It takes a special kind of person to go all-in on supporting abortion even after recognizing it as deliberately killing an innocent human being. I’ve recently seen one such example passed around Twitter like a bad case of herpes. In it, feminist Sophie Lewis argues for abortion on the grounds that it releases women from enforced “gestational work.” Abortion is killing, she admits, but it’s a justified killing due to “the violence that, innocently, a foetus metes out vis-a-vis a gestator.” She proposes that the “gestator” who doesn’t want to keep doing that work should be able to quit her job or go on strike. The argument is part of a promotional snippet for her new book, Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family (as though there were ever any other kind of feminism.)
It’s certainly vile, but there’s nothing new about this argument–that an unborn child is a violent aggressor who can be treated as such. At the very least, it least goes back to the “violinist argument” made by Judith Jarvis Thomson in 1971 who suggested the following analogy:
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. . . . To unplug you would be to kill him. But… it’s only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.
The point of this analogy is that, just like a person would be justified in unplugging the violinist from her body because his right to live does not require her to serve as an external kidney, a person would be justified in aborting an unborn child who has no right to live by parasitically using his mother as a host. As revolting as it may be, this kind of argument is particularly compelling to libertarians and others who place great value on personal autonomy—basically those who bury their heads so far up the non-aggression principle that they can no longer discern what counts as aggression.
As an argument, it fails because it’s not a particularly good analogy. Its most damning error is to conflate the relationship between a mother and her child with the relationship between two strangers–you and a random violinist. Lewis makes exactly the same mistake when she renders “a mother and her child” in Newspeak as “a foetus and its gestator.” Strangers have a certain kind of responsibility towards one another, but it does not require the kind of lengths necessitated by the violinist’s situation. That would just be slavery. Mothers, on the other hand, have a much more robust set of responsibilities toward their own children, such as caring for, nourishing, and protecting them. When a mother rejects such responsibilities, we rightly call it neglect or abandonment. Just as a mother does not have the freedom to eject a toddler from her home as an intruder, neither does she have the freedom to eject an even younger child from her womb—the only means by which she can fulfill her responsibilities before birth.
Although the argument remains garbage, it’s nevertheless worth considering what could lead a person into such mental and spiritual poverty that she could mistake a mother and child for strangers in the first place.
The stereotypical Puritan was supposedly a prude scandalized by the gritty details of sexual activity. Sex was a necessary evil for the continuation of the human race, but otherwise it was dirty, unnatural, and ought to be done through a hole in the sheets. There was never much truth to that caricature, but ironically, many who mock those alleged prudes have become prudes themselves. They may not see illicit sex acts as anything to ashamed of, but when it comes to the natural consequences of those acts, they recoil. They have become so scandalized at the thought that sex is procreative that it brings to mind an seven-year-old boy saying, “Babies come from where? Ew, that’s gross!”
The disgust with which these people view human nature is palpable. How else could one envision the womb as a nightmarish medical contraption straight out of a horror movie? How else could one view her own unborn son or daughter as a violent slave-driver simply for needing to be with their mother? From extreme examples like this, to everyday high school health classes which treat pregnancy as just another STD to protect oneself against, it’s the same sad story. The thought of a human life growing inside a woman as a result of intercourse and being nourished directly by her body has become something from which people turn away in disgust. Like the stereotypical prude, if such people had been involved in human design, they no doubt would have come up with a more sterile and convenient means of reproduction—perhaps something akin to what we read in Brave New World, in which humans are manufactured rather than conceived, born, and raised.
In the end, that very notion of design becomes the crux of the matter. Once we deny the idea of God deliberately designing the family, we eventually lose the idea that there is anything special about familial relationships except whatever we project onto them. And as we grow ever more terminally selfish as a culture, we’re less likely to recognize any such value at all. If humanity as we know it happened to emerge through wholly arbitrary processes, the relationship between a mother and a child is really just a chance occurrence. It would have no more moral force than a a relationship between strangers.
Nevertheless, such a nihilistic perspective is a double-edged sword. If one accepts that the relationship between a mother and her child is sufficiently arbitrary or meaningless to preclude responsibilities, then surely the relationship between strangers loses such significance as well. Strangers are oriented to each other even more arbitrarily than a mother and child. And yet, even the violinist argument is founded on the ideas that the violinist does not have a right to treat a stranger in a particular way and that the person to whom he is attached does have a right to respond in a certain way. But why? If even a child can be disposed of by its own mother for her sake, then why can’t the subject of the argument be disposed of by the violinist for his own sake? If human life is without any value except its utility and desirability, then we are all merely consumable resources for the strong, and the actions of the violinist and the Society of Music Lovers are just as appropriate as those of vampires like Lewis.
It all seems like a high price to pay simply for the convenience of murdering our own children.