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"When we consider that women are treated as property, it is degrading to women that we should treat our children as property to be disposed of as we see fit." Elizabeth Cady Stanton



Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Discussion of Pro-Choice Opinion: "It's unfair to force a woman to carry an unwanted child"

From my experience, this is the opinion most often used to support a pro-choice viewpoint, and the reason that most people are themselves pro-choice. Even people who are personally pro-life can be publicly pro-choice, because they also believe that it is unfair to force a pregnant woman to carry her unwanted baby. People who don't ever pause to think closely about abortion, also decide that they are pro-choice for this very reason.

That's why I think this is Pro-choice Opinion we need to focus on the most. It ignores the intrinsic nature of the unwanted child completely (so personhood arguments largely fail), and focuses solely on the emotional and physical state of the woman. She is, after all, more visible, and much easier to relate to. Most people have no problem imagining what it would be like to suddenly become pregnant - I myself realize that if I were to become pregnant today, it would be extremely tempting to try to erase the whole incident.

However, from a pro-lifer's point of view, it is perfectly fair to "force"a woman to carry her unwanted child to term. For a pro-choicer, it is not. I believe that the strongest pro-choice argument in support of this opinion is the Violinist thought experiment, first proposed by Judith Jarvis Thomson in 1971 (see the wikipedia article here). The thought experiment is pretty simple:

You've been kidnapped by the Society of Music Lovers, and wake up hooked up to a famous, unconscious violinist who is dying of a rare disease. According to your medical records, only you can save him. You must remain hooked up to the violinist for nine months, thus keeping him alive. If you decide to unhook yourself, he will die. Since the violinist is in a coma and is unaware of what has been done to you, he is an innocent person. And like all people, he has a right to life. The Society of Music Lovers therefore claims that you are morally obligated to remain hooked up to the violinist. 

Most people, when presented with this thought experiment, recognize that, while it would be very generous of you to keep the violinist alive, you are not obligated to remain hooked up to the violinist since you were forced to become so in the first place. As an individual, you have a right to bodily autonomy. This is why people cannot be forced to give blood, or donate organs.

What is so powerful about this argument is that it acknowledges the fetus's (i.e.: violinist's) right to life, but in this thought experiment, it does not follow that the fetus/violinist has a right to what is necessary to sustain his life.

Another thought experiment can be proposed to refute the first:

This time imagine that you, a perfectly healthy individual, are kidnapped by the President of the Prankster's Guild, who decides to play a cruel trick on you. You are knocked unconscious, and wake up in the hospital hooked up to him. He is currently asleep, you are horrified, and immediately unhook yourself and run for the door. But as you are running, you notice yourself becoming weaker, dizzy, and nauseous. A nurse runs in. "Stop!" she cries. "You'll die if you unhook yourself! You must remain there for nine months, only then can you stay alive without the President of the Prankster's Guild".  You quickly run back and hook yourself back up to the Prankster. Several hours later he wakes up. He looks at you, then calls for the nurse. "Nurse," he says. "I have a right to bodily autonomy. I do not want this person using my body to stay alive. I did not fully realize the repercussions of this prank. Unhook me."

In this case, it is obvious that the President of the Prankster's Guild has a moral obligation to keep you alive, since he is the one who caused your dependence in the first place. This scenario is much more analogous to pregnancy and abortion, where the mother and father (i.e.: the prankster) both engage in an act which creates a new person (you), and causes the person to become dependent on the mother/prankster. As in the thought experiment above, the mother then has an obligation to sustain the child's life, since she (and the father with her), caused the child's dependancy in the first place.

So this is why it is perfectly fair to expect a woman to carry her baby to term. Notice that the above thought experiment does not address pregnancies which result from rape. However, it is important to realize that most abortions are not done in the case of a pregnancy due to rape. According a Guttmacher Institute fact sheet on abortions in the United States, out of all women who have had an abortion:

- 3/4 obtain an abortion because they are have a concern or responsibility towards other individuals
- 3/4 say they can't afford the child
- 3/4 say the baby would interfere with work, school, or their ability to care for other dependents
- 1/2 say they do not want to be a single parent, or are having problems with the father

Therefore the majority of abortions are preformed for reasons other than rape.

