Criticisms of Thomson

Notes for September 17

Main points

Thomson’s case for the right to abortion rests on the violinist example. In today’s class, we considered two different ways of challenging her argument.

One tried to exploit the lack of voluntariness in the violinist case. The person who is hooked up to the violinist is kidnapped; that strikes most people as being most closely analogous to rape and more distant from the sorts of cases in which abortion is normally demanded.

The other treated the right to control one’s body with the same kind of scrutiny that Thomson used on the right to life. It looked for ways of showing that there is no right to abortion that are independent of considerations about the right to life.


The voluntariness objection is the first one that most people think of when they read the violinist case. I find it surprisingly hard to formulate a crisp, persuasive point, however.

It is certainly true that people can voluntarily give up their rights to others: that’s what selling my watch involves, for instance. But I have a lot of trouble seeing how transactions like that are analogous to voluntary sexual intercourse that results in pregnancy.

Thomson herself suggested a more promising approach of describing it as a matter of being responsible for the fetus’s plight. This led us to extensive discussions of car accidents: we know there are risks involved, after all.

The right to control one’s body

Thomson trains a lot of fire on the right to life. I think she succeeds in showing that the path from the right to life to a prohibition on abortion is a lot more crooked than it appears to be.

But if there is a right to abortion, it has to be a part of the right to control what happens in and to your body. Showing that the right to life is not a reason to reject the right to abortion is not the same thing as making a positive case that there is a such a right. It just involves knocking down one way of opposing the right to abortion.

Could an opponent of abortion put pressure on this right, much as Thomson did to the right to life? I think so. I described several reasons why an act might be wrong even though it did not violate anyone else’s rights.

  1. It could be selfish, as in the case of the boy who won’t share his chocolates.
  2. It could be indecent, as in the case where Henry Fonda won’t even walk across the room to lay his cool hand on my fevered brow or as in the case where a woman wants a very late abortion to avoid postponing a trip.
  3. It could be an illegitimate means to a legitimate end, as in the case where I use a machete to prevent someone from stealing my watch.

The victim’s rights do not drive these arguments. It’s facts about the acts of hoarding, behaving indecently, or using illegitimate means that do the work. They are selfish, indecent, or wrong.

It would be interesting to see if opponents of abortion could develop a point like this to make a case for their side that is independent of the right to life.

Key concepts

  1. The voluntariness objection to Thomson’s violinist example.
  2. Thomson’s replies: burglars and person seeds. How are those examples relevant to the objection? And why do some people do not find them persuasive?
  3. Arguments against abortion that do not rest on the right to life.
This page was written by Michael Green for Problems of Philosophy, Philosophy 1, Fall 2013. It was posted September 18, 2013.
Problems of Philosophy