Thomson’s “Defense of Abortion” at Forty

In 1971, philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson published “A Defense of Abortion.” It is perhaps the most famous and widely republished article in contemporary moral philosophy.

In this article, Thomson introduces us to her famous violinist analogy. You are asked to imagine that you have been kidnapped and rendered unconscious by a vigilante gang of classical music aficionados who have surgically connected you to an unconscious violinist for whom you are alone anatomically suited to be his organic dialysis machine until he fully recovers nine months later. You awake and are told that the violinist will die if you unplug yourself from him.

Thomson argues that even though the violinist has a right to life, you nevertheless have a right to unplug yourself from him. This allows her to make the point that even if X has a right to life, that right by itself does not entitle him to coerce Y to provide bodily aid and sustenance to X, even if such assistance is necessary to keep X alive. So to apply this to abortion, even if the fetus is a human person, it does not follow that abortion is always wrong, since no one, including a fetus, has a right to use another’s body against her will.

Although there are many critiques of this argument (I’ve published a few of them myself), there is a new one that I’d like to suggest: Thomson is not really granting the pro-life view of personhood.

Consider another analogy that Thomson employs, one that likens the unplanned arrival of unborn progeny in one’s life to “people-seeds [that] drift about in the air like pollen, and if you open your windows, one may drift in and take root in your carpets or upholstery.” Despite your best efforts to prevent the embedding of people seeds in your home, occasionally one takes root, resulting in a developing person-plant. Thomson, of course, believes that you are not morally required to allow the person-plant to reside in your home. You may uproot it without violating its rights.

But suppose that the people-seeds found their way into your home because you sowed them there, even though you had no intention of becoming a pod-parent. In this possible world, seed-sowing, as it is called, is a deeply emotional and pleasurable activity engaged in by two people who are attracted to each other. Being adept at the nuances of anthro-horticulture, they employ the requisite seed-icide provided to them by their local Planned Planthood, because they know and understand that the activity of seed-sowing exists for the purpose of sowing-seeds, even though people engage in it because of the pleasant and desirable sensations and emotions that accompany that activity.

        Suppose people-seeds found their way into your home . . .

But a generative act remains a generative act even if those participating in it desire only its accompanying effects and do not explicitly intend that the act achieve its intrinsic purpose. In this revised version of the people-seed scenario, it seems that you are indeed responsible for the people-seeds that result from your seed-sowing.

Thomson depicts sex as an act not unlike the opening of your home’s screened-window for fresh air from an environment in which people-seeds drift freely and may accidentally embed themselves in your carpet and upholstery. Her pro-life critics, however, see sex as an act not unlike seed-sowing, a generative activity, initiated by human volition, intrinsically ordered to the production of people-seeds.

In the seed-drifting world, one has no special responsibility to the seeds and to the people-plants they generate. The acquisition of people-seeds is not the intelligible point of opening up a window, just as getting hit by a meteor is not the intelligible point of leaving your home in the morning. The connections between the acts and the events are accidental.

On the other hand, in the seed-sowing world, an essential property of a sowed seed is the generation of a mature version of itself as a plant-person. Consequently, Thomson’s seed-drifting world seems plausible to her because she rejects a philosophy of the human person that is embraced by virtually all prolifers: our sexual powers are ordered toward the generation of children whose progenitors are required to care for them.

What Thomson is granting, then, is a view of personhood consistent with the pro-life position only insofar as it is aligned with a minimalist understanding of autonomy and choice. That view isolates the individual from other persons – generationally, contemporaneously, and institutionally – except as those relationships arise from the individual’s explicit choice. But that is not the pro-life view of personhood.

The pro-life view is that human beings are persons-in-community and have certain obligations, responsibilities, and entitlements as members of their community that arise from their roles as mother, father, child, sibling, citizen, neighbor, etc. These roles are informed by institutions and ways of life that arose over time to account for, among other things, one’s proper relationship to others, which depends on a person’s degree of development (i.e., whether or not one is a child or an adult), the geographical proximity of those with whom one shares a common life, and what we owe those who cannot care for themselves due to age or infirmity. This also includes one’s responsibility for protecting and nurturing vulnerable and defenseless human beings who come into being as a result of one engaging in generative acts that have the intrinsic purpose of bringing such beings into existence.

