Refuting Thomson’s Violinist Argument (AKA Parasite Pregnancies)
Lileigh Lehnen was an 8-1/2 month developed unborn child who suffered an injury prior to birth, was born via c-section, then died. Technically, the judge ruled her death a non-homocide because she wasn’t considered a person at the time of the attack based on Colorado law. Her location was critical, both to the cause of her death, and how she was treated by the court. Lileigh’s death highlights the irrational logic of abortion-choice, where one can legally be a non-person human-being.
Lately over at Jill Stanek’s blog I’ve run into several abortion-choice advocates who acknowledge the child is a human being, but argue the mother’s bodily-autonomy (sovereignty actually) overrules all rights of her child including the right to life.
In short – consent is for sexual intercourse, but not the resulting pregnancy.
Francis Beckwith, in Defending Life, points out the bodily autonomy argument has been made extensively by Judith Jarvis Thomson, Eileen McDonagh, David Boonin and others in variations on Thomson’s violinist example.
Here’s the scope of issues (addressed in 3 articles):
- Metaphysical: The intrinsic nature of contestants – procreation & relationships;
- Morality: agency of rights/responsibilities;
- Intuitions, analogies and philosophical anthropologies – rationale & application.
1. Metaphysical: Intrinsic Nature of Contestants
Since the contest is about rights between two humans, we must first examine the metaphysical basis of origin, substance and existence of the human beings to determine if they are equal on every morally relevant point to decide this contest.
Thomson et al. concede the child is a human being. However, the child’s rights as a human being are contested, immediately indicating that the personhood of the unborn child is somehow different than born human beings. We need to discuss relationship, personhood and non-intrinsic objections to resolve the metaphysical question.
With pregnancy there are 3 specific relationships: procreative/paternal relationship, location within mother, and dependency upon the mother.
The procreative/paternal relationship provides a strong basis for rejecting the other philosophical anthropology offered by Thomson et al., because through pro-creation, the very existence (not merely on-going life) of one of the beings is dependent, in part, upon the other being. The other part, the DNA for that child’s substance, was provided by the father. So quite literally, at the completion of conception (amphimixis), two have become one flesh. All human existence depends upon an unbroken chain of pregnancies – a relational continuum of life.
Thomson’s violinist arguments beg the question by leaning exclusively upon dependency upon mother, and assuming the pro-creative/paternal relationship is non-essential to the question of human rights. They throw out motherhood as a procreative process and assume an incomplete definition of motherhood. a metaphysical grounding detached from this means of origin within the context of the vital relationship that brings about humanity.
What they throw out cannot be thrown out: the procreative process and the substance nature of both mother and child are of the same nature, an on-going human nature. (They redefine motherhood.)
However, does 1) being of the same substance of human flesh and blood and 2) the existence of both “beings” brought about through a unbroken chain of pregnancies make them morally equal on all bodily rights?
Well, with criminal violations aside, we treat all born human beings of that same substance and that procreative process equally. In fact being human (in the flesh) is the very basis of human rights equality, since it’s critical we hang those rights off something tangible. And since all other born human beings arrived on this planet the same way, the human substance – flesh and blood, and the conception & gestational process is universally equal to all human beings. Clearly both substance and gestational process are pivotal to our discussion, while age and time is not.
Arriving at the issue of personhood, the question must be raised: do the two contestants have the same moral basis for personhood? That is, not do they possess the same degree of development of person, but do they each possess all the essential common characteristics we recognize as necessary for a human person?
I believe this is the great schism in the debate, because the abortion-choice position assumes human beings can redefine the personhood of other human beings. This would require an isolation of the person from their bodies – a nullification of the intrinsic nature of human beings.
Can that be rationally done? The issue is critical because we’re dealing with personal autonomy. How can we test this?
Because the mother-child existence relationship is unique, the only reasonable test of this detached sense of personhood is to swap the two contestants physical locations making the daughter the mother and the mother the daughter. The mother’s “person” is now within the body of the daughter – think of the movie Freaky Friday, then zoom back to the time of pregnancy. (But unlike Freaky Friday, the bodies are exchanged as well.) Granted this is a conceptual swap, but from a practical sense, our chain of unbroken pregnancies acknowledges the mother was a daughter at one time. So the proceative/gestational relationship is not rejected and the only assumption is removal of time constraints so we can exchange the spatial & birth order relationships between the two contested human beings.
