Responding to Bodily Autonomy Arguments Part 2: Right to Refuse

/ Commentary

In “Responding to Bodily Autonomy Arguments Part 1: Sovereign Zone and Uni-personal Arguments” we saw the normal justifications for abortion as a “right” based on a uni-personal understanding of pregnancy (where the preborn is viewed as a literal part of a mother’s body) are not accurate, because these justifications are mistaken about the biological nature of pregnancy and the relation between mother and child.

Likewise, “sovereign zone” understandings of pregnancy are also mistaken since they lead to conclusions which go against our moral common-sense, and lead us to conclude abortion is a form of unjustly violating the bodily autonomy of another human being, and is wrong. But maybe abortion is still justifiable as a form of refusing to provide care?

The “Right to Refuse” argument is by far one of the strongest arguments for abortion rights. If one wanted to ground abortion as a natural right of women this is a good place to start. I happen to think it is one of the best arguments put forward in favor of abortion.

The concept of a “right to refuse pregnancy” was first articulated and popularized by philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson in her 1971 article “A Defense of Abortion.” The piece has since been critiqued and responded to by a number of philosophers, and has been defended or re-argued by thinkers such as Eileen McDonagh and David Boonin. Pro-lifers would do well to understand the argument. The time of simply stating “abortion is murder” is long past us.

Thomson does something many pro-choice activists on the streets avoid: She affirms the possibility the preborn are valuable human persons. However, she argues this is irrelevant, as a woman still has a right to control her own body. While not affirming the sovereign zone per se, Thomson argues a woman has a right to refuse to provide support she did not consent to.

Thomson writes,

“But 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 now is 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 you've now 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.’ Imagine you would regard this as outrageous, which suggests that something really is wrong with that plausible-sounding argument I mentioned a moment ago” (Thomson, Judith Jarvis, "A Defense of Abortion," Journal of Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1 (1971), p. 47).

Thomson’s argument appears strong. If her parallels to pregnancy and abortion work, it follows unplugging oneself from an unwanted fetus through abortion is acceptable just as it is justifiable to unplug oneself from an unwanted stranger. The humanity of the preborn and their possession of a right to life are irrelevant in Thomson’s view. Street level variations are abundant. “Women are not incubators,” “Unwanted Pregnancy is like forced organ donation,” ”No more forced pregnancy,” and other slogans are routine on social media.

The argument is both strong and well-known, but it is far from invincible.

This becomes clear when a closer look is taken at the parallels. To do this, we have to “hit the books” so to speak. We need to see what other philosophers and ethicists say about Thomson's analogy. In doing so, we see Thomson has made a few errors in her argument.

Christopher Kaczor proposes we first take a look at the scenario from the violinist perspective.

Writes Kaczor,

“It is true you didn’t choose to be hooked up to him, but it is equally true that he didn’t choose to be hooked up to you. Let’s imagine that the violinist does not like being hooked up to you. Suppose further that he has spotted another person, who also could support him, a person he finds extremely attractive and charming. In ways too numerous to list, he finds her exciting to be near, and, frankly, he has grown weary of being plugged in to you. Moreover, being hooked up to you is, in his estimation, a serious burden. Unfortunately, technology being what it presently is, the violinist cannot simply snip the cord that links you to himself. Indeed, in order to separate himself from you, he will end up causing your death, though he would survive by being immediately hooked up to the person he likes better...The violinist would prefer that you not die, and sadly your death would be an unfortunate side effect of unplugging, but it would not be right to force him to be a Good Samaritan just to keep you alive for nine months. Would it be morally permissible for him to detach himself from you, if the only way to do so would involve your death? After all, if you may unplug yourself from the violinist, causing his death, then he should be able to unplug himself from you, causing your death. Things tend to look a little different from this perspective, and our intuitions change. The violinist, it would seem, is not justified in unplugging himself from you, causing your death. But if the violinist may not unplug himself from you, causing your death, then it is only fair that you not unplug yourself from him, causing his death. If so, then not justified after all” (pg. 160-161).

Thomson relies on our moral intuitions to show it is wrong to ask someone to give us support they do not want to provide, but as Kaczor points out, our moral intuitions lead us to conclude it is intuitively a greater wrong to ask someone to give up their life itself for the sake of our freedom. Strike one against Thomson’s argument.

