Partial-Birth Abortions within an Atheist Ethics Framework , Or my problems with the “Violinist Argument”

NOTE: I have decided to start a free blog to post my personal opinion on certain issues that bother me. I don’t expect anyone to read this, but if you found yourself here through some Google byway, you are certainly welcome!

I want to talk about an issue that I seem to have a somewhat unpopular opinion on, namely the morality of Partial-Birth abortions from the perspective of an Atheist.

By partial-birth abortion, I mean abortion after and including the point a fetus reaches mental development to the point where it could be said to be reasonably equal to a newborn infant. I will use “personhood” status to refer to this, for the rest of the post.

First, to clarify, I believe that before a fetus has developed to a point to be considered, at least mostly equal in mental capability, to a newborn fetus, it is morally acceptable to allow an abortion to occur. This is because the fetus is not really person at this point.

We use this same line of reasoning to give personhood status to humans with low and high IQ’s but not personhood status to humans considered to be in a vegetative state.

It is very difficult, at least currently to know exactly when this happens in a fetus, so I generally accept that abortion is morally acceptable until the third trimester. This, however, is only a rather uneducated arbitrary line, a fetus might achieve personhood a little earlier or a little later than this.

With that in mind, I do not believe that it is moral to allow the abortion of a fetus determined to be a person, or to have personhood status. Except in cases where the mother’s life is at risk.

This seems to be a somewhat unique opinion on the internet among those who do not believe in a God, and I decided to elaborate on why I believe this.

The problem of the morality of abortion seems to , though not always, generally tie into whether we accept that a fetus is a person at some point before birth, and whether we accept that a woman’s right to bodily autonomy outweighs a fetus’s right to bodily autonomy, or life.

Generally, among atheists, it seems to be stated that bodily autonomy, namely the right to do what you will with your body, always trumps the right of life of a fetus.

I do not accept this. Though bodily autonomy certainly has value, in our culture, we do not accept bodily autonomy as more important than the right of life of another individual.

You do not have, for instance, the right to take a club and bash someones head in. This is a limit on your personal bodily autonomy. This is due morally, to the fact that you are infringing on the right to life of another person. It is also based practically on the fact that if murder was allowed, society as we know it would be much less stable and developed.

I will not be discussing practicalities, however. Instead I will focus on how we deal legally with the abortion rights issue compared to other right to life issues. I decided to focus on our legal culture, because discussions of morality tend to be so arbitrary among individuals that it tends to be about as productive as discussions about politics, sports, or your favorite color.

Now on to the meat of the post.

It has been stated that the “violinist argument” is one of the best, if not the best argument for support of unlimited restrictions on abortion. Here is the original form of the argument by Judith J. Thomson, a somewhat renowned moral philosopher.

“It sounds plausible. 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 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? 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 now you’ve 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.” I imagine you would regard this as outrageous, which suggests that something really is wrong with that plausible-sounding argument I mentioned a moment ago.”

First of all, I agree that it is morally acceptable to unplug yourself from the violinist in this example. You are not responsible for the injuries suffered by the violinist, and you can not be made to perform a positive action, namely the giving of your blood and the freedom of your movement, to save his life. In this case, your bodily autonomy trumps the violinist’s right to life, because you are not at all responsible for his injuries, nor obligated to save him.

But the violinist argument makes a fatal error, it fails to consider the fact that the mother is not kidnapped, but instead ultimately responsible, along with the father, for the conception of the fetus.

A more reasonable example would be the following:

A man, who I will from this point on call subject A, for whatever reason, decides to attack another man, subject B, with a lead pipe. He walks up behind the man, and beats him over the head with the pipe, causing the man to bleed profusely and go unconscious. Subject A did not originally plan to kill Subject B, only to gravely injure him. Subject B is taken to the hospital, and subject A is arrested for assault. Both men have the same blood type, and it is only possible for the man who committed the aggressive act to donate his blood, no other blood is available for transfusion. If subject A does not donate his blood, subject B will die, if he does donate, over a period of nine months, subject B will make a full recovery.

Should subject A, the attacker, be legally obligated to donate his blood to subject B, the attacked?

Well, in our current legal system, we already have an answer to this.

If the attacked man, subject B were to survive, the attacker, subject A, would only be charged with assault with a deadly weapon, or at worst, attempted murder. If subject B were to die, however, subject A, the attacker, would be charged with murder and suffer the increased legal repercussions of this.

