Revisiting the Lingering Violinist Years Later

An Impasse

In a way that few, if any, issues have dominated the landscape of reasoned discussion and legislation, bitter fights about who and what is pro-life or anti-choice and what it all means for women and children mark an impasse in American political life. In January of 2018, the U.S. Senate was unable to advance the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would have banned abortions after twenty weeks’ gestation, while allowing for health-related exceptions. Similar bans that come into effect after a certain number of weeks of pregnancy are law in many other liberal democratic nations, indicating that while reasonable people may disagree about what is happening early on in pregnancy, at a certain point the evidence of a growing child is no longer private information. In May of 2019, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed into law a “heartbeat bill,” which banned abortion after about the sixth week. Many women are not even aware they are pregnant before six weeks, a fact that many used to argue that this was effectively a total ban. On some level, the bill appeared to respond to the Reproductive Health Act that passed in New York that same year in January, which removed abortion from New York’s penal code and made greater allowances for abortions after 24 weeks. Critics of the law worried that effectively this allowed abortion up until the moment of birth.

This incomplete backdrop to the monumental Dobbs v. Jackson ruling of 2022 captures an essential feature of the abortion struggle in the United States. There is no debate on either side of the issue—loss and gain in either direction is viewed as so much ground taken from or given to the mother or the growing fetus within. Either you are in favor of full participation and citizenship for women, mothers or not, or you are in favor of full protection for children at every developmental stage discernible. There is no other way to see it for those who describe themselves as pro-choice or pro-life.

While the Apostolic Fathers of the Church agreed that abortion was a sin, the fact that most of them made a distinction between “formed” and “unformed” fetuses, with a proportionately different penance in each case, and either penance generally less severe than the murder of a human outside the womb, shows that this question has never been an entirely straightforward calculation.[1] American insistence on a total war between reproductive freedom and the right to life reveals an instinctive fear that the war of all against is indeed what characterizes nature; but more than this, American discourse betrays an inability to recognize and read signs.

In its refusal to read pregnancy as a sign, society has imposed on women an alien framework: that of the adult male. Abortion understood as a need is an indication that the world we inhabit is designed for and by human beings who do not and will not bear children. The pro-life movement has become increasingly responsive to the needs of mothers, attentive to the still overwhelming burden of shame, guilt, and fear that falls on women who did not plan to become pregnant—and still, economic, social, and career-related drives make abortion very frequently the reasonable choice in many, many women’s minds. Volunteer associations to supply diapers and parenting classes do not repair a structural wound that drives women to make a choice memorably described “as an animal, caught in a trap, wants to gnaw off its own leg.”[2] It is hard to believe that a world built for women would result in this situation.

The Violinist

In 1971, Judith Jarvis Thomson made what has become the most famous, cited, and anthologized case for abortion’s permissibility, forever affecting the imaginations of those who agreed or disagreed.[3] Most memorably, she invites the reader to imagine waking up in a hospital, connected through some medical technology to a gifted but renally compromised violinist. Somehow a group of over-zealous music lovers has determined that your kidneys (and yours alone) can get this man through the next nine months, so trapped with him you must stay: prone, and confined to bed. Confronted with this bewildering and unpleasant turn of events, readers are led to consult their own feelings and to determine that, unfortunate though it may be, this musician has no right to hijack another body so totally—even for a finite period of time.

This is the crucial moment for Thomson’s argument, as it allows her to make the point that even a person’s right to life (a right she takes to be undeniable) does not automatically grant him or her another right to use someone else’s body to stay alive. Significantly, in this scenario the violinist could be using either a man’s or a woman’s kidneys, thus removing the strictly gendered point of view of pregnancy. The challenge to the reader is to ask: do you take seriously a woman’s right to control her own body? Or do you rather deny her the ability to act as any man is able to—that is, have sex when and how it suits her, without life-altering consequences? Thomson does of course note that being kidnapped in the violinist scenario makes it more an analogy for rape than for ordinary consensual sex.