A second problem arises in regards to the nature of abortion itself. Thomson presupposes abortion is similar to unplugging a stranger who then dies peacefully. However, as we have already seen in part 1 through the writings of abortionists, abortion is far more than a mere unplugging of an unwanted guest. It involves being torn into a bloody pulp by suction, having one’s skull crushed, being decapitated, and being poisoned through lethal injection.

Put simply, abortion is brutal. The violinist argument fails to take this into account. Imagine saying you may get rid of the violinist by shoving him through a wood chipper, or a jet engine, or having him guillotined. The argument now seems harder to accept when made parallel to abortions as they are currently performed.

As Francis Beckwith says,

“Euphemistically calling abortion the ‘withholding of support or treatment’ makes about as much sense as calling suffocating someone with a pillow the withdrawing of oxygen.”

Thomson has failed to adequately justify abortion as it is practiced today.

Likewise, Helen Watt points out the unwanted “connection” with another human being still does not justify purposely violating the bodily autonomy of the human being one is connected to.

Writes Watt,

“Causing harm by intentionally invading the body of another seems particularly hard to justify in the case of innocent people whose bodily space we normally think of as inviolable. Such invasions cannot be equated with mere failure to aid, or even active withdrawal of aid...If my own bodily borders must be respected-one reason why it was wrong to connect me to the violinist in the first place-why not those of the innocent human being to whom I am connected? Can I undo the wrong of bodily invasion by which caused our two bodies to be linked together by carrying out a wrongful invasion myself-indeed, a far more harmful invasion-of the body of another innocent person?”

However, maybe mothers do have a right to “disconnect” from their own offspring, even if it means letting their child die. This provides the basis for the “Forced Pregnancy” assertions we often hear. Allegedly, pro-life advocates are engaging in a great evil by “forcing” women to remain pregnant.

In order to argue this, Thomson has to assume a view of parenting and childbearing which is intuitively awkward and in opposition to the pro-life understanding of personhood. For starters, she assumes the only obligations we have to others are those we specifically consent to. In the context of Thomson’s argument, this includes our own children.

However, as Francis Beckwith also notes, this is so utterly foreign to the understanding of personhood as being presented by pro-lifers it ends up failing to adequately refute the pro-life argument.

Further, why should we accept the claim a woman has no more of an obligation to her own child than she does to a complete stranger?

As Greg Koukl asks, if a woman woke up not connected to a stranger violinist, but to her own son or daughter, the violinist argument begins to look even weaker. It’s natural to think of parents having obligations to their own children. Looking at the violinist analogy leads us to conclude Thomson’s parallels aren’t actually parallel to pregnancy.

As Helen Watt observes,

“However, if the fetus is already a person, then the fetus is already a child: the child, perhaps, of quite specific people, whether or not they will raise it as their social child. It is far from clear that a child may be deliberately killed simply to avoid raising or relinquishing him or her: what would we say about a man who killed an infant on these grounds? Perhaps the man has been left ‘holding the baby’ in an isolated area and is afraid of having to care for the child long term. But does that justify infanticide?”

Likewise, Don Marquis drives the point home,

“All mammals have mothers. A fetus is a mammal. Therefore, a fetus has a mother. Only the pregnant woman qualifies to be the mother of the fetus within her. All mothers are parents. All parents (unless exceptional circumstances obtain) have serious, special duties of care to their children. (Think here of your reaction to deadbeat dads.) Therefore, all pregnant women have serious, special duties of care to their children. Fetuses are children. Therefore, all pregnant women have serious, special duties of care to their fetuses” (Marquis, “Manninen’s Defense of Abortion Rights Is Unsuccessful,” 2010).

This becomes pretty obvious when serious reflection is given to the question. Jay Watts asks it this way: when he goes home from a speaking engagement, would his audience be justified in holding him accountable regarding the whereabouts of a random member of the audience after the event? Not really.

However, suppose Mr. Watts flew all the way home and left his own child behind? Would it then seem obvious something is wrong with the situation? Judith Thomson tries to get around this in her piece by asserting once a mother has given birth and taken her child home, she has already consented to being the parent of her child.

But if a parent has special duties to their own children (at the very least a duty to not kill them) then it seems they have always had this duty from when their child came into existence.

Remember, Thomson says to assume the preborn human is a person. That means Mr. Watts’ child was a person then, a recipient of special obligations on the part of Mr. Watts, as she is right now.

In response to the concept of parental obligations, a popular slogan which has arisen as a defense of abortion is "Consent to sex is not consent to pregnancy." Popularized by Political Science Professor Eileen McDonagh (more on her below), the consent argument is popular. Just because a woman consented to sex, we are told, she does not consent to pregnancy.