The legal system is not concerned with the motivations of Subject A, at least not when determining the distinction between assault and murder. (Motivations do play a part in determining the degree of murder committed, but that is not entirely relevant here.)

It is important to note that subject A continues to hold bodily autonomy, he is not required to donate his blood. The legal system will not charge him with murder for not giving up his bodily autonomy, the legal system will charge him with murder for being ultimately responsible for causing the death of subject B, due entirely to his consensual and lucid action, the attacking of subject B with a lead pipe.

By not donating his blood, the attacker is facing significant legal repercussions. In the same way, it seems reasonable to me to make it illegal for a woman to abort a fetus once it has reached an accepted personhood status, because the conception of the child is ultimately a production of the consensual and lucid action of the mother and father, and not the result of some “kidnapping” as is the case in the violinist argument.

Assuming we are willing to define a fetus, right before birth, as equally or almost as equally human as a newly born infant, and we accept that a new born infant is a person, or should at least not be killed, then an extreme late term abortion is as much a murder as that of an infant, or of that committed by subject A to subject B, when subject A fails to donate blood to subject B.

Once again, it is important to note, that subject A, the attacker, is not required to donate his blood, he only receives a much stiffer penalty for the death of the attacked. He is voluntarily capable of trading bodily autonomy for less prison time, due to the fact that it reduces the consequence of his action. In the same way, a woman carrying a fetus late term is not required to carry the fetus to term, but would suffer legal repercussions for ending its life, because she, along with the father, is ultimately responsible for giving it personhood. Bodily autonomy is not really at play here. All that is considered is whether the person in question is killed as a consequence of a deliberate act by another person or persons.

People do not argue, that, a man who assaults and kills another man should only be charged with assault because the attacked man died as a secondary result of the attackers actions, namely, bleeding to death after the attack. In the same way, it seems unreasonable to me to use special pleading in the case of a female during a late term pregnancy.

I think that the bodily autonomy argument really clouds the issue. It is only in cases of an unforeseen accident or “kidnapping”, where bodily autonomy is allowed to reign over right to life of another individual. You are not legally obligated to donate a kidney to a family member, due to this. Because the mother is responsible for her pregnancy, however, she can not claim bodily autonomy when ending the life of a late term fetus.

Now some people might ask, “What about in cases of rape?”. For me, this is a much more clouded issue, about which I am unsure. But I will use the same reasoning as above.

Is it legal to end the life of a newborn that is a product of rape? The answer is no. Well, if we consider a fetus that is late term, to be equal in value to a newborn, even in cases of rape, then it should still be illegal to end the fetus’s life. However, it is perfectly allowable for the mother to terminate the pregnancy before it reaches the late term and the fetus reaches person-hood, and I think this allowance solves the rape problem.

I believe the Violinist argument is strongest in the “rape case”, but not strong enough to justify abortion of a fetus considered to be a person. You can give birth to a child without killing it, current technology can keep an infant alive, even if born pre-term. If you can separate yourself from the violinist without killing him would it be moral to turn off the machine keeping him alive, simply because the machine inconvenienced you? I am not comfortable saying it would be.

Generally, it seems to be asked, immediately after this position is taken, “What, then, would be the punishment you would give to the woman who aborted her child late-term?” It always seems to come off as a “gotcha” question, and I never understand why.

The answer is simple: If we consider a fetus to have reached “personhood”, and it to be equal in value to a newborn, then we should hand out the same punishment you would to someone ending the life of their newborn.

Final Note: I am not trying to suggest in any sense, that consensual sex between two adults is in any way a crime or can be compared to assaulting a man with a pipe. I choose the lead pipe example because it seemed a better way to represent the responsibility for the pregnancy held by the mother and father that was not addressed in the Violinist Argument. Also, I want to make it very very clear, that the responsibility for a pregnancy is equal among the two partners, the male and female, though the female has to bear the pregnancy solely. Nature can be cruel, but as individuals with thinking minds, we can overcome the problem, either through the use of birth control, or early abortions before the “person-hood cutoff”. I believe it would be fair to require the man to pay his fair share of abortion related costs, taking complication risks for the female into account, it seems fair for the male to be required to pay more than half of these costs.













Partial-Birth Abortions within an Atheist Ethics Framework , Or my problems with the “Violinist Argument”

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