The main reason I am doing this blog is to defend pro-choice bodily rights arguments with a focus on Judith Jarvis Thomson’s unconscious violinist thought experiment (hence the title “Restringing the Violinist”). For the full break-down of that thought experiment see my last post.
Pro-life philosophers have pointed out a number of differences that they believe to be morally relevant between the violinist story and pregnancy. I think one of the most powerful objections I have encountered is the responsibility objection and I will attempt to respond to that objection in this this and one or two other posts, so this will just be part one.
The objection goes something like this: in Thomson’s story you have not done a voluntary action that caused the violinist to need your kidneys to survive, but in pregnancy the pregnant woman has done a voluntary action that caused the fetus to need her to survive, namely, she had sex. This seems to be a morally relevant difference. Imagine you have poisoned the violinist by accident and that is why he now needs your kidney to survive, it seems plausible that you are now morally obligated to stay plugged into him. However, I will demonstrate in a number of thought experiments that having done a voluntary action that causes someone to need you to survive does not mean you should be legally obligated to sacrifice your bodily autonomy for their benefit even if you are morally obligated.
For example, suppose you and your wife are going on a romantic road-trip to a cabin in the mountains. You know there is a chance that you will get into an accident and injure someone, but you are a good driver and you follow all the rules of the road. You are in a residential area and a child is obliviously playing with a ball. He runs out from behind a parked car and you hit him. He is rushed to the hospital. He is okay except for his kidneys, they are severely damaged and he needs a transplant or he will die. Although you took precautions in order to avoid a situation like this, you have still caused someone to need you to survive so a government worker visits you at your home and informs you that if you do not donate your kidney to the child you may face jail time. You don’t want to have a criminal record so you agree to donate. You have to undergo surgery. You have to take a few months off work, so you are now in a terrible financial situation. Your wife leaves you and everyone around you looks down on you because you ran over a kid.
It seems extremely intrusive for people to be legally obligated to make such enormous sacrifices of their bodily autonomy. Perhaps it is morally obligatory for you to donate a kidney to the child, but the added legal obligation seems extraordinarily intrusive to me.
If we did force people to sacrifice their bodies for the dependents they create, not only would people who get into car accidents be required to sacrifice their bodily autonomy, but this may extend to other situations as well. Currently, you can sue people for all sorts of things and demand that they financially compensate you for the different ailments they have inflicted on you. Under the assumption that we can override people’s bodily autonomy when they have created a dependent we would now be able to demand that people submit their organs, blood, or bone marrow if they are found legally responsible for causing someone to need those things to survive. This seems like a huge injustice.
Suppose I run a small coffee shop and I fail to put up a “slippery when wet sign” and a customer trips, falls, and gets impaled on a straw. It goes right through his kidney! He can survive for now, but he will eventually need a transplant. There is a very long waiting list for the next kidney and there is no chance that he will get one in time. Does he now get to sue me for my kidney?
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that that is a really outlandish analogy, but the point is that it seems extremely morally problematic to force employers to sacrifice their bodies against their will for their customers, or employees. This just seems like a terrible consequence of this line of reasoning. So, although I can appreciate the intuitive power of this objection I think it ultimately fails, because when you add a legal dimension (making it more closely parallel making abortion illegal) the objection leads to some very hard to swallow consequences.