In order to press on, and argue that even in the case of consensual sex with unintentional pregnancy the fetus still has no claim to use the mother’s body for months on end, Thomson unleashes a barrage of thought experiments that range from the mundane (if a box of chocolates is given to two boys, both have a right to the contents) to the bizarre (you are trapped in a house with a rapidly and dangerously expanding baby) to the surreal (you opened a window and a people seed drifted in and sprouted, even though you were careful to put up a screen). These other imagined difficulties allow Thomson to continue leaning on the reader’s intuition that women should not be coerced into supporting life full-stop, even when the life in question is wholly innocent.

There is a reason, however, that it is the violinist who grabs the attention of the reader and that often becomes the shorthand in discussions of this article. It is the violinist who becomes the image of pregnancy: connection to a fully human person, a talented and sympathetic individual, who still cannot simply claim your body. There is an understandable pathos when Thomson later writes “Women have said again and again ‘This body is my body!’ and they have reason to feel angry, reason to feel that it has been like shouting into the wind.”[4] This is the crux of the entire issue, the center of the pain and contention. After centuries of little to no political standing, little to no economic control, always the danger and the terror of pregnancy outside of marriage and even within some marriages, here and now women are supposed to be free and fulfilled humans. At last no one’s property, at last a citizen, at last granted equal status in a world made for men. And thus, safe and legal access to abortion becomes common sense feminist political philosophy. Without abortion, women simply cannot belong to the same political, economic, social world as men.

There have been many replies to Thomson’s article. Many have duly pointed out the significant dis-analogies between abortion and unplugging yourself from a machine, even one connected to another person. The difference between killing and letting die, the difference between unplugging and suffocating or dismembering, the difference between withdrawing aid given under duress from a stranger and evicting your child from your body, all raise problems for the effectiveness of Thomson’s image. This is to say nothing of the difficulties of using thought experiments at all for this conversation. Should we really have recourse to imaginary dramas which never did and never will happen in order to come to terms with an event in human life so commonplace that literally no one in the world has been untouched by it?

But it does not matter, really, whether the violinist functions as a coherent argument. The role of the violinist is to present an escape hatch from a possibility that is all too real for the millions of women in our world, our state, our neighborhood: the unchosen pregnancy. For most centuries of recorded history, nature worked in tandem with masculine societies to ensure that women would bear a staggeringly disproportionate burden when it comes to reproduction. A brief survey of marriage and rape law across history discloses the fundamental danger of being female. The enduring significance of the violinist, the reason that it is as vital an image now as it was in the 1970s, is that the reader’s own sense of what is minimally fair leads to the judgment that if nature is so inegalitarian, we at least ought to provide women a way out of what is often felt to be a trap or catastrophe.

The Fetus

At least one of the objections raised to Thomson’s article is that the violinist in question lived a separate, independent life from you before being placed in this life-or-death connection.[5] The mother/fetus relationship is markedly different in that the mother is at least the material cause, and usually the efficient cause, of the fetus’s own existence. To some, this means the mother is in a peculiar way responsible for the life of the fetus, such that to seek its removal or destruction is peculiarly reprehensible.[6] Another approach to this unique tie is to identify a continuum of rights and responsibilities that evolve on both the part of the mother and the fetus—depending on the mother’s decisions during sex and pregnancy, the kinds of claims and moral status each party can make change during the course of the pregnancy.[7] Additionally, because pregnancy is so hidden in its early days (and indeed the vast majority of abortions are obtained in the first trimester), it is the experience of the pregnant woman herself that we must rely upon for information; and thus, that experience alone determines the moral status of the fetus.[8]

Each of these criticisms shares a concern. Thomson’s powerful imagery allows the story of two grown strangers to manipulate our intuitions instead of helping the phenomenon of pregnancy to come into focus. To imagine pregnancy as an instance of two morally autonomous individuals, each asserting their inalienable rights to their fellow citizens, is to obscure what is unfolding in the pregnant woman. Any framing of the problem that takes this route accepts political deadlock and total war for the individual you choose to champion.

