by Clinton Wilcox

In the last issue of this magazine, I explained how to justify the fact that the unborn are human beings biologically and how to keep the conversation focused on the central question of the abortion issue, the question of what the unborn are. Now that we have discovered how to ask the right question as to determining the morality of the abortion issue we have to ask ourselves: Is it ever permissible to kill one of these entities?

There are two ways you can go with arguing for the permissibility of abortion: arguing that the unborn are full human beings but you can kill them anyway, or that the unborn are biological members of our species but they are not valuable entities. I will look at the question of bodily rights in this essay, and in the next issue of this magazine, I will look at the issue of unborn personhood.

As we have already discussed, if the unborn are not human beings, then there is no reason to justify abortion. But if they are human beings, then how are we to justify abortion in that case? Pro-life philosopher Trent Horn has classified two different types of arguments regarding Bodily Rights: Sovereign Zone arguments and Right to Refuse arguments.

Sovereign Zone
I will start with the weaker of the two arguments, the Sovereign Zone argument. You will likely never hear it formulated in these terms, but this argument is essentially that the woman’s body is a “sovereign zone,” in which she has full and complete control over everything outside and within her body. Therefore, even if the preborn is a full human person, she still has the right to abortion because he is inside her body. She claims the right to get an abortion because the preborn is seen as violating her personal sovereignty.

Right off the bat we can see this is not a strong argument. We do not have the right to do whatever we want with our bodies. For instance, we cannot take illegal drugs, we must obey seatbelt laws, and we cannot strike anyone without just cause. So obviously we can’t just do anything we want to, or with, our bodies. In fact, no right is absolute. We have the freedom speech, but it is illegal to yell fire in a crowded business. We have the right to our religion, but not if our religion unjustly harms others (e.g. human sacrifice). So there is no reason to believe that our right to bodily integrity cannot be curtailed under the right conditions.

Consider a powerful counter-illustration from Rich Poupard in an essay called “Suffer the Violinist: Why the Pro-Abortion Argument from Bodily Autonomy Fails” (in the Christian Research Journal, Vol. 30, No. 4, 2007): there was a drug back in the 50’s and 60’s called Thalidomide which pregnant women took to ease morning sickness. However, it was later discovered that Thalidomide caused severe damage to the embryo/fetus so that the child was born without arms and/or legs. Thalidomide was subsequently made illegal for pregnant women to take. But if a woman has the right to do whatever she wants with her body, then why is it illegal for a pregnant woman to take Thalidomide? If the “Sovereign Zone” argument were in fact correct, then if a woman took Thalidomide knowing its destructive effects, causing her child to be born without limbs, you would have to say that she did absolutely nothing wrong even though she has harmed her child.

We might also look at the fairly recent case of Aliza Shvarts, who allegedly artificially inseminated herself several times and induced miscarriage each time to use for a senior art project at Yale. This had many people in an outrage, including the pro-choice organization NARAL. Yale officials later concluded that her shocking claim was fiction, but if her body is really a sovereign zone, then we have no grounds for condemning her art project.

Right to Refuse
This is the argument where the gloves come off. Judith Jarvis Thomson, a pro-choice philosopher, in her essay “A Defense of Abortion” (from Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 1, No. 1, Fall 1971), came up with a thought experiment showing that even after accepting the premise that the preborn are human persons with full moral status, abortion can still be justified. It’s additionally powerful because it rests on another premise that pro-life advocates generally agree with: If someone is in a life-threatening situation, then we bear no responsibility to donate an organ or blood to that person, even if neglecting to do so would result in that person’s death. Thomson’s thought experiment is as follows:

“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. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him.’ I imagine you would regard this as outrageous, which suggests that something really is wrong with that plausible-sounding argument I mentioned a moment ago.”

This argument seems very powerful upon first (and even fifth) readings. Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason, in his article “Unstringing the Violinist” ( unstringing-the-violinist#.Uyyd3fldU1I) mentions that the first time he ever heard it was on a radio talk show, while he was driving down the 405 freeway in Los Angeles. It shook him up so much he almost had to pull over.

It’s a very powerful argument because she is essentially conceding the main premise of the pro-life position: Yes, the preborn are full human persons from fertilization, but she continues to argue that abortion is morally permissible. Once you dig deeper we realize that there are parallels which aren’t really parallel in morally significant ways, making this a false analogy.

In fact, as John T. Wilcox observes in his essay “Nature as Demonic in Thomson’s “Defense of Abortion” (from The Ethics of Abortion: Pro-Life vs. Pro-Choice, Third Edition, ed. by Robert M. Baird and Stuart E. Rosenbaum, Prometheus Books: Amherst, New York, 2001, p. 260), this thought experiment may not accurately capture our intuitions regarding pregnancy. While we can’t just dismiss an argument because it’s weird, it’s entirely plausible that since the violinist scenario is extremely rare (and impossible in reality), whereas pregnancy is natural and common, in fact the way that all human beings begin life, our obligations in the violinist scenario may not actually be the same as they are in pregnancy.

So the argument fails to be a successful argument for the legality and/or morality of abortion. There are some objections that are better than others. I’ll start with the weaker objections and end with the strongest objection to this position.

You must stay in a hospital bed plugged into the violinist, whereas most pregnant women are not bedridden.

In the violinist analogy, you must stay in the hospital bed plugged into the violinist for nine months (or amended to years or the rest of your life). However, most women are not bedridden for nine months. They can still go to the store, go to church, go to school, and/or work for most of the pregnancy. As Dr. Bernard Nathanson has written in his book Aborting America, (New York: Doubleday, 1979, p. 123) with Richard Ostling, “Few pregnant women are bedridden and many, both emotionally and physically, have never felt better. For these, it is a stimulating experience, even for mothers who did not originally want to be pregnant.”