Should that change the moral basis of the mother’s person, by exchanging places with the daughter?
One would reasonably say no – it shouldn’t and that’s precisely my point: to claim it would change the moral basis would be a circular argument (and reveal the personhood begging schism) because the claimed abortion “right” shouldn’t change no matter who was in the womb.
So far we’ve run into two problems:
- The abortion choice position begs the question by assuming a rationale based upon a non-sequitur and in so doing they reject the metaphysical basis of their own personhood – the natural human procreative/gestational process.
- They beg the question again by assuming a definition of personhood that cannot logically exist in the world of living, propogating humanity.
I know – that’s some deep thinking, so let me clarify: As human beings we don’t morally possess the right to redefine the personhood of any other other human being because such redefinition can be applied to yourself as a human being. It subjects humans and is circular. For logicians out there – whole (intrinsic or universally true) human beings cannot be declared non-whole, (partial or universally false) human beings. That’s self refuting, like saying TRUE is FALSE.
c. Non-intrinsic objections
- I’m simply assuming the unborn is a person.
- I’m also assuming that development is non-essential.
On the first point I provided three solid reasons: substance, relationship and conception/gestational process. As each of us is that human substance, have those relationships and have undergone that pro-creative process, these are morally essential to all human persons. Conversely, as you cannot remove one of these without completely eliminating the human being, they must also be intrinsic to the human person.
On the second point, it might be said “You have a human organism, but it’s not a person until it has developed sentience and a thinking mind state”. So this abortion-choice view of personhood assumes state of mind is an essential consideration of personhood, such that without it, a human being can be considered a non-person. Restated: to be considered a whole human being, the mind-state of a whole human being must be present.
Let’s try removing a person’s mind-state to see if we can still have a human being, and to make it fun, let’s use Rene Descarte (Cogito ergo sum “I think, therefore I am” ). If Decartes was knocked unconscious, would he have ceased to be a person? Well, as far as we could tell, he wasn’t thinking, so therefore he wasn’t! Not really.
How about this one: If you weren’t mentally aware of your birth at the time of your birth, then how can you ever claim you were born?
Expected functioning of the mind is not a necessary pre-condition for human personhood. To make the matter completely clear – Terri Schiavo was still considered a person by Pinellas County, the State of Florida and The United States of America even though her mind ceased its normal functioning, otherwise legal matters would not have been initiated on her behalf, including fulfilling her alleged demands to die.
Often mind functioning and official identification, are assumed to be, but are not, essential to the intrinsic nature of a human person.
In Lileigh’s case, the legal reasoning for a human to be officially identified as being born, (and duly recorded as such), is to ensure there was an observable relationship between official charges and specific bodies. Birth is an official identification by the state for record keeping purposes, but was not the first acknowledgment of her being. Due to medical practice, pregnancy is an official diagnosis that must be declared by a licensed official physician of the state. That’s the first official state acknowledgment of Lileigh as a human being, and rightly a more just point of official identification. In Leleigh’s case, the fact that there was not an official identification of her person prior to her birth doesn’t mean she wasn’t one.
Official identification of brain functionality doesn’t redefine personhood
Official identification of brain functionality is based on the inherent characteristics of the whole human person. Borrowing a piece from Scott Klusendorf’s observations of the UDDA – death is the irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem. In other words, no further development is going on.
Given the live, nascent growing form of the embryonic brain and that we don’t reject/redefine the personhood of any born human based on stages of development, the abortion-choice advocate assumes what they are trying to prove – for the unborn to be considered a whole human being, their idea of the mind-state of a whole human being must be present. They beg the question.
As development occurs in some manner equally among all human beings, it therefore cannot be a differentiating factor in this moral equality contest.
So do human beings possess the right to redefine the personhood of other human beings?
Clearly the answer is no, not without doing something horrible to their own sense and understanding of humanity, and thereby entering a realm of circular, self-refuting logic.
d. Metaphysical Summary
Okay – let’s ask once more that 1st critical question:
Are the two beings equal on every morally relevant point to decide this contest?
Only if you rationally accept the view of a human being in all stages of life, including pre-natal, is a person of human substance that is a full-fledged related member of the human community, who is subject to every other moral consideration we respect. There simply is no such thing as human non-persons, but that path – of declaring others as such, is historically cruel, and becomes a distortion of human morality.