Pregnancy itself, the story of a woman bringing another human being into existence, uncovers politically significant truths about human life: that our origins, every man’s and woman’s, are interlocked with one another in radical ties of dependency; that in a lightly analogous way to the fetus’s total dependence on her, a pregnant woman is also dependent on mate, family, and friends to help her bring this pregnancy to a successful end (the ordeal and drama of labor and delivery are certainly made more bearable and sometimes even viable through the assistance of others); and from these revelations in human gestation the political community might begin to glean insight about an orientation to the vulnerable, the invisible, the voiceless. In an age marked by global industrialization and digitization, technological intensification, and ecological ruin, pregnancy is a constant return to the heart of humanity. This importance is compounded by the transhumanist ambitions and posthuman pessimism that too often serves as a response to the disasters and stressors listed above. Pregnancy is the raw, real forge of blood and bone which creates a bond so intimate and intense that whether or not a child is even born, a mother’s body will be forever changed by that child’s presence. Her very genetic makeup is altered by that event, even if it was only a momentary appearance. The weight of this reality could serve as a call to consider the ways in which we are implicated in each other’s lives, as well as the ways in which we could (and perhaps should) be further entangled.

To read a normative indication in pregnancy is necessarily to raise the hackles of any serious feminist because this is immediately recognized as the demand of the male to the female: do as I wish, give up your body, embody heroic virtue while I flourish unencumbered (setting aside the question for the moment of what role motherhood has in the flourishing of women).[9] However, the refusal to read pregnancy as a rich and morally directive symbol is still to fall back on the male perspective as normative. If and when we agree that terminating a pregnancy is easier, better, and safer than completing it, we admit that the world according to the male body is not only the default but also the superior setting.

In order to learn what pregnancy has to teach the political community we must move past the male framing entirely—perhaps an impossible task.[10] Although women have entered the political and economic spheres of our society in unprecedented ways in the last two centuries, the world is still dominated by male expectations. Were we able to look with more feminine and even maternal eyes upon the event of pregnancy, could not the sorrow and compassion that naturally arises for any young mother in distress move us further, to create a society where mothers and children are so honored, so exalted, so cherished, that abortion would be a strange option—even an unreasonable option? A feminine politics must view pregnancy as normal; moreover, seeing life as a fertile woman would likely drive one to create a world where pregnancy is generally desirable as well.

It must be noted that the specter of rape haunts any thoughtful article on abortion. Thomson herself refers to the “insanity” of forcing a schoolgirl to carry a pregnancy from rape. A normative and revelatory reading of pregnancy, however, would surely turn the judgment of the community from the consequence of the rape—who is, after all, a child—to the rapist, intensifying the severity of the punishment to reflect more properly the wound inflicted on citizen, community, and creation. But more than this, the challenge would be to imagine a path to restoration that does not continue the violence of the original crime. For many, this is too painful to contemplate, when the pregnancy itself appears as an ongoing violent occupation, in a sense, a continuation of the rape. But the pain in this thought—that my very humanity, revealed through the phenomenon of pregnancy, may call on me to allow this child to exist—indicates how radical a feminine politics could be.

Rather than reading pregnancy as a cosmic sign of human bonds, one to another, we seem to view it primarily as competitive, a deadly either/or, where one of the two parties must suffer so we must choose to endorse the emancipation of one. A normative and symbolically rich reading of pregnancy indicates the political necessity of preventing unwanted or unplanned pregnancies from turning into this kind of competition—but this would require drastically rethinking expectations and timelines for women in many areas of work and community participation.

If we read a pregnant woman’s body as a natural sign, the following would certainly be politically relevant: human life is the necessary and continual interaction of dependencies, such that to be human is to understand the unpayable debt that marks your beginning and the surprisingly many claims your fellow humans can make on your time, your abilities, and your resources. We can read this from the quotidian and still miraculous fact of pregnancy, the fact of a new and never to be seen again human coming into existence in another unrepeatable person’s body. A pregnant woman is an icon of gift and receptivity, of commitment and obligation, of particularity and universality; that is, she presents to us in concentrated form the human condition itself.

