Is Eviction From the Womb Analogous to Letting A Terminal Patient Die Naturally?

Q: Judith Jarvis Thomson wrote what may be the most famous paper in bioethics, “A Moral Defense of Abortion.” She compares abortion to unplugging someone from life support in her famous “unplugging the violinist” analogy. Since there is a difference between killing and letting die, her argument seems to only apply to eviction-based abortions. Is there a way to convince someone that eviction from the womb is different than unplugging from a machine without appealing to theology? Not that I am against appealing to theology, but to do so would make the argument un-applicable to non-Catholics.

Our legal and medical systems recognize a difference between killing and letting die. End-of-life care directives may stipulate the circumstances under which a person does not wish to be resuscitated or receive life support. But they do not dictate in advance that life-ending drugs should be administered. (In physician-assisted suicide, which is always immoral , a patient requests assistance once required conditions – such as a terminal diagnosis – have been met.) Letting someone die involves letting the natural processes in his or her illness run their course; killing someone involves intentionally intervening to hasten death. Similarly, evicting an unborn child from the womb is an intentional intervention in the natural process of pregnancy. The analogy to unplugging a sick person from life support is weak. If you are looking for a way to begin a conversation about “extractive” methods of abortion without appealing to religious teaching, this might be a place to start.


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