Let's suppose it's true, consenting to sex does not mean consenting to pregnancy. By extension, it would seem to follow on the view that consenting to sex also does not lead one to consent to parenting, since pregnancy ends with birth of the child.

Thomson's violinist does not have any claim to your support once you are disconnected from him, so why should your child? As Patrick Lee points out in his book, this would mean parents are justified in abandoning infants at birth. After all, if they did not consent to pregnancy, they definitely did not agree to become parents. Thomson does assert once parents have given birth, they have assumed the responsibilities of parenthood. But does this automatically follow her argument?

In response, Patrick Lee provides the following scenario:

"But suppose the only reason a woman did not get an abortion was that she could not afford one. She and her husband take the child home only because they had no alternative. Moreover, they live in a society where people are not in line to adopt a baby. And so the baby is several days old before anything can be done. If they abandon the baby and then the baby is found, he or she will simply be returned to them. Would it not, according to the analysis Thomson has given, be permissible for these parents to abandon the child in some isolated place-not to secure the child's death, but to detach the child from them, although this would most likely result in the child's death...I think we recognize the truth that even reluctant parents have responsibilities to their children. When we read or see on the news that people have left their newborn child in a garbage dumpster we react with horror or disgust. I believe Thomson's argument would lead to condoning such acts, but I also believe that such acts are clearly immoral... Thomson's position has implications which should at least cause one to pause and reconsider."

This is not as far fetched as it seems. The news is filled with stories lately of newborns being found in plastic garbage bags or in dumpsters, such as the horrific recent case in Georgia. Under the "Consent to sex isn't consent to pregnancy" view, this becomes much harder to reject as wrong. To use an example from former abortionist Dr. Bernard Nathanson, suppose a mother gives birth to a baby who needs to be breastfed for a particular length of time. Perhaps formula is not available for the next week or so. Could a mother justly make the claim "Well, I consented to pregnancy, but I didn't consent to caring for my child once she was born" and then let her newborn starve to death so she may be free of the "burden" of parenthood? Would we be willing to legally protect this exercise of a woman's "bodily autonomy”? Should we?

If your worldview logically leads to the conclusion casually abandoning infants (especially one's own child) in the wilderness where they will surely die, or starving them to death by not feeding them is a sacred right to be legally protected, you need a new worldview.

However, maybe it is only before birth the "disconnecting" from parental obligations is justified. But that does not seem to logically follow at all.

Thomson has arbitrarily picked out a special circumstance where this can be suspended, namely, when one is connected to their child. Thomson tries to avoid this by arguing once the child is born, the parents have consented to being the caretakers of the child. But how does this even arise from her argument?

Francis Beckwith notes the problem with Thomson’s argument, summarizing,

“If Thomson responds to this argument by saying that birth is the threshold at which parents become fully responsible, then she has begged the question, for her argument was supposed to show us why there is no parental responsibility before birth. That is to say, Thomson cannot appeal to birth as the decisive moment at which parents become responsible in order to prove that birth is the time at which parents become responsible.”

The parental relationship objection still stands, and it alone is enough grounds to reject the right to refuse argument for abortion. On the other hand, it has also become popular to assert restrictions on legal abortion are tantamount to denying women their personhood. "Women have heartbeats to!" is a popular slogan. "Women aren't incubators!" is another one. As pro-life advocates we are told we are guilty of dehumanizing women by making them into little more than vessels for another person.

Pregnant women are not incubators, but as we have seen, they are in fact mothers. Which means, in turn, they have obligations to their children, the most obvious of which involves not having their skulls crushed or being shredded like hamburger meat through suction machines. At the very least, they have an obligation to not lethally expel children from their care.

Writes Helen Watt:

"Does recognizing such an obligation in the context of pregnancy involve treating women as incubators or 'fetal containers'? Surely not: if I am a pregnant woman, it is no more treating me as an incubator to expect me to respect my baby's body and allow it to remain within my own than it is treating the baby's father as a cradle to expect him to avoid violent, reckless, or negligent treatment of the baby after birth. At least until such time as other carers can take over, it is reasonable to expect those supporting a child to continue to do so, and in any case, to avoid deliberate harm and/or harmful bodily incursions on the child."

Claiming laws restricting abortion are unjust or dehumanizing because they treat women as "incubators" is silly.

