Today I am going to write about an issue that is though not directly related to the God debate certainly something that is influenced by God belief: The abortion debate. Now, there is one particular argument in favor of the pro choice position which I have presented many times and which I find really compelling. It is called the Violinist thought experiment.

One of my interlocutors on Twitter pointed me out to a supposed rebuttal of the argument which you can find right here . I plan on debunking this article within this piece.

While this article itself gives a fairly decent presentation of the argument I wanna introduce it to you again:

Suppose you find yourself in a room and right next to you is a famous Violinist who is plugged to your body. As it turns out he has a kidney ailment. You have been abducted by the society of music lovers because the two of you share the same blood type. If you unplug yourself it will mean certain death for the violinist. You can however choose to stay plugged for nine months after which he will have recovered.

The question then becomes: Are you morally obligated that you will remain plugged? The obvious answer is no. If we admit this pro choice advocates argue we must likewise admit that a woman is not obligated to stay plugged to her unborn baby.


The author of the article Greg Koukl objects and he offers his objection for us to consider:

“First, the violinist is artificially attached to the woman. A mother’s unborn baby, however, is not surgically connected, nor was it ever “attached” to her. Instead, the baby is being produced by the mother’s own body by the natural process of reproduction.

Both Thompson and McDonagh treat the child—the woman’s own daughter or son–like an invading stranger intent on doing harm. They make the mother/child union into a host/predator relationship.

A child is not an invader, though, a parasite living off his mother. A mother’s womb is the baby’s natural environment. Eileen McDonagh wants us to believe that the child growing inside of a woman is trespassing. One trespasses when he’s not in his rightful place, but a baby developing in the womb belongs there.”


Now I think it is irrelevant whether somebody else surgically connected the two humans together or whether this developed naturally. I mean let’s take  another example from nature: Siamese twins. Let’s say one of the twins was unconscious all his life while the other is normally healthy aside from him being attached to his brother. It is possible to seperate them but in order to do so the unconscious twin would have to die while the other can ejoy the rest of life in his happiness. I take it to be fully morally permissable that the conscious twin can choose to be seperated.

The appeal to “nature” is not a relevant argument. It doesn’t matter how the situation came about it only matters what the situation is.

Yes the baby is in its natural environment inside the woman but that doesn’t make the baby less of an attacker on her body. This doesn’t mean that the baby can just feed off of her consent free. Just like the siamese twin is in his/her natural environment being attached to his brother. Now I get of course that in these cases consent is not always possible but if it is, it must be given and if it isn’t given then that is too bad.


Koukl has a second objection though along with a disanalogy:

“Thompson ignores a second important distinction. In the violinist illustration, the woman might be justified withholding life-giving treatment from the musician under these circumstances. Abortion, though, is not merely withholding treatment. It is actively taking another human being’s life through poisoning or dismemberment. A more accurate parallel with abortion would be to crush the violinist or cut him into pieces before unplugging him.”

There are two ways for me to tackle this both of which I will execute: I can either adjust the analogy in order to make it fit his objection and ask again if the situation has now changed in respect to the person’s right to unplug himself from the violinist or I can present a Hypothetical concerning the current medical situation of abortion and ask whether or not abortion would be permissable given that his problems with are solved.

Let’s start with an adjusted analogy. I dub the following the “violinist in a SAW trap thought experiment” :

Let’s say the violinist and our victim were not abducted by the music lovers society but by John Kramer the “Jigsaw Killer” from the movie franchise SAW. So now the victim finds himself connected to the violinist in a dark room. A TV goes off and Billy the puppet says the following:

Hello Rene, I wanna play a game. As you might have noticed you are physically attached to a stranger. This woman before you is Lindsey Stirling a famous violinist. Throughout your life you have been continiously selfless and I wanna test just how far your selflessness will reach: If you choose to stay plugged to Lindsey for nine months you both will get to live. Meanwhile I will make sure that you are properly fed so your survival will be ensured. I give you my word. However if you choose unplug yourself then the device consisting of Samurai swords which you see on the ceiling will slice Lindsey into a thousand pieces in the matter of seconds. Her fate rests within your hands.

Live or die, the choice is yours.”