Because of these institutions and ways of life – that have existed for generations and do not require one’s consent in order to have normative force – we often find ourselves in a network of relationships in which we are called upon to love those who sometimes can offer us very little in exchange for the good we provide to them. If Thomson had assumed that view of personhood for the sake of argument, her case would have collapsed.

Francis J. Beckwith

Francis J. Beckwith

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

  • Mark

    Here’s my favorite scenario: Imagine a man hires you for a job. He says you have to wait for a large box to be delivered via automated system to a specific point in the room. Then, you push a button, and a big hammer will flatten the box. For each box you flatten, you get $1,000, and the boxes will keep coming 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week. It’s an easy job with great pay. But, he says, there’s one catch. There *might* be a person inside each box. You don’t know; it’s not your job to know. You just get paid to push the button.

    Do you take the job? If so, you’d probably make a great abortionist.

  • Howard Kainz

    Pro-lifers open themselves up to this sort of argument by basing their position on the natural law of the “right to life,” which admits of some exceptions. The most relevant natural law, which St. Thomas Aquinas calls the second precept of natural law, is one’s duty to have and nurture one’s offspring. Should one refrain from an abortion because, well, there is a human life? or because this is my child?

  • Michael Janocik

    I was very surprised that Francis Beckwith, in a linked article from here, said that having an abortion to save the life of the mother is morally defensible. Surely, based on his otherwise brilliant writings, I believe he meant that an “indirect” abortion might be morally defensible: The doctor should try to save both the mother and the child. If one should die as an indirect consequence of whatever procedures are required, that would be morally defensible. However, to directly kill the unborn child to save the mother’s life seems to me morally indefensible. Can a mother stranded at sea eat her child sitting next to her in the life raft?

  • Michael DePietro

    I read Thompson’s pro-abortion argument decades ago while in college, I thought it self evidently absurd then and think so now. As you point out when pregnancy is a byproduct of consensual sex the image of getting hooked up against one’s will to the violinst image looses force. More importantly pregnancy itself is hardly analagous to getting tethered to the violinist, While my wife was pregnant over the years through bearing several children she worked as nurse, did CPR on a coworker, , flew in a helicopter, played golf, went to the movies, volunteered at an elementary school and on and on.. So the point is not just that I am lucky to be married to such an energetic woman ( I am! ) but when one is pregnant one is not typically as burdened as one might imagine the image created by very different and bizarre concept of being a living dialysis machine for the imaginary violinist. The point is the Thompson argument really relies on conjuring up an artifical and repulsive image, related to nothing that happens in real life. She then depends on the emotional distaste this image creates to justify killing the violinist in her analogy and thus to justify abortion. To the extent this is not just weird, ( Is this woman not jsut creepy? Do people who think like this have any friends?) It is deceitful. The image bears no real similarity to pregnancy in any but the most warped mind) Beyond that it is not obvious that one can simply morally kill the violinist in any case ( she begs the question here..) Lets make this moe like abortion.. Imagine since we are forced to that in order to seperate from the violinist one had to dismember him or her while she begged for mercy or screamed in pain its not obvious to me that one has a moral right to do this. Especially given that the violinist will be separated naturally after 9 months, and you will hardly know he is there for the first couple of months.

    The argument is no only wrong it is repulsive. One wonders how it can survive this long

  • Anthony S. Layne

    @Howard Kainz: “Should one refrain from an abortion because, well, there is a human life? or because this is my child?”

    Both. Your question implies that the one reason excludes the other, which it doesn’t.

  • Grump

    The best argument for abortion is simple: There are about 4 billion stupid people in the world who never should have been born. Enough said.

  • senex

    There are some statements in Professor Beckwith’s article that give me pause. The chief among them is: “But a generative act remains a generative act even if those participating in it desire only its accompanying effects and do not explicitly intend that the act achieve its intrinsic purpose.”

