North Western Winds

Contemplating it all from the great Pacific Northwest

Violinists and Burglars and Samaritans, oh my!

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A different sort of argument over abortion

You might have heard of this pro abortion argument from Judith Jarvis Thompson before. I discovered it via a comment thread at The Conservative Philosopher. Thompson takes the unusual stance – for a pro choice person – of acknowledging that the unborn are fully alive. She then tries to prove that not all who are alive have a right to life. It’s a carefully thought out paper, and of some length, so I will deal only with three of her analogies.

The Violinist

1. Now let me ask you to imagine this. 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.” I imagine you would regard this as outrageous…

The flaw here is (or ought to be) obvious. The violinist in question has been attached to the person in question against their will and without their knowledge. The only kind of pregnancy this parallels is one resulting from rape. This tells us nothing about the majority of abortions, which are the result of people not understanding the relationship between sex and children. Here’s a hint: sex is about children. Even when you take steps to make sex nothing but “recreational” you are not absolved of risk. If there is a 1% risk, you are, by performing the act, consenting to that 1% risk. Life is full of risks and we all deal with them every day. Sometimes the result is not what we hoped, and sometimes unanswered prayers are a gift.

The additional information about the kidney patient is only of modest interest to me. It tells me more about who Thompson thinks she’s debating than it does about the scenario she’s outlining. I think the kid with down syndrome who works at Tim Horton’s has as much right to life as any violinist or surgeon. The right to life is not conditional on being able to do certain things or possessing certain traits. As I said in the comment threat at TCP, when the right to life is conditional, it becomes subject to politics. If the right to life is dependent on the sort of society we live in, then I fail to see how the holocaust was any big deal. It clearly was a big deal, and it was a big wrong deal because it is rightly seen and judged as a gross violation of Natural Law, which is an absolute standard.

The Burglar

2. If the room is stuffy, and I therefore open a window to air it, and a burglar climbs in, it would be absurd to say, “Ah, now he can stay, she’s given him a right to the use of her house–for she is partially responsible for his presence there, having voluntarily done what enabled him to get in, in full knowledge that there are such things as burglars, and that burglars burgle.” It would be still more absurd to say this if I had had bars installed outside my windows, precisely to prevent burglars from getting in, and a burglar got in only because of a defect in the bars. It remains equally absurd if we imagine it is not a burglar who climbs in, but an innocent person who blunders or falls in. Again, suppose it were like this: people-seeds drift about in the air like pollen, and if you open your windows, one may drift in and take root in your carpets or upholstery. You don’t want children, so you fix up your windows with fine mesh screens, the very best you can buy. As can happen, however, and on very, very rare occasions does happen, one of the screens is defective, and a seed drifts in and takes root. Does the person-plant who now develops have a right to the use of your house? Surely not–despite the fact that you voluntarily opened your windows, you knowingly kept carpets and upholstered furniture, and you knew that screens were sometimes defective. Someone may argue that you are responsible for its rooting, that it does have a right to your house, because after all you could have lived out your life with bare floors and furniture, or with sealed windows and doors. But this won’t do–for by the same token anyone can avoid a pregnancy due to rape by having a hysterectomy, or anyway by never leaving home without a (reliable!) army.

This is silly in two ways. First- it presumes a right to carpets and furniture, and/or a life with no undesired risks. I’ll try an be eloquent about it: there ain’t so such thing. Secondly – notice that once again the burglar/violinist/baby is active and the parents are passive and helpless. It’s those nasty babies breaking down the doors like they were zombies from Night of the Living Dead or something.

3. The Samaritan

After telling the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus said, “Go, and do thou likewise.” Perhaps he meant that we are morally required to act as the Good Samaritan did. Perhaps he was urging people to do more than is morally required of them. At all events it seems plain that it was not morally required of any of the thirty-eight that he rush out to give direct assistance at the risk of his own life [refers to the Kitty Genovese case], and that it is not morally required of anyone that he give long stretches of his life–nine years or nine months–to sustaining the life of a person who has no special right (we were leaving open the possibility of this) to demand it.

Indeed, with one rather striking class of exceptions, no one in any country in the world is legally required to do anywhere near as much as this for anyone else. The class of exceptions is obvious. My main concern here is not the state of the law in respect to abortion, but it is worth drawing attention to the fact that in no state in this country is any man compelled by law to be even a Minimally Decent Samaritan to any person… groups currently working against liberalization of abortion laws, in fact working toward having it declared unconstitutional for a state to permit abortion, had better start working for the adoption of Good Samaritan laws generally, or earn the charge that they are acting in bad faith.

I should think, myself, that Minimally Decent Samaritan laws would be one thing, Good Samaritan laws quite another, and in fact highly improper.

Thompson is right; states, dealing in the concrete and expensive reality of the here and now, can, at best, set a floor for acceptable behavior. It is up to us to search for the ceiling and reach for it. States setting Decent Samaritan laws are fine and churches push us to be Good Samaritan of our own accord. What I question here is the charge that treating women differently from men in this regard is discriminatory. It has been said in biology that the only question more important for most life forms than male or female is, is it alive? Men and women really are different, so one can’t always jump to the conclusion that different treatment is discriminatory. It might be, or it might not.

I also wonder about her reading of the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:27). The Samaritan did what he could when the situation presented itself. How is the unexpected pregnancy different? The Samaritan “set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’” We have no way of knowing how much value to attach to the money the Samaritan spends. He sets no limit. Perhaps it took nine months to earn it back? The short of it is, that carrying to term ought to be seen as Minimally Decent. The full deal of moral goodness, of which there is no upper limit, can’t be defined by law and carrying to term seems to be well short.

“Love one another as I have loved you,” Jesus said. And we know the price he was willing to pay. Nine months for the mother isn’t too much for an act in which she willing took the risk. And Fathers ought to compensate the mother for her time and her labour, by law, even if she gives the baby up for adoption.


Written by Curt

February 1, 2005 at 9:12 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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