Published May 23, 2022
We are all the violinist.
The philosophical juice was long-ago squeezed from Judith Jarvis Thompson’s hypothetical: If you were kidnapped and used as a life-support system for an ailing virtuoso, would you have the right to disconnect him? Nonetheless, its argument from autonomy is, if anything, now more central to the case for abortion.
This emphasis is largely a byproduct of the ultrasound pictures on our fridges and social media feeds. It is difficult to dismiss human lives in utero as worthless clumps of cells when you can count their fingers and look at their faces. So abortion supporters increasingly echo Thompson’s claim that no one should be compelled to sustain another person, whether violinist or fetus. Thus, a woman has an absolute right to violently end the human life developing in her womb.
But the flaws of Thompson’s old hypothetical also illuminate the weakness of contemporary arguments for abortion grounded on claims of bodily autonomy. Thompson’s creativity in trying to make pregnancy seem alien was also the downfall of her argument, which is, in philosophical terms, silly.
The violinist scenario is a hypothetical freak of medicine, whereas pregnancy is the normal reality of human reproduction. This normalcy, in turn, reminds us that we were all once utterly dependent in utero, and that most of us will be dependent again, whether from illness, injury, or old age. In short, we are all the violinist.
Human solidarity recognizes this shared dependence. Ignoring it, or trying to avoid it, has been a great failure of the liberal political tradition. Liberal discourse privileges independent, rational adults (or at least adults who imagine themselves such). But independent, rational adults don’t need solidarity, they need a non-aggression pact and mechanisms for conflict resolution—which is what classical liberal theorists such as John Locke sought to provide.
In contrast, solidarity begins with the truth that our shared humanity is suffused with dependence and weakness. Instead of boasting that we are born free and rational, solidarity knows that we are born vulnerable, and only attain limited freedom and rationality through the care and teaching of others. An ethos of solidarity knows not only that we are always at risk of a relapse into physical dependence, but that our mental, emotional and relational needs also make us dependent on others for fulfillment and happiness.
Liberalism’s focus on the autonomy and rights of independent adults is incapable of accounting for human vulnerability and dependence. Thus, solidarity insists that we have duties to others, even if we did not choose them. Regardless of our consent, we often have obligations not only to refrain from harming others, but to affirmatively help them, communally or individually.
This is why social conservatives have developed a robust network of charities and crisis pregnancy centers to care for women and children in need. Conservatives have also become more comfortable discussing family policy, or how broader economic policy affects working class families, rather than responding with automatic laissez-faire libertarianism. Government sometimes has a role in helping families, which is why Texas paired increased spending on mothers and children with its law restricting abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected.
This does not mean that a big-government welfare state is necessarily pro-life. Tacking a welfare state on top of an individualistic liberal framework is insufficient to preserve solidarity, and in fact will often degrade it. The highest abortion rates in the nation are found in uniparty blue states such as New York and Illinois, in part because the left often promotes welfare not as a form of solidarity, but as an escape from it.
Left-liberalism often presents paying for people as a way to be free from them—pay your taxes and social services will take care of the rest. For instance, government-subsidized childcare is promoted less so much as a way to help the vulnerable than as a means of liberating women from staying at home to care for their children.
Abortion is likewise defended as freedom from the obligation to care for others. For example, after Republicans pointed out that the federal government protects sea turtle eggs more than human life in the womb, New York Times columnist Gail Collins complained that the comparison was a poor one because human “offspring will need and deserve many years of constant care and concern.” Collins’ conclusion, of course, is that women need abortions if and when they do not want to provide that care to their children.
Liberals like her claim to secure freedom and independence for women, who might otherwise be made economically dependent and personally obligated by childbearing. But the price for this supposed freedom is rendered in the lives of the unborn, and therefore in the dissolution of liberal solidarity. Liberal regimes now view the fundamental human relationships of mother, father, and child as a clash of selfish interests.
Abortion’s dissolution of family solidarity poisons everything. Abortion culture encourages men and women to use each other rather than to love each other. Abortion culture teaches us to treat children as expensive commodities, rather than welcoming them as blessings.
This tendency toward atomization is seen in the violinist hypothetical, which presents a world of hostile strangers, not loving relationships. But the rules liberalism established to govern relations among strangers—the liberal framework of personal autonomy, rights claims, and market decisions—are insufficient for the dependencies and obligations of family life. Family is not a contract.
Family requires solidarity, which abortion destroys, both directly by violently ending unborn lives and indirectly through the culture this enables and encourages. And when solidarity decays within family life, it will not endure socially or politically.
This is why the promises of abortion advocates have proven false. Thompson’s weird hypothetical invites us to disconnect the violinist, but abortion disconnects all of us from the love and solidarity that enable genuine human flourishing.
Nathanael Blake is a senior contributor to The Federalist and a postdoctoral fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Nathanael Blake, Ph.D. is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His primary research interests are American political theory, Christian political thought, and the intersection of natural law and philosophical hermeneutics. His published scholarship has included work on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Alasdair MacIntyre, Russell Kirk and J.R.R. Tolkien. He is currently working on a study of Kierkegaard and labor. As a cultural observer and commentator, he is also fascinated at how our secularizing culture develops substitutes for the loss of religious symbols, meaning and order.