A large part of her article employs this tactic to justify her position and advance the cause of abortion on demand.
There are cases [xvi] in which the pregnancy must be terminated in order to save the life and/or physical health of the mother. Most people understand that when a woman’s life is threatened by a pregnancy, then it is her life which must be saved. Inevitably, this means the fetus must lose his. In a situation where either the fetus alone will die or the mother and the fetus will both die, the conclusion is unavoidable. It may be emotionally and morally excruciating, but the decision will be made. [xvii]
However, this is not the case in a normal pregnancy which ends in delivery. It is possible to imagine birth as the bursting open of the house, but the bursting is not fatally destructive to the woman and is more akin to the throwing open of a front door. In fact, within a few days at most, she will walk out of the birthing facility with her newborn son in tow–a free woman.
“We surely must all grant that there may be cases in which it would be morally indecent to detach a person from your body at the cost of his life. Suppose you learn that what the violinist needs is not nine years of your life, but only one hour: all you need do to save his life is to spend one hour in that bed with him. Suppose also that letting him use your kidneys for that one hour would not affect your health in the slightest. Admittedly you were kidnapped. Admittedly you did not give anyone permission to plug him into you. Nevertheless it seems to me plain you ought to allow him to use your kidneys for that hour–it would be indecent to refuse.”
“Again, suppose pregnancy lasted only an hour, and constituted no threat to life or health. And suppose that a woman becomes pregnant as a result of rape. Admittedly she did not voluntarily do anything to bring about the existence of a child. Admittedly she did nothing at all which would give the unborn person a right to the use of her body. All the same it might well be said, as in the newly amended violinist story, that she ought to allow it to remain for that hour–that it would be indecent of her to refuse.” [xviii]
Ah, the milk of human kindness!
Thomson has argued that women ought to be able to abort her unborn child for any reason, but then comes out with the statement above. You can cut the violinist loose or abort your unborn baby as you choose, without recriminations from anyone, but if the time needed to cure him or to deliver the baby is shortened dramatically, then you really ought to just suck it up and do what is best for them. Yeah, really, it doesn’t matter how you feel, just do it! It would be indecent if you didn’t!
The question is, though, where do you draw the line? If it is “indecent” of you to refuse to support the violinist or your baby for one hour, then why would it also not be indecent to support them for two hours? How about 24 hours? A week? A month? We have seen that Thomson refused to discuss defining when a human being becomes a person, but here she has no compunction in saying that one hour of your time is decently obligatory.
How did she come up with this rationale? And why? It seems a little strange that she can vigorously promote a heinous, murderous lifestyle and then attempt to bring a sense of guilt into it. Kind of like baking your cake and then refusing to eat it. This is moral and philosophical hypocrisy.
Either abortion is wrong or it is not. The picture is black and white. There is no shading in it. If it is perfectly fine for a woman to kill her unborn child at any time, for any reason, then there is no shame in her refusal to countenance it for another hour. If abortion is legitimate in any and all circumstances, then women everywhere should be able to engage in the practice without shame or disapproval from anyone. [xix]
“…while I do argue that abortion is not impermissible, I do not argue that it is always permissible.”[xx]
To be fair to Thomson, it does seem that she has a sense of going too far with this line of reasoning. The problem is that she started out with the idea that abortion should be allowable in cases like rape and the life/death of the mother. This morphed into the “right to life” vs. “women’s rights” and it is neither extraordinary nor surprising that the pro-abortion lobby took the ball and ran with it. If Thomson had spoken in plain English and said that abortion was allowable in life or death cases and rape cases only, but not in any other, she would have gotten nowhere near the hearing and publicity her essay generated. Unfortunately, since January 22, 1973, tens of millions of American babies have been brutally murdered legally and part of the responsibility for that slaughter lands in Thomson’s lap. She should have stopped while she was ahead.
That brings us to Thomson’s retelling of the parable of the Good Samaritan, which she proceeded to mangle. I have quoted the entire parable. Thomson only used half of it, [xxii], which enabled her to twist it out of shape and more easily fold it into her narrative.