The Mater Familias

By committing to the mother over and against the child from the beginning, feminist political theory experiences a troubling development when attempting to read pregnancy as symbol. Sensing the limits of Thomson’s argument, Soran Reader went beyond imagery, avoided the framework of two struggling competitors, and instead reflected on motherhood’s unique status in human life:

Motherhood is centrally a person-creating relationship. In no other relationship do you bring a person into being in as many and as profound ways as you do if you procreate, gestate, birth and care for a becoming human being. We see bits and pieces of interpersonal creation in other relationships, for example in friendships, teaching, coaching, and fathering. But the fullness and multilayered complexity of personal creation that goes on in mothering is nowhere else even approached. There is efficient causal creation of the person in sexual intercourse (in which the father shares), there is material physical and biological creation of the person by the mother in pregnancy and breastfeeding, there is formal social creation of the person by the mother in early years socialization, and there is the final creation of the person, the summoning into full human being, in the education of the child. To be a mother in our culture is to be absolutely required to perform these works of person-creation. The power of maternal norms is without peer in our moral life. Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative has nothing on the normativity of the cry of your own needy child.[11]

Reader establishes this unique status for motherhood precisely to note that the decision to abort does not come about from analysis of independent persons decided in favor of the mother. Rather, it is the mother in her position relative to the child who can in fact decide whether or not it will be born. Thomson’s image of the violinist justifies abortion as the evacuation of an uninvited person from the mother’s body because there is no option in which both can live unimpeded. Reader, on the other hand, sets out to establish that it is precisely the killing of the fetus that is essential to a right to abortion. She foresees that technological expertise might someday be able to evacuate the fetus from the womb harmlessly, allowing it to finish developing in some other environment. Reader identifies this eventuality as a danger to women because abortion is not the avoidance of inconvenience but rather a right to refuse participation in reproduction.

Through her reading of the fetus’s absolute dependence on the mother, she posits a “maternal moral authority” which encompasses the decision of life and death. While there are clearly ways to fail in mothering, deliberately killing the child in the womb is not necessarily failure, but rather a fulfillment of maternal responsibility. “As close to the heart of the concept of motherhood is the idea that maternal responsibility is inalienable. Whatever else a mother does, she does not abandon her child.”[12] Claiming a consistent recognition of the moral seriousness of abortion, she sees killing the fetus as a potential fulfillment of responsibility in accord with the maternal role whereas abandoning or neglecting the child is more truly the abnegation of that role. Understanding the extremity of the claim and the negative affect it might have on her audience, she points to examples of mothers killing their children in extreme drought or famine, or to spare them violation or enslavement, decisions she sees as abnormal but intuitively understandable and grounded in maternal authority.

A sense of déjà vu permeates this feminist interpretation of pregnancy—by the road of absolute parental power, we have returned to ancient Rome. In Roman society, of course, this office was held by the father, the pater familias, whose natural authority over wife, children, and slaves was the binding force that held together the organism of the household. In Reader’s account of motherhood, the mater familias stands alone, unaccountable to sexual partner or state power in her supremacy. Reader’s attentiveness to the uniqueness of pregnancy and interpretation of this sign isolates the mother from the rest of the community, nearly deifying her.

Famously for political theorists, Aristotle was at great pains to distinguish the power of a father over his children from the power of a king over his subjects, one of the key differences being that fathers cannot rightfully execute their children. But this separation was by no means obvious to other political thinkers, and in the seventeenth century Robert Filmer explicitly rejected it as contravening the divine right of kings. He also wrote of the tender devotion and care fathers have for their children, as kings have to their subjects. He too dared his audience to doubt the love and care present in these relationships. But he recognized that it was all predicated on total dominance, and reached from the rule of the father to the rule of the king without interruption:

If we compare the Natural Rights of a Father with those of a King, we find them all one, without any difference at all but only in the Latitude or Extent of them: as the Father over one Family, so the King as Father over many Families extends his care to preserve, feed, cloth, instruct and defend the whole Commonwealth. His War, his Peace, his Courts of Justice, and all his Acts of Sovereignty tend only to preserve and distribute to every subordinate and inferiour Father, and to their Children, their Rights and Privileges; so that all the Duties of a King are summed up in a Universal Fatherly Care of his People.[13]

The importance of Reader’s work lies in her attention to the significance of pregnancy as an asymmetric event, which leads her to an office of motherhood that includes execution. But if Reader’s interpretation of pregnancy adequately represents feminist politics, then the search for liberation only becomes domination again. It was not that this power in itself was dehumanizing, simply that it was held by the wrong office.