To take this a little further, according to this paper, used as a reference on the Guttmacher fact sheet, less than one percent of women who have an abortion are doing so because they became pregnant due to rape (see this table  for a break-down of all reasons US women have abortions). This means that if the above argument is true, and a woman is obligated to support throughout pregnancy the child that she herself created, 99% of abortions in the United States are morally wrong (if you don't like the use of the word "morally" you can just use "wrong" or "unfair", or "violate the obligation of the 'prankster'", or what have you).

Disclaimer: I am against abortions in the cases of rape an incest as well, I just chose to stick with the specific arguments of the Violinist thought experiment for this post. Incidentally the pro-choice Violinist thought experiment is limited to addressing cases of rape, for the exact reasons I went though. I'll address the rape argument another time, though it has been done beautifully elsewhere.

Update: for a great (and far more detailed) discussion of the Violinist, you can view this pro-life podcast from Life Report.


  1. I know you will delete this... however... your ASSUMED 'morality' problem is not fact since morality varies person to person. No person is OBLIGATED to do anything for anyone... ever.

    THAT is why there are such fine lines drawn on this subject. Some defend the womans right to bodily autonomy and some the unborn purported right to exist.

    Nice to see you are passionate though.

  2. Hi Anonymous :) I don't delete any comments unless they attack myself or other members (or are spam) ... and so far I've been really lucky and have never had to delete anything ^_^ ... Thanks for assuming things though.

    I think you're confusing yourself when you say that no one is obligated to do anything for anyone. That's absolutely untrue. Parents / the state are obligated to provide for children - food, shelter, and a safe environment. Companies and cities are obligated to provide for the safety of their members. Governments are obligated to provide certain services for their citizens. Certainly there is nothing in this world that literally would FORCE someone to do something - that's where free will comes in. That's why people steal, murder, torture, lie, and bully other people. That's why governments are corrupt and leave the poor and underprivileged behind.

    Also note:
    1. An act or course of action to which a person is morally or legally bound; a duty or commitment.

    Commitments DO exist. So do obligations. I'd be very surprised if you don't think so. What do you think about the second example, where the prankster CAUSES your dependency, but refuses to allow you to live?

  3. Also .. I just wanted to say that I think its great that you're reading up on pro-life blogs :) So many people refuse to educate themselves about this issue because its too uncomfortable to deal with, and that bothers me just as much as legal abortion does! :P

  4. I'm assuming you have a post that attempts to address the issue of rape? As a pro-life person this is the one which I dwell on the most, and which in my experience a lot of pro-life people are not sensitive enough about (e.g."...but the baby is a GIFT!!!" types responses). Do you know any bloggers who are pro-life and speak from this experience, this is the hardest one to argue. It may not be the most common, but for me it's the most poignant.

    1. This is definitely a difficult issue to address. As you said, it is a very sensitive topic, and I have a post mulling around in my mind but I really want to have the time to devote myself to it properly. There are some great testimonies out there, but I have none offhand. I'll be sure to find some and include them on my site. Thank you for your thoughts!

    2. I am most definately pro-life. At 18, i was raped and became pregnant. I was going to keep my daughter but she was born still born. It was not my daughter's fault that her father was a violent man. She did not ask to be born. I don't believe there is ever any circumstance where abortion is deemed appropriate. The death penalty has been taken out in the past because it was deemed unconstitutional. If it is wrong to execute a rapist, child molester, or murderer then why is it not wron to kill a baby simply because it hasn't been born yet?

    3. Thank you so much for your testimony Stacy xox It must be so hard to share your past with others, you are a very strong woman!

      I wish you all the best!