Wednesday 18 December 2013

My Body My Choice! Explaining Bodily Rights to Pro-Life People

We hear the slogan “my body, my choice” a lot in conjunction with the pro-choice movement.  We see it on t-shirts and pins and signs and commercials, but I think the real meaning of those words often gets lost, especially to pro-life people.  Now, to be clear, someone can mean a number of things when they say/write this (which is probably why our meaning gets lost when we say it to pro-lifers), but  in this article I'm going to focus on how to present what I think is the most powerful argument that can be associated with this slogan.  

This argument was first articulated by Judith Jarvis Thomson in her paper “A Defense of Abortion” and it takes the form of the following thought experiment:

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?

Most pro-life arguments rest on the assumption that if the fetus has a right to life, then abortion must be violating its right to life and many people think this assumption is very reasonable.  Despite the intuitive plausibility of this assumption, generally people agree that unplugging from the violinist would not be violating his right to life.  The challenge for pro-choice people then, is how to defend this view that abortion does not violate the right to life of the fetus, even if it did have a right to life. 

Tips for defending the view that abortion doesn't violate the rights of the fetus:

First, you might not want to use the exact thought experiment Thomson uses, because I have found a lot of people are immediately turned off by its outlandishness.  Instead, I usually use a real life example.  In September of 2013 a 72 year old man onboard a cruise ship required a life-saving blood transfusion.  In order to save his life an urgent announcement was made asking crew members if they would be able to donate.  Over 40 crew members ended up responding to the announcement.  I'd then ask the pro-life person I'm talking to if they think what the crew members did was a supererogatory act (something good to do but not evil to refuse) or not.  Usually, they agree what the crew members did was supererogatory.  I then ask them to imagine a similar situation that is modified so that it is a little closer to what pregnancy is like. For example, suppose nobody volunteered their blood and in their desperation three of the mans family members kidnapped you.  While you were unconscious they attach you to a device that removes blood from your body and puts it into his.  When you regain consciousness a doctor tells you that in order to save this mans life you will need to come in and donate regularly for the next nine months.  

This situation is closer to an unplanned pregnancy because you are not volunteering to be connected to the other person and the burden is nine months long instead of the few minutes it takes to give blood.

You may also want to break down what things in the analogy you are comparing to pregnancy and which factors are irrelevant. 

Parallels to pregnancy:

1) One person requires another persons body to survive.
2) The person whose body is being used does not want to be used in this way.
3) We are assuming both people have a right to life.
4) If one person decides to discontinue care, the other will die. 

As you may have noticed, there are a number of potentially morally relevant differences between pregnancy and the thought experiments I have outlined, however, I think if you closely examine these differences you will find that they do not undermine the analogy.  I will attempt to address as many of these differences as I can in other posts.




  1. If you need more ammunition, look at

  2. I will check it out, thanks! :)