But maybe it is the case parents do not have any more of an obligation to their children than they do to a stranger’s child. Fair enough. This still does not lead us to conclude they may be left to die, nor intentionally killed, as a thought experiment from Christopher Kaczor illustrates:

“Imagine a remote mountain cabin which, due to severe weather, can only be safely reached or departed from during the three months of summer. A man arrives there in September, just as the safe window for departing the mountain is closing. A week later, during the first of the unending mountain blizzards, he is startled to hear someone knocking frantically on the door. He opens the door to find a woman, barely alive, whispering in a tongue he does not understand...She expires. Covered in the protection of her clothes, he finds a newborn baby. Does the man have an obligation to take care of the infant for the next nine months until he can get off the mountain, or may he simply throw the baby outside into the winter storm? The answer is obvious. Adults have special obligations to take care of vulnerable children. It is even more clear that parents have special obligations to their own children.”

There are still some who will assert the man (or woman, in Francis Beckwith’s rendering of the scenario) has a right to refuse to care for the infant. However, even if there is no legal obligation to save the infant, our basic humanity demands otherwise. We simply know better. A woman who would rather “expel” an unwanted infant than bear the temporary burden of caring for the child is not someone who should be trusted with any deal of power or authority. As Beckwith puts it, we “would not congratulate her for her analytical skill and/or philosophical insight, we would condemn her and hope that she remain in northern Alaska alone with her books in contemporary moral philosophy.”

But maybe it is not the obligation which is the problem; rather, it is the physical connection between mother and child. This leads to a fourth glaring problem with Thomson’s argument. Thomson indirectly argues it is wrong to connect oneself to an unwitting host; Eileen McDonagh takes it a step further and argues a fetus connecting itself to an unwilling woman is the equivalent of a man “connecting” himself to an unwilling woman through forced sexual intercourse. In other words, unwanted pregnancy is as serious as rape.

This barely deserves a serious response. A woman’s own son or daughter before birth is the equivalent of a rapist? Really?

Taking the argument seriously, it would seem there is an obligation on the part of preborn human beings not to connect to women without their consent. But why is consent necessary in this one particular case? How would one even go about obtaining this type of consent before birth anyways?

This poses a major problem for the consent argument. Christopher Kaczor again points out the flaw in Thomson and McDonagh’s reasoning. As Kaczor notes, preborn children have no obligations because they lack the mental capacities necessary to act on said obligations.

Writes Kaczor,

“People do indeed have a duty not to occupy the body of other persons. But a human fetus, like a human newborn or a human adult with serious mental handicap, has no duties, so the supposition that the 'fetus has no right to occupy its mother’s body' is false. Just as winds, water, or animals cannot violate someone’s rights (since these beings have no duties in virtue of not being capable of acting knowingly and freely), so too it is literally impossible for any human fetus, any human newborn, or any human adult with a serious mental handicap to violate anyone’s rights. Abortion cannot therefore be justified in terms of a mother’s claim right against her unborn child or the child’s lack of a right to occupy the mother’s body.”

To help see the absurdity of such an argument, just imagine how silly it would be if a mother decided to file suit against her newborn for the usage of her body without consent. The question is automatically nonsensical from the start. Of course newborns cannot be held responsible for occupying their mother’s body. They cannot be held accountable for much of anything, given they are not consciously aware of a notion like “bodily integrity” or the wrongness of violating another’s body. McDonagh’s unwanted pregnancy/rape analogy, along with Thomson’s demand for consent, is just plain nuts.

A fifth problem also arises based on this concept. Thomson also overstates her case about the hardships related to pregnancy in the violinist analogy. Philosopher Rosalind Hursthouse summarizes this problem with Thomson’s argument,

“I cannot do my job, I cannot go visit my sick mother, I cannot go to my sister’s wedding, I cannot go to films, I cannot go swimming, I cannot read (Well, perhaps the violinist is a great talker), I cannot have a confidential conversation with anyone and I cannot make love. And all of this for a whole nine months. But the usual pregnancy does not make one bed-ridden, and even when it does, very rarely for nine months; nor is the foetus, even assuming it to be a person, someone whose presence rules out reading, private conversations, and sex.”

Thomson has produced a view of pregnancy which is foreign and bizarre to most people’s understanding of it. Indeed, some women have reported they never felt better, and some medical conditions like arthritis are alleviated during the period. This is not to assume childbearing is always easy nor is pregnancy free of difficulties; rather, it is simply understanding Thomson has framed pregnancy in a way which is foreign to the experiences of most women.