Could anyone argue that now, since Lindsey is not just gonna peacefully die but will be cut into a thousand pieces through my hands, I would not have the right to unplug myself but would instead have to remain plugged to this person for nine months? I don’t think so.


Likewise if we developed abortion methods which would ensure that the fetus is merely removed but not damaged and we would then simply have the fetus die due to lack of life saving support would Koukl and other pro lifers now argue that abortion is perfectly fine? If he takes his argument seriously it would follow that he would have to but I have my legitimate doubts.

His third objection is this:

“Third, the violinist illustration is not parallel to pregnancy because it equates a stranger/stranger relationship with a mother/child relationship. This is a key point and brings into focus the most dangerous presumption of the violinist illustration, also echoed in McDonagh’s thesis. Both presume it is unreasonable to expect a mother to have any obligations towards her own child.

The violinist analogy suggests that a mother has no more responsibility for the welfare of her child than she has to a total stranger. McDonagh’s view is even worse. She argues the child is not merely a stranger, but a violent assailant the mother needs to ward off in self-defense.

This error becomes immediately evident if we amend Thompson’s illustration. What if the mother woke up from an accident to find herself surgically connected to her own child? What kind of mother would willingly cut the life-support system to her two-year-old in a situation like that? And what would we think of her if she did?”


Well let’s just say that I think that if the woman is surgically attached to her own child she has the right to unplug herself in this situation as well. Would it be the most noble thing: No. Would it be justifiable that the woman needs not tolerate a two year old feeding off of her body without her consent even if it is her own child? Yes.

You may not like her decision and I certainly wouldn’t but you have to respect her decision.


But allow me to present another Hypothetical: Let’s say we have a woman who gets an fetilized egg planted inside of her. She thinks it is her future baby but unfortunately the hospital messed up and as it turns out the egg inside of her is not her baby. The two are unrelated. Would pro lifers in this situation draw exception? They would have to were they consistent but again I don’t think Greg would agree.

His fourth and final objection is this:

“Blood relationships are never based on choice, yet they entail moral obligations, nonetheless. This is why the courts prosecute negligent parents. They have consistently ruled, for example, that fathers have an obligation to support their children even if they are unplanned and unwanted.

If it is moral for a mother to deny her child the necessities of life (through abortion) before it is born, how can she be obligated to provide the same necessities after he’s born? Remember, Thompson concedes that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception. If her argument works to justify abortion, it works just as well to justify killing any dependent child. After all, a two-year-old makes a much greater demand on a woman than a developing unborn.

Thompson is mistaken in presuming that pregnancy is the thing that expropriates a woman’s liberty. Motherhood does that, and motherhood doesn’t end with the birth of the child. Unlike the woman connected to the violinist, a mother is not released in nine months. Her burden has just begun. If Thompson’s argument works, then no child is safe from a mother who wants her liberty.”


Now if the faultiness of the argument isn’t immediately apparent then allow me to reciprocate with this:

There is such a thing as refrain from assistance. The mother is not obligated to take care of her child (what do you think adoption is for?) but she and the father are always and in any case legally obligated to help a person who is in life danger and they are obligated to not kill the person who is not threatening their legal goods lest they wanna spend time in jail. Killing a child is not in any case the most harmless way to stop it from being a burden. In the case of abortion the most effective and ONLY way to stop the baby from threatening the woman’s legal goods in form of the right to her body is killing it. I do not wish this to be so but it is so. A woman does not necessarily have the right to kill the baby but she does have the right to defend her rights and if exercising self-defense means killing the baby then unfortunately that’s the way it is.


In the last section of his article he raises points which I consider to be 1) irrelevant or 2) adequately covered by my previous points.


In closing I wanna say this: I have yet to encounter a coherent rebuttal to the thought experiment. The reason it is so effective and so strong is because it can be adjusted to the objections of pro lifers. If we agree with the violinist experiment then we should also agree with the pro choice position. At least in general. It is largely irrelevant when life begins as the argument concedes pro lifers what they think is what they need to establish. But as I know the nature of the debate the two camps are talking past each other. I have my suspicions why this is so but in the end the debate is not about emotions it is about cold hard logic. And I maintain that it is on my side.


Goodbye from yours truly,

Rene von Boenninghausen @Renevelation

3 thoughts on “Unplugging justified: In defense of the Violinist thought experiment

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