Friday, October 19, 2007

The Famous Violinist

is the subject of our second reading in Abortion. Originally written in 1971, before the infamous Roe v. Wade decision, it argues against the pro-life position where it is supposed to be strongest: that is, it grants, for the sake of argument, that the conceived being is fully human, a person, fully possessed of the human rights belonging to us all. Thomson then proceeds to show, by means of a now famous thought experiment, that abortion is still a morally right action in some circumstances.

My initial reaction to it, years ago, was that it's artificial. It has little or no relation to the actual circumstances of most abortion decisions.

First off, a mother is proposing to kill her offspring (the literal translation of the Latin fetus) before birth, not a complete stranger. Wikipedia calls this the "Stranger versus offspring objection".

Second, disconnecting the stranger is not a reasonable parallel for what happens in most abortions. (Wiki's "Killing versus letting die" objection.) To make the parallel more realistic (warning: don't click on this if you're at all squeamish), it would involve a third party using a chainsaw and systematically dismembering the offending virtuoso. Or killing the violinist by immersing him in some kind of acid, then removing his carcass. And we don't want to even try to draw a parallel with so-called partial birth abortion...

There are other interesting critiques of Thomson's argument. What interests me is the implication by one philosopher that she abandoned it around 1995 to use another, disputed, argument.

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