Even if Thomson’s argument works as a grounding for abortion, it could only be used to justify abortion as a means to remove the incapacitation due to pregnancy-related disorders, which can very often be treated with medication and other types of therapy.  It would not be able to work as a basis for protecting abortion in the vast majority of pregnancies, where incapacitation is absent.

Somewhat related to this, a sixth problem also arises; namely, Thomson views pregnancy as something inherently unnatural, which is a bizarre and awkward way of viewing childbearing. This is often how some abortion rights activists view pregnancy, a sort of parasitic illness (a view which is biologically flawed). However, given that pregnancy is a regular occurrence, this seems odd. Thomson’s violinist would be a once in a lifetime occurrence, never before recorded in human history, but pregnancy is not. Indeed, taking Thomson’s argument seriously, every single person reading this piece, every single person who has ever existed, was once a “violinist” in the beginnings of their life. This is something which has occured billions of times in just the last century alone. The very thing which makes the violinist scenario compelling is exactly what is missing in most pregnancies. Thomson’s argument has failed to adequately reflect the nature of pregnancy, and should thus be rejected. After all, if the child does not belong in the womb, where exactly does he or she belong?

Trent Horn makes the observation the entire point of a uterus is to sustain prenatal human life. This immediately casts doubt on fears of “Forced organ donation." A kidney or liver is only oriented towards the life of one human organism; namely, it’s owner. In contrast, the human reproductive system is inherently oriented towards producing a new human being (pregnancy) through interaction with another human being (sexual intercourse). Humans are also made to bond with their babies.

During pregnancy and especially birth, a mother’s body is flooded with the hormone oxytocin, which enables her to better bond with her baby. Known as the “love hormone”, oxytocin is released during a number of biological activities, such as social bonding, hugging, cuddling, and especially sex. Even loving on your dog can cause an oxytocin release. The hormone is especially prevalent in childbearing, and can impact mental problems related to pregnancy.

Taking the parasite analogy or the “Forced organ donation” arguments seriously would have to lead one to conclude humans just so happen to be the only species which have organs used to sustain the life of another living entity unnaturally connected and be naturally wired in order to bond with them. Outside of feminist theory classes, this is absurd. Thomson and her followers have missed one of the biggest counter-points to their analogies: Childbearing is natural, purposeful, and even beautiful, unlike the contrived scenario she points us to in order to justify artificially interfering with a natural process. As one thinker observed, physicians who interfere with the body’s natural functioning in the name of healthcare are “practicing quackery.”

Kaczor points out another major flaw in the assumption made by Thomson and other “forced organ donor” analogies,

“Another difference is that in the case of kidney donation, the kidney is donated. By contrast, in pregnancy, the woman is not donating or giving up her uterus, but just allowing it to be used for the purpose for which it was made. Parents do have a general obligation to use their bodies to help their own children. They should use their arms to keep their child from danger, their feet to walk to get what is needed for their child, etc. For a parent to fail to use his or her body, when the parent can and should, is child neglect.”

Intentionally killing said child is hardly an acceptable improvement.


In conclusion, the right to refuse argument fails to live up to its expectations. The street level variations which continue to be repeated online without question continue to show the pro-abortion movement has largely failed to interact or understand the criticisms the argument has faced. There are more criticisms which can be raised, and authors on both sides of the abortion issue, such as Christopher Kaczor, Francis Beckwith, Patrick Lee, Kate Greasley, Erika Bachiochi, Rosalind Hursthouse, and many others have all taken the time to adequately assess and refute the argument.

Thomson’s parallels to pregnancy ultimately do not succeed in accurately capturing the nature of pregnancy and abortion.

It seems we are then left with an inevitable conclusion. Appeals to bodily autonomy simply fail to provide a stable grounding for claims to abortion rights. Arguments for prenatal personhood aside (a collection of these arguments can be found here and here), if bodily autonomy is the best basis for a right to abortion, and bodily autonomy arguments fail to provide an adequate grounding, then it simply follows the moral right to abortion is non-existent.

Abortion still turns out to be an immoral enterprise, one which a civil society should not be celebrating, tolerating, or legally protecting.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Human Defense Initiative.

Nathan Apodaca

Nathan Apodaca

Nathan is a staff apologist for the Life Training Institute, equipping pro-life advocates to make the case for life. Also a contributing writer at The Millenial Review and CampusReform

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