On this note, her commentary on pregnancy in the case of rape is particularly interesting. “Where procreation is unwilled, in is commonly agreed that pressure to continue with the pregnancy is more unjust. What is less commonly noticed is that the moral status of the fetus may be altered by the absence of consent to procreation. It may not be putting it too strongly to say . . . the resulting fetus is anathema.”[14] The “negative moral status” of this fetus and the weight of moral pressure may actually require the woman to abort. This assessment of an entire class of fetuses—many of whom now share our space in the community—bears a familial resemblance to the fate of bastards in an earlier age, who were relegated to a lesser status within their community, barred (for example) from taking Holy Orders. Feminist theorists should consider how a willingness to confer status on people based on maternal decision rather than who they are in themselves is a straightforward outcome of this argument. They should further consider whether this is a world they want to create.


An insurmountable feature of the deadlock in American politics over the issue of legalized abortion has been the impasse of our conflicting desires for equality. Who is equal with the rest of American citizens, the mother or the fetus? To begin a conversation that could actually progress to a thinkable conclusion, we need to reframe the issue, and to reframe the issue we need to exit the purely male framework that has determined the question so far to pose a feminine reading of pregnancy. A male framework here means the presumption that to succeed is to succeed in a man’s terms on a man’s most typical circumstances. In the male framework, pregnancy is burdensome, overwhelming, and a terror, necessarily—because no man has ever undergone this. The feminine reading of pregnancy would see it as an icon of the human condition, communicative of the obligation to assist our own (mother to her child) and those in need (society to pregnant mothers) as well as the most vulnerable simply (society to children).

It is no accident that by the end of Reader’s article and alternative interpretation of pregnancy she has almost concluded that it is necessary to kill a child of rape and that to do otherwise can only continue the rape. Her mission is to establish the primal authority of the mater familias and to make the will of the mother the origin of a child’s legal and moral status, a mission that more nearly coincides with pro-choice attitudes today than Thomson’s imagery of forced altruism. Interestingly, Reader asserts at the beginning of her article that there could be no more debate about the permissibility of abortion than there could be debate about the permissibility of apartheid in South Africa. In either case, women or black South Africans would be harmed by entertaining the possibility of a different conclusion. But after apartheid, South Africa’s way forward from injustice and violence was famously through Truth and Reconciliation commissions, which faced the crimes in order to choose restorative over retributive justice. In the case of rape and the near requirement of abortion for Reader, there is no admission that this revisits and renews the violence done by the father, finding the next most vulnerable party and annihilating her will as well.

One of the political lessons of Judith Jarvis Thomson’s article is the power of an image to shape our interpretation of the world. The violinist made it possible for our imaginations to assess the place of abortion based only on the integrity of a woman’s body prior to and aside from pregnancy. And though Soran Reader’s article in a sense rejected Thomson’s violinist because it is exactly the special maternal relationship that allows the mother to abort, it also needed that violinist to establish that the fetus is not truly the relevant feature of the pregnancy. Reader is at great pains to insist that she maintains the moral significance of the fetus by centering on the mother-fetus relationship, but the truth is that the asymmetry in pregnancy has in her hands become a structural power imbalance justified by nature. Only the mother really matters.

Tracing these developments in Thomson’s and Reader’s presentations gives rise to questions that may be more politically helpful than the intractable equality of rights debate. What do we do to the world when we change what we understand motherhood to be, when we change what and who counts as helpless or desirable or worth saving? Do we want to live in a world where a group of human bodies is designated disposable because it preserves opportunity and stability for another group—or even more jarringly, because one group holds supreme power of life and death over another group? Does a law that allows for the disposal of this group change our attitude toward others? Specifically, does it change our attitude toward the vulnerable and the inconvenient? Do feminists really want to take the turn back to Rome?