“On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii [xxi] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37)
A Good Samaritan has come to mean someone who does something kind for another person who needs assistance. There is nothing wrong with that definition and we should all be ready and willing to help whenever someone needs it, but this is not the whole story.
Some 2000 years ago, a lawyer asked Jesus to explain the process by which a person could gain eternal life. The answer he got was not what he was expecting. He knew the Law. He knew what he was supposed to do. He knew how he was supposed to live. He thought that eternal life could be gained by following a regimen of laws. Jesus, however, drove the lesson home that simply obeying the law was not good enough and that he had to consider another aspect of this–“love your neighbor as yourself.”
Of course, being human, he didn’t really want to go down that road, so trying to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”, and received the lesson in the form of the parable shown above.
To begin with, Jesus slammed the religious leaders (Pharisees, Levites) of the day by calling them hypocrites in no uncertain words. These were the same people who “strained at gnats, but swallowed camels.” [xxiii] They knew all the nit-picking details of the law and insisted that their constituents adhere to them, but refused to show any mercy or kindness toward the people overburdened by their rules. They focused strenuously on being “clean”, but wouldn’t dirty their hands to help a man in acute distress. Instead, they continually added more to the spiritual load calling it “righteousness.” Not a lot different than the bureaucracy we have today, just a different religion.
A priest and a Levite, both of whom were scholars and experts in the Law, passed by on the road without offering to lift a finger. If they had had cell phones, they probably wouldn’t have bothered to call 911. Yet, a Samaritan, whom the Jews of the day regarded as beneath them (unclean, pariah) stopped to help the man, took him to a hotel, gave the management a large sum of money in advance, and promised to return and settle any remaining balance. All the innkeeper had to do was to nurse the man back to health. It is interesting that one denarius at that time was equivalent in value to ten donkeys. This man fronted the value of twenty donkeys, two denarii, which, for most people of that time, would have been a very large sum.
At the end of the parable, Jesus asked the lawyer which one of the three would have been considered the victim’s neighbor, to which the lawyer replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Exactly! And this is what Jesus commanded him to do. “Go thou and do likewise.” In other words, have mercy on others when it is within your power to do so. Treat them in the same way that you would want to be treated if you were in that situation. As the Golden Rule [xxiv] puts it, “Do to others what you would like to have done to yourself.” Or to put it in a different light, don’t do to others what you would not want to have done to yourself. This timeless concept is not unique to Christianity, but is nearly universal across all religions, societies, and cultures. What a simple, yet beautiful way to live!
It is unfortunate, but Thomson twists this around and tries to make it an argument of law.
“…no person is morally required to make large sacrifices to sustain the life of another who has no right to demand them,…we are not morally required to be Good Samaritans…” [xxv]
No one is required to show mercy. No one can be forced to be kind. No one should be made to call the police when a murder is taking place in their neighborhood, let alone interfere [xxvi]. No woman should be required to show mercy to her unborn child, which is true, but she shouldn’t be able to kill it either because she doesn’t want it. In the same way, no woman should be forced to keep and rear an infant or a toddler if she really doesn’t want to, but it doesn’t follow that she ought to be able to throw it out into a snowbank in the middle of a blizzard.
Kindness, compassion, and mercy are heart attitudes and cannot be reduced to legality. Good Samaritanism is born out of love toward others, especially those weaker and needier than we are. It is not a behavior which can be legislated, regulated, and sanctioned by law. It is an understanding that we do what is right, regardless of the cost, simply because of the love in our hearts for our fellow man or woman, whomever and wherever they may be.
Thomson argues that women ought to at least be Minimally Decent Samaritans [xxvii], but they shouldn’t have to bear the burden for an unreasonable time, certainly not more than an hour. In other words, show mercy to your unborn child so long as it doesn’t cause you undue hardship, but when you get tired of carrying the load, throw it into the ditch alongside the road. Or the garbage can at the abortion mill, whichever is closer. This is nothing more than guilt manipulation, which boils down to “moral requirement”—anathema to her own stated viewpoint.
Thomson’s argument could not be further from the truth. A Good Samaritan mother who really loved (had mercy on) her unborn baby (neighbor) would commit to any cost, any hardship, in order to give her child what it needed to live and prosper.
