Abortion: Is It Justified as Non-intentional Killing?

A recent innovation within the pro-choice repertoire of arguments doubles as perhaps the most chilling argument to date: namely, that abortion is justified as non-intentional killing of an infant.

Judith Jarvis Thomson is a proponent of this view. She argues that while the fetus has a right to life, that does not mean that permissibly kill it (“A Defense of Abortion”, 174-175). She argues that “[t]here is a distinction between intentional killing… and bringing about death as a side effect, and instances of choosing not to make a great sacrifice [carrying the fetus to delivery], rather than refusing to make a small one. Thus, many abortions are morally right” (Patrick Lee, 11o).

Thomson infamously uses an analogy of a violinist and the violinist appreciation society. Suppose there is a famous violinist who is dying, and the violinist appreciation society discovers you are the only living match for her blood type. While you’re sleeping, they hook your vitals up to the violinists in order to keep you both alive. You only need to stay in this bedridden state for 9 months, and then she’ll have recovered. Would you be culpable for cutting off the treatment?

Intuitively, the answer seems to be no. The problem is when Thomson uses this analogy for pregnancy. For one, pregnancy is the result of a choice (other than in the case of rape), whereas the violinist was hooked up against someone’s will. Second, mothers have a duty to protect their children. Thomson agrees that the fetus is a human person, but then seems to think that the mother has no duty to protect this human person. Third, “…the child is committing no injustice against [the mother]. The baby is not forcing himself or herself on the woman, but is simply growing and developing in a way quite natural to him or her. The baby is not performing any action that could in any way be construed as aimed at violating the mother” (Patrick Lee, 129).

There are other problems with this view, of course. For example, what if caring for a three year old is deemed a “great burden”; perhaps even a burden which is as great as pregnancy. Should mothers and fathers be allowed to cut off care, thus leading to the “side-effect” death of the toddler?

Another problem is that Thomson’s view depends totally upon the distinction between “intentional killing” and causing death as a “side-effect.” Thomson argues that it is permissible to bring about death as a “side effect” as opposed to intentionally killing an infant. There are two ways to argue against Thomson. The first is to deny her major premise, namely, that abortion is non-intentional killing. One could argue that in every case, abortion brings about the intended death of an infant. Such an argument has initial plausibility, but mostly falls apart when one considers that in at least some cases the death of the infant really is a “side-effect.” Consider the case in which a woman “dislikes the prospect of bodily changes due to pregnancy” (Lee, 115). In such a case, the woman’s intent is to prevent the bodily changes. That the infant is killed in the process is an unintended, but known side-effect of terminating the pregnancy.

In light of this, a more fruitful counter is to deny that Thomson’s conclusion follows from her argument. One could argue that abortion is morally wrong for, among other reasons: 1) the parent has a responsibility to the child (again, contra Thomson’s scenario) and  2) the harm of destroying one’s life is significantly greater than the harm of things such bodily changes.

Justifying 1) should be intuitively obvious, but consider Patrick Lee’s example in Abortion and Unborn Human Life:

Suppose I am in a motorboat in a lake and speeding past the pier I knock… four children into the lake…. I am responsible for their being in a dependency condition [like that of the fetus upon the mother], and… I owe it to them to go back and try to help them out of the water, lest they drown. However… I might also claim that I was only responsible for their being in the water, not for their being in an imperiled condition. It is not my fault… that they do not know how to swim… But clearly, it is specious to distinguish between my causing them to be in the water (for which I am responsible) and their being in a dependency condition due to their inability to swim… (Patrick Lee, 122-123)

Thomson would have us believe that we should draw such distinctions, which are indeed specious. The mother is responsible for her child.

Similarly, 2) also defeats Thomson’s argument. Lee points out that “Death is not just worse in degree than the difficulties involved in pregnancy; it is worse in kind” (128). To kill an infant in order to avoid pregnancy is to confuse not only the degree of “difficulty” but also the kind of difficulty involved.

If either 1) or 2) is correct, Thomson’s argument fails. In order to deny 1), the advocate of abortion must deny that parents have responsibility for their children. In order to deny 2), the advocate of abortion must show that killing someone is no better or worse than putting them in the state of pregnancy. Either alternative is totally implausible. Therefore, abortion is not justified as non-intentional killing.


Judith Jarvis Thomson, “A Defense of Abortion” in The Problem of Abortion, ed. Joel Feinberg (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1984), 173-187.

Patrick Lee, Abortion and Unborn Human Life, 2nd edition (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America, 2010).


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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


9 thoughts on “Abortion: Is It Justified as Non-intentional Killing?

  1. That’s funny, JW. I just was debating some of my fellow baseball writer friends about this topic due to some of Justin Bieber’s (yeah, I know) comments in the Rolling Stone magazine. I basically just used Klusendorf’s approach of keeping it on the topic of”what is the unborn?” and the Thompson’s violinist came up, to which I replied:

    The violinist argument is interesting, but I think it ultimately fails. For one thing, Thompson is implying that moral obligations have to be voluntarily accepted in order to have moral force, but it seems crazy to infer that all true moral obligations to one’s very own children as voluntary… such a view in its full outworking destroys our concept of family morality. Thomson’s argument also doesn’t show the truth of her claim, she hasn’t shown the the distinction of our duty to save X’s life or our duty not to take X’s life.

    I found it absolutely fascinating and frankly baffling how pro-abortion people really had no solid defense for their arguments. I also gave Kreeft’s “Quadrilemma” and used some of his illustrations. Most of them, even in spite of my reasoning, would either bite the bullet and say it’s still OK to have an abortion even if we don’t know for sure if the unborn is human or not, or even if the unborn is human. Or they’d just act like I didn’t really say anything at all. It’s like they didn’t want to hear it.

    It really was befuddling to me to see how one can stand by such a position and not really justify it. They mostly would just assert it is OK and it’s not the government’s business.

    Posted by erik | February 17, 2011, 6:56 PM
    • …It’s like they didn’t want to hear it.

      It really was befuddling to me to see how one can stand by such a position and not really justify it. They mostly would just assert it is OK and it’s not the government’s business.

      I’ve found that such is often the case when discussing the issue with pro-choice people. They frequently don’t care about truth. Have you watched or listened to Biola’s iTunes University thing on abortion, “Ethics at the Edge of Life”?

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | February 17, 2011, 11:44 PM
  2. Woh. I hadn’t heard this latest “intellectualization” of the murder of the innocent.

    If there’s any comfort I personally draw from the coldness society has towards the most precious and innocent of us all, the unborn, it’s that the Scriptures show that before each major deliverance that there’s a slaughter of children. (Think Moses and the Lord Jesus Christ.)

    Could it be a signal that the hour glass is running on low?

    Posted by "No Apologies Allowed" Weekly Apologetics Cartoons | February 23, 2011, 8:58 AM
  3. Great post J, I really liked the Patrick lee quote. You should do a follow up post that addresses Daivid Boonin’s defense of Thompsons argument.

    Posted by Cody | June 25, 2012, 8:45 PM


  1. Pingback: Sources for Pro-life Apologetics « Ratio Christi- Apologetics At The Ohio State University - October 22, 2012

  2. Pingback: Abortion, the Violinist Analogy, and Body Parts | J.W. Wartick -"Always Have a Reason" - July 20, 2015

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