The coming days will be marked by legislative battles over how to respond to Dobbs, and it is clear that the respective champions of mother and fetus will move heaven and earth to secure the rights of the preferred party. Reader’s first appeal in the discussion of maternal moral authority is to none other than Thomas Hobbes, so it is clear enough that she associates abortion more with the struggle to survive than with the creation of a nobler world. But even faced with this fundamental disagreement on the role of law, it is simply the case that images and symbols shape human judgment and affect political destinations. The sign of pregnancy can be read in at least two ways—domination or solidarity. The humane choice will not prioritize one person over the other, but will recognize all that is most beautiful and worthwhile in the wondrously asymmetric and inescapably dyadic unity of pregnancy.

[1] Liz Campbell, “Abortion—A Christian Feminist Perspective,” New Blackfriars. Vol 61, No. 724 (September 1980) pp. 370–377.

[2] Frederica Mathewes-Green, “Seeking Abortion’s Middle Ground,” The Washington Post, July 28, 1996.

[3] Judith Jarvis Thomson, “A Defense of Abortion,” Philosophy and Public Affairs Vol. 1 No. 1 (Autumn 1971) pp. 47–66.

[4] Ibid., 53.

[5] Kenneth Himma, “Thomson’s Violinist and Conjoined Twins,” Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, Vol. 8 No. 4 (October 1999) pp. 428–435.

[6] John Finnis, “The Rights and Wrongs of Abortion,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 2 No. 2 (Winter 1973) pp.117–145.

[7] Catriona Mackenzie, “Abortion and embodiment,” Australian Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 70 No. 2 (June 1992) pp. 136–155.

[8] Margaret Little, “Abortion, Intimacy, and the Duty to Gestate,” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, Vol. 2 No. 3 (September 1999) pp. 295–312.

[9] Because pregnancy as a social phenomenon has been interpreted primarily by men, it is consistently evaluated by standards that are hostile to its potential as a disclosure of humanity, solidarity, and the goodness of being in the world. This creates a dizzying problem with respect to motherhood. Either a woman suppresses her fertility because it is inherently incompatible with accepted standards of freedom, achievement, and happiness; or she subordinates her freedom and excellences in the service of maternal capacities. Mothers who work outside the home may be more common than in previous generations, but they still face awkward and difficult arrangements that make it abundantly clear how far we are from integrating mothering with women’s other capacities.

[10] While the Christian tradition’s insights about human dignity unquestionably paved the way toward feminism’s robust defense of women, it is also true that Christianity’s most significant theologians regularly contributed to a canon of female inferiority. “Women,” Augustine claims, “are certainly made in the image of God insofar as they belong to the human race.” However, in her capacity as a helpmate, the function that pertains to her alone, she is not the image of God; the man, meanwhile, is by himself the full image of God, just as fully and completely as when he and the woman are joined together as one (On The Trinity 12.7.10). Thomas Aquinas affirms that while women are certainly made in God’s image, they are in their “individual nature . . . defective and misbegotten” and are “naturally subject to man, because in man the discretion of reason predominates” (ST Ia q.92). Female fertility in this tradition is viewed as simultaneously powerful and passive, something unreflective rather than self-conscious. As a Heideggerian “standing-reserve,” female fertility that intrudes where it was not invited becomes an interruption of the technological order. Mary Wollstonecraft once asked, “If women be educated for dependence; that is, to act according to the will of another fallible being, and submit, right or wrong, to power, where are we to stop?” Dependency is in full view not only when a woman internalizes a man’s judgment as her own, but also when she internalizes his body’s functions as normative for her own. Abortion does not end biological difference. There is no unconceiving what we have conceived. It merely occludes it, to be disclosed in secret in a clinic and then disposed of with the rest of the biological waste.

[11] Soran Reader, “Abortion, Killing, and Maternal Moral Authority,” Hypatia, Vol. 23 No. 1 (January–March 2008) pp. 132–149. 140.

[12] Ibid., 143.

[13] Robert Filmer and J. P. Sommerville, ed. Patriarcha and Other Writings. Cambridge University Press. 2006, 12.

[14] Reader, 141.

Featured Image: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Potrait of Veronica Veronese, 1872; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Catherine Sims Kuiper

Catherine Kuiper is an Assistant Professor of Education at Hillsdale College, with a PhD in Political Science from the University of Notre Dame. She writes from Michigan with her husband and three children.

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