I feel like more people have become aware of this thought experiment since a fairly large YouTuber on the left released a video about it a few days ago. (skip to 8:26 for the visual demonstration, tw medical horror)
If you can’t watch the video and you’ve never heard of Judith Jarvis Thomson, here’s a summary.
(Before that, here’s a link to the Wikipedia summary of the thought experiment. It’s much more comprehensive than mine, and responds to some of the counterarguments I’ll list below in both similar and different ways than I will, so if you’re interested, I recommend giving it a read.)
Imagine that you woke up one day and found yourself in a hospital bed, hooked up to a dying legendary violin soloist. A nurse comes in and says that the violinist was in a near fatal accident and is dying of kidney failure. You are currently the only genetic match for them. If you stay hooked up to them for 9 months, their kidneys will be able to recover from the injury, and you can be disconnected from them without significant lasting harm to either of you. However, if you disconnect before then, the violinist’s chances of dying significantly increase based on when you disconnect.
The argument is that your bodily autonomy would override the violinist’s right to the use of your body. The creator of the thought experiment, Judith Jarvis Thomson, wants to reframe the debate in terms of the fetus’s right to use of a woman’s body, rather than the fetus’s right to life. Thomson, concedes in this case, for the sake of argument, that the fetus has a right to life equivalent to that of an adult human. However, she still thinks that the fetus does not have a right to the use of the mother’s body, and she thinks that that is what the discussion should be about.
Because of this, Thomson doesn't support an unconditional right to abortion (for example, she doesn’t support a woman getting an abortion a bit further down the pregnancy because she scheduled a trip abroad and doesn’t want to postpone it), and also states that in the case of a late-term abortion in which the doctors decide to instead induce pregnancy, the mother has no right to kill the fetus or otherwise prevent it from surviving outside of her womb.
For the sake of deepening the discussion, I‘ll list some common counterarguments to the argument above so that we can get them out of the way.
1. The thought experiment doesn’t take into account the fact that the mother, in certain cases, could very well be responsible for the existence of the fetus in the first place. Of course you shouldn’t allow a stranger to use your body, but the fetus is not a stranger, the fetus is the mother’s own child, and therefore, her responsibility.
I don’t like the argument Thomson uses to address this (it’s another thought experiment regarding a hypothetical thing called a people-seed, which I think makes it a little less accessible for most people), so I’ll present two thought experiments of my own that I find more relatable, as well as a few other miscellaneous arguments that I find at least somewhat persuasive.
Suppose a woman (with all the proper qualifications, of course) decides to open an independent fertility clinic. Her first clients come in and decide to do IVF. Like any standard practitioner of IVF, the woman makes several embryos, but only ends up using the most viable/desirable to the clients. Is the fertility clinic owner obligated to carry the leftover embryos to term or to find some other way (another womb, or something else entirely) for the embryos to be “born”?
Or suppose that a heterosexual couple wants children and the woman becomes pregnant. Midway through the pregnancy, the couple finds out that the woman’s body has a very small chance of being able to carry the fetus until birth. However, new advances in surgery have produced a procedure that would allow an artificial womb to be implanted into the man’s body, and thus the fetus could still be carried to term, but by the father. Is the father morally obligated to undergo the procedure?
You could also modify the violinist thought experiment to address this by making the violinist in the thought experiment your child. Are you still obligated to stay hooked up to them? If they need your kidney, are you obligated to donate one? I’m not asking if it’s a good or bad thing to do, but whether or not it’s a moral obligation. Something can be a very good thing to do (such as donating to charity) without being a moral obligation, depending on your moral philosophy.
2. This thought experiment is very unrealistic. What bearing could it possibly have on reality?
Why do all thought experiments have to be realistic? If the purpose of a thought experiment is to uncover exactly where our moral boundaries lie, it makes sense to consider very extreme scenarios, since those are the ones that test our moral systems the most rigorously. If you hold a moral principle, you should be able to defend why it does or doesn’t apply to as many situations as possible. People don’t exist in a vacuum, and our conceptions of morality need to be able to guide us through life in a consistent way.
Additionally, abortion (especially the modern kinds of abortion used in most cases today) is a relatively recent invention. In order to grasp such a leap in science, sometimes we need to expand our ways of thinking. It’s very hard to come up with an analogy to abortion that isn’t at least somewhat unrealistic due to the uniqueness of the experiences of pregnancy, birth, and abortion. I don’t think “this example is unrealistic” is a blanket reason to dismiss every single somewhat fantastical thought experiment. A lot of philosophers would be out of a job if this were the case, they seem to like coming up with this kind of stuff, whether or not it’s accessible to most readers.
2b. Wait, but you just said that you didn’t like Thomson’s “people seed” thought experiment because it’s unrealistic! You’re a hypocrite!
I am truly sorry for the lack of my precision in wording above, but I couldn’t figure out how to make all the nuance fit and still have the writing flow. I’m don’t think the kind of esoteric, unrealistic nature of the “people-seed” thought experiment prevents you from drawing rational conclusions from it. I actually think the thought experiment is quite interesting. I just found it hard to wrap my head around it when I first came across it, and I knew that a lot of people wouldn’t be persuaded by something they couldn't relate to or found weird. There’s an emotional aspect of persuasiveness as well as a logical aspect, and I don’t find the people seed argument to have the same ethos as more “realistic” thought experiments.
3. This argument is all very well and good, but this doesn’t really prove that a doctor is in the moral right when performing an abortion on a woman who wants one. What about the Hippocratic Oath?
Well, the modern version of the Hippocratic Oath most doctors use doesn’t actually contain a reference to abortion, so that particular issue seems to be resolved.
JJ Thomson also responds to this argument herself:
“If we say that no one may help the mother obtain an abortion, we fail to acknowledge the mother's right over her body (or property). Thomson says that we are not personally obligated to help the mother but this does not rule out the possibility that someone else may act. As Thomson reminds, the house belongs to the mother; similarly, the body which holds a fetus also belongs to the mother.”
Essentially, while a doctor may not be obligated to help a mother who seeks an abortion, this doesn’t mean that the doctor can’t perform abortions. Thomson argues that the bodily autonomy of a patient (in this case, the mother) isn’t diminished by a doctor’s refusal to perform an abortion. If doctors are bound to respect the bodily autonomy of patients in other cases, why not this one?
I hope this gives you some food for thought! I found this argument quite fascinating when I first came across it :)