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Judith Jarvis Thomson

Judith Jarvis Thomson (born 1929) is an American moral philosopher and metaphysician.



She attended Hunter College High School in New York and taught at M.I.T. for the majority of her career, remaining there as professor emeritus. She is well-known for thought experiments. Her husband, James Thomson, was also a professor of philosophy at M.I.T. for many years.

A Defense of Abortion

One thought experiment for which Thomson is especially well-known occurs in her paper A Defense of Abortion:

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 never mind, it's only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.

The scenario is meant to be analogous to at least some cases of pregnancy and is often taken (and is taken by Thomson herself) to support the moral permissibility of induced abortion.

In this paper, Thomson argues on the basis of the violinist thought experiment that "the right to life consists not in the right not to be killed, but rather in the right not to be killed unjustly". Therefore, to show that abortion is morally permissible, "it is by no means enough to show that the fetus is a person and to remind us that all persons have a right to life—we need to be shown also that killing the fetus violates its right to life, i.e., that abortion is unjust killing. And is it?" Thomson's article defends abortion rights and functions primarily as an argument by analogy in regards to the idea of mother/fetus consanguinity.

The paper meets reactions and criticisms from many different philosophers and bioethicists. Philippa Foot, a prominent Aristotelian ethicist argued that negative non-provision of service, as in the case of violinist, is different from active killing, or interference, as in abortion.

See also



  • Goodness and Advice (2003)
  • Moral Relativism and Moral Objectivity (1996)
  • The Realm of Rights (1990)
  • Rights, Restitution, and Risk (1986)
  • Acts and Other Events (1977)
  • Killing, Letting Die and the Trolley Problem (1976)
  • The Right to Privacy (1975)


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