    This statement comes very close to equating intent and purpose. If a couple engages in sexual copulation with the express desire to avoid conception of a child, is this violating the intrinsic purpose? Even if the woman or male is sterile, or in a period that the woman cannot conceive? That view is a hangover from St. Augustine who took the view that it is sinful for married couples to have sexual relations without the express intent to conceive. It took almost 1400 years for that view to be rejected by Pope Pius XII in 1951, even though there exists a cadre of moralists who refuse to accept Pius’ position and oppose NFP. Some have also said that John Paul II espoused the Augustinian position, but that is debatable.

    While Professor Beckwith raises the ‘intrinsic purpose’ argument, he is really dealing more with contraception and not with abortion, which was the introductory example in his piece. Contraception and abortion present very different issues and moral analysis. It does not help clear thinking and analysis to conflate the two. In my opinion this article confuses the two.

  • Laura

    Ms. Judith wishes to contort reality to conform to her personal desires. The simple, responsible, adult solution to this is to become expert at guarding ones’ seeds well, given the tremendous potential consequences. The practice of virtue IS worthy but second only to the active practice of HOLINESS. Peace.

  • Howard Kainz

    @Anthony S. Layne: I agree that both reasons are relevant, but the second precept is more relevant. In other words, I have a hard time imagining some very cerebral woman sitting back and thinking, “well, I guess I’d better have this child if it is a human being. But so many experts say it’s not a human person until week #x. So I guess it’s all right to abort it.” The “right to life” argument depends on whether and when the fetus is a person — and there is much disagreement about that, as you probably know. The woman following the second precept doesn’t bother with such cogitations; it’s just a matter of “this is my child, and I have duties to it.”

  • Francis Beckwith


    Sex is in fact a generative act. Opening up a window is not. The intent of the actors is not relevant to *the nature of the act*. It should not come as a surprise, then, that reproductive acts may sometimes result in reproduction. Hence, if one engages in a reproductive act that results in a dependent child, then one is responsible for that child, even if one employed devices and pharmaceuticals to prevent that dependent child from coming to be.

    I am not addressing the morality of contraception or even NFP. in fact, the idea had not even crossed my mind.

    And Michael:

    The view that I hold on the matter of the life of the mother exception relies on the principle of double effect, which it seems to me what you mean when you say “indirect” abortion.

  • Penitant Man

    Ah the very autonomous (but undignified get that straight) liberal. Uncreated, and gods of their own unfettered microcosmos. Try convincing them that they’ve installed the self as their god. [DB Hart ‘Christ and Nothing’]

    And they’re the establishment.

    Thank you so much for your protection of these millions of little ones Prof. Beckwith. We need to ask God for more of you – but we’re too arrogant to even ask.

  • Bob

    Re: Michael’s comment

    Dr. Beckwith, could you please clarify? The Church rightfully teaches that direct abortion is intrinsically evil and, therefore, is always morally wrong. An indirect abortion may result from a legitimate attempt to save the mother’s life, but contrary to your position in your “Personal Bodily Rights…” article, abortion may never be chosen as a means to save the mother’s life.

  • Margo

    We are talking about human beings not violins, or people seeds in rugs.
    If you pull a plant out by it’s roots, you have killed it.
    Abortion is murder. That’s all there is to it. Stop looking loop holes

  • Francis Beckwith


    That article is 19 years old. I published it many years before I had familiarized myself with natural law thought, let alone the Church’s reasoning on this matter. (It was only in 2007 that I was formally received back into the Church after over 30 years as an Evangelical Protestant). When I wrote that piece over 20 years ago Nevertheless, I actually only mention the “life of the mother” exception twice, and rather vaguely. So, I’m not sure how you can infer anything about the substance of my reasoning. I will tell you that at the time I was thinking of cases in which a pregnancy is terminated in order to save the life of the mother when in fact it is not terminated both mother and child will likely die, e.g., ecttopic pregnancy. The intent, as you rightly imply, is not to kill the child, but to save a life, though the child’s death is a forseeable consequence. The more difficult case is that of the craniotomy. It is addresses rather nicely by Chris Kaczor in his new book on the subject of abortion:“John Finnis” crush skull abortion&pg=PA189#v=onepage&q&f=false

  • Ben Z

    Re: Michael and Bob:

    Beckwith writes this in his “Personal Bodily Rights…” article: [footnote 11] “For example, in clarifying her own view, Thomson criticizes the absolutist position on abortion
    that it is morally impermissible to have an abortion even if the life of the mother is in significant
    danger. Needless to say, I agree with Thomson that this view is seriously flawed, and have spelled out
    my reasons for this in greater detail elsewhere: Francis 1. Beckwith, “Abortion and Public Policy: A
    Response to Some Arguments,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 32 (1989),503.”