Abortion is real. It is close to home. It causes enormous
damage to the human family. It is a monstrous act. It is comparable to the
thieves who set upon the traveler, beat him, took everything he had, and left
him for dead. It cannot and should not be compared to goodness which springs
out of a loving heart.
[ii] Judith Jarvis Thomson: A Defense of Abortion. First published in Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 1, No. 1. (Autumn, 1971)
[iii] Block, Walter E. and Roy Whitehead. 2005. “Compromising the Uncompromisable: A Private Property Rights Approach to Resolving the Abortion Controversy,” Appalachian Law Review, 4 (2) 1-45
[iv] Thomson: A Defense of Abortion
[vi] Ibid. Section 8
[x] Sandra Mahkorn, “Pregnancy and Sexual Assault,” The Psychological Aspects of Abortion, eds. Mall & Watts, (Washington, D.C., University Publications of America, 1979) 55-69. Mahkorn found that 75-85% of raped, pregnant victims chose NOT to abort their unborn child, preferring instead to carry it to delivery.
[xi] Rape and incest, along with fetal abnormalities are commonly cited as reasons why abortion on demand needs to be allowed, but these three categories account for a very small percentage of total abortions—3% or less. According to the Florida statistic cited above, rape, incest, and fetal abnormality were listed as cause in just over 1% of abortions. Blending these numbers with Makhorn’s assertion, we can deduce that there were approximately 400 rape cases in Florida in 2018 which resulted in pregnancy, 300 of which were delivered naturally. This is hardly solid ground on which to base legal abortion.
[xiv] Thomson: A Defense of Abortion, Section 1
[xvi] In some ectopic pregnancies, the embryo will be absorbed by the woman’s body, eliminating it. Others may be discovered by a physician due to a complaint of physical pain by the woman. If an ectopic pregnancy is not terminated, it will develop to the point that the woman’s life is endangered. Therefore, it should rightfully be considered self-preservation on her part to terminate the pregnancy. It is not murder in any sense of the word.
[xvii] “If an unborn individual is a person, entitled to rights, he is entitled to the right to life (in the libertarian sense). This right implies a correlative duty on the part of all other persons not to take his life, except in two cases: first, if the child commits aggression against the life of another person; and second, if the continued lives of the child and another person are mutually incompatible because of existential circumstances beyond their control. The first case raises the privilege of self-defense, which permits a victim of aggression to protect his own life, even if that protection requires taking the aggressor’s life. The second raises the privilege of self-preservation, which permits an innocent individual to take the life of another innocent individual in an “emergency situation in which both cannot survive and the survival of one depends upon the denial to the other of the means of survival.”—Edwin Viera, Jr., from Libertarians for Life, 1978.
[xviii] Thomson: A Defense of Abortion, Section 5
[xix] Walter Block and Roy Whitehead tapped into the same vein of thought. Pregnant women cannot be stopped from committing suicide, but they can be prevented from doing so for a reasonable amount of time, at least, a few hours during which their unborn fetuses can be removed and saved. After that, the woman is free to go.
Block and Whitehead: A Private Property Rights Approach to Resolving the Abortion Controversy, cited above, footnote #3.
[xx] Ibid. Section 8
[xxii] Verses 30-35
[xxiii] For a serious reading of the opinion Jesus had for the religious leaders of his day, see this passage of Scripture
[xxiv] This world would be a much better place if everyone was to follow this advice. Instead, we usually just point the finger at someone else.
[xxv] Thomson: A Defense of Abortion, Section 6
[xxvi] Supposedly, according to the New York Times, 37 or 38 people watched this horrific rape and murder, yet no one did anything to help the victim directly nor did they call the police. This claim has since been debunked. Fake news isn’t anything new to the 21st Century. The Times has been practicing for decades. https://www.history.com/topics/crime/kitty-genovese
[xxvii] Minimally Decent Samaritanism: Doing the least amount possible to alleviate someone else’s hurt and then persuading yourself that you did a good deed. A good example of this would be to witness a head-on collision on the highway directly in front of you, calling 911, and driving on without ever stopping to see if anyone is hurt or if you can help. Later you can exonerate yourself by saying, “Well, I did call 911.”