I list this first because while it’s true for some cases, it’s not true for all pregnancies. There are rare cases in which women must stay bedridden for most of their pregnancies (e.g. if she has preeclampsia or an incompetent cervix). Although this isn’t true for most pregnancies, this objection would not hold true for women who are bedridden.

The pregnant woman’s relationship to the child in contrast to the violinist, a stranger.

One problem with the analogy is that this argument rests on the premise that a woman’s responsibility to her own child is no different than your responsibility to a complete stranger. This is clearly false. You may or may not have an obligation to feed a homeless person, but you definitely have an obligation to feed your own children. And you certainly have an obligation not to kill your own children. You clearly have more obligation to your own offspring than you do to a complete stranger.

The reason I have included this second is because philosophically, the argument can be made that under a bodily rights argument the woman has no moral obligation to stay “plugged in” to her own child. What if we amend the analogy and say instead of the violinist, you wake up and it’s your own son that you’re plugged in to. People may rightly look down on a parent who would unplug from their own child and allow their child to die, but morally you don’t seem to bear a responsibility to stay plugged in.

You are unplugging from the violinist, whereas in most abortions, the embryo/fetus is being directly killed.

In this analogy, you are simply unplugging from the violinist and allowing him to die. Whereas in surgical abortions, the child is actually being physically killed (usually through dismemberment, poisoning, or crushing). As Frank Beckwith, in his book Politically Correct Death: Answering Arguments for Abortion Rights, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1993, p. 133), points out, “Euphemistically calling abortion the ‘withholding of support’ makes about as much sense as calling suffocating someone with a pillow the withdrawing of oxygen.”

This also isn’t the strongest of objections because the analogy would still justify abortions not done surgically. Abortion pills like RU-486 simply prevent implantation, the preborn child starves and is flushed out of the woman’s body. RU-486 is more like “unplugging” from the preborn child.

The woman is partially responsible for the existence of her offspring.

Now we get to the most powerful objection to the violinist analogy. Simply, you are not responsible for the condition the violinist finds himself in but in the vast majority of pregnancies, the preborn child exists because of a consensual act between a man and a woman. But not only has the woman and man created the child, but they have also placed the child in a condition of dependence upon the woman.

David Boonin, who has written one of the best defenses of abortion, makes the case that we must distinguish between being responsible for one’s condition of neediness and being responsible for one’s existence with the result that they are in need. Boonin amends the violinist analogy to suppose this violinist comes into the hospital dying of a fatal ailment. A doctor, in an act of generosity, administers the drug to cure him but several years later the violinist develops the kidney ailment in Thomson’s analogy. The doctor has the correct blood type to help assist the violinist. Boonin argues that the doctor is responsible for the violinist’s continued existence, but is not responsible for the kidney ailment the violinist now finds himself afflicted with.

However, Boonin’s argument fails for a simple reason. The doctor, in an act of generosity, extended the violinist’s life. He did not bring the violinist into existence in a needy condition, as a man and woman does when they engage in sexual intercourse.

Now, while this is a very powerful objection to the violinist analogy, admittedly this objection does not work in the case of rape, in which she is not responsible for the child’s presence. But in this case, we have to remember that the child is a second victim. Adding an abortion on top of the rape is just compounding one act of violence on top of another. And as Beckwith has mentioned in his book Defending Life, there is a simple rule of ethics that we may not kill person A to benefit person B. This is not a lack of compassion for person B, it is simply an unwillingness to commit murder.

In a civilized society, we punish the person who is guilty of an act, not their family members. Our society won’t even allow the rapist to be killed for the terrible crime he has committed; we cannot allow the rapist’s child to die for the crimes of his father.

So as we can see, bodily rights arguments appear powerful at first but fail under scrutiny. The main argument is simply that if someone is in a life-threatening condition and needs one of our bodily organs to survive, we have no obligation to provide that bodily organ (for example, a kidney transplant or blood transfusion). As such they don’t believe a pregnant woman bears any responsibility to keep the embryo/fetus alive.

But as we can see, the pregnant woman actually bears a special responsibility to the preborn human she carries within her. If you knowingly engage in an act that creates a naturally needy child, then you bear a responsibility to care for that naturally needy child.

Scott Klusendorf, in his book The Case for Life, (Crossway Books: Wheaton, Illinois, 2009, p.195), gives the following analogy:

Suppose you come across a button on the wall that says “BABY MAKING MACHINE.” That button will give you a pleasurable experience but has a 1/100 chance of producing a baby that comes out of a chute below. You walk up to it and push the button, receiving the pleasurable experience, but a baby comes out. You can’t just walk away and leave the child to die. You are morally obligated to care for that child because you knowingly engaged in an act you knew had a chance of producing a child (that is, pushing the button).

Bodily rights arguments are very powerful but pregnancy is a very unique situation. In the case of pregnancy, a woman’s general right to bodily autonomy does not trump the preborn’s right to life.

The preceding article appears, in a slightly altered form, on my blog.

Photo of Clinton Wilcox

About Clinton Wilcox

Clinton Wilcox is a staff apologist for Life Training Institute and resides in Fresno, CA. He is a regular contributor to the Secular Pro-Life blog and has had articles featured on and the National Right to Life Committee blog. He is also a speaker and mentor through Justice for All and has spoken to hundreds of pro-life and pro-choice people, on several college campuses across four states and through various on-line mediums. He has given presentations on podcasts and in front of churches and philosophy clubs.




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