    When we look at “Abortion and Public Policy..” he writes, “[Mollenkot’s position on abortion, i.e., H] perfectly consistent with the pro-life assertion that abortion is justified if it is employed in order to save the life of the mother.”

    In his comments here, he says his exception relies on the principle of double-effect. [From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – Doctrine of Double Effect]: The New Catholic Encyclopedia provides four conditions for the application of the principle of double effect:

    The act itself must be morally good or at least indifferent.
    The agent may not positively will the bad effect but may permit it. If he could attain the good effect without the bad effect he should do so. The bad effect is sometimes said to be indirectly voluntary.
    The good effect must flow from the action at least as immediately (in the order of causality, though not necessarily in the order of time) as the bad effect. In other words the good effect must be produced directly by the action, not by the bad effect. Otherwise the agent would be using a bad means to a good end, which is never allowed.
    The good effect must be sufficiently desirable to compensate for the allowing of the bad effect“ (p. 1021).

    Based on all of this, Professor Beckwith must mean indirect abortion = an abortion that occurs as an indirect effect of measures to save the mother’s life.

  • senex

    Professor Beckwith:

    While my response to yours could be amplified, I will attempt to summarize my thoughts here. In your article you purport to focus on abortion rather than contraception. But the arguments you raise about ‘the nature of the act’ of sexual intercourse are largely irrelevant once conception occurs. A new set of issues are presented once the female conceives. At this juncture the primary issues relate to the nature of the being conceived, whether it is a human being or not; and if human, what rights to continuation of life does it have and what obligations are imposed on the mother by reason of the presence of the being in her womb. These issues are obscured by your reliance on ‘the nature of the act’ of copulation.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    It was a fundamental principle of the Enlightenment that the nature of the human person can be adequately described without mention of social relationships. A person’s relations with others, even if important, are not essential and describe nothing that is, strictly speaking, necessary to its being what it is. This principle underlies all their talk about the “state of nature” and the “social contract,” and from it is derived the notion that the only obligations are those voluntarily assumed.

    For the ancients, of course, like Plato and Aristotle, to consider the individual in isolation from the polis, or community, was like talking about a foot or an eye, without reference to the body, as a whole. In modern times, it was Hegel and his followers who championed the ancient insight.

  • Joe McCarthy

    Interesting statement on these “pods” being created. I will date self but once a while back, Catholicism had an opinion on the interruption in coitus as being “intrinsically evil” as the counter to abortion. There are generations of children walking because this was so much of the fiber in Catholic teachings at all levels.
    I never had a pod I did not nourish through hard work and dedication.

  • karen h.

    In response to Grump and “4 billion stupid people in the world”, really? By whose standards? So, let’s suppose (playing to Grump’s view) we somehow are able to measure stupidity, then we must somehow seek and capture them, and put them out of our (highly intellectual) misery. Surely we, perhaps Grump could lead the way on this, could come up with a test to be administered during pregnancy, telling us whether the tiniest of humans is smart enough to live…Tsk, tsk Grumps, aren’t you aware that some of the most “brilliant” of people have been the most destructive to the human race? (and I confess that in the darkest recesses of my heart, I would have preferred that THEY should not have been born). However, they were born, and for a reason,I believe that firmly.

  • LDC

    There’s a difference between “unplugging” yourself from a violinist, vs. bashing in the violinist’s skull so that he does not bother you with his existence.

    Every religion in the world has some variant on “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Killing someone just because you find it inconvenient to save his life is not a behavior anyone ought to be justifying.

  • Pope Alexander

    When is the next conclave?