FRIDAY LIFE: Is abortion the moral equivalent of refusing to donate an organ to a sick person?

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During the question and answer time following a  public presentation I sat in one of the participants proposed the suggestion that they thought that abortion was the moral equivalent of refusing to donate an organ to a sick person.

In both cases an innocent person will die if someone takes a course of action that involves denying them access to their bodily organs.

At first this argument seems like it might have some legs, but upon closer examination it becomes quickly apparent that abortion and refusing an organ donation are two totally different things and therefore they are not morally the same thing at all.

We can probably blame Judith Jarvis Thompson for the organ donor argument because it is simply another, albeit less science-fiction, version of her now infamous violinist analogy that she tried, and failed, to use as a moral justification for abortion in her 1971 essay A Defense of Abortion.

In Jarvis Thompson’s essay the world famous violinist (well actually, technically speaking it’s the Society of Music Lovers) demands that you provide your body, against your will, as a means of biological life support, for nine months, to the violinist, after which time he can live unaided on his own.

Jarvis Thompson tries to argue that an unwanted pregnancy is like the violinist’s act of forced and non-consensual use of someone else’s body, and that just as you would have the right to unplug yourself from the violinist and walk away, so also a pregnant woman has the right to have her unborn baby aborted in order to walk away from an unwanted pregnancy.

The problems with Jarvis Thompson’s violinist analogy are manifold, but its central failing is the fact that it tries to make an act which leads to the indirect and unintentional death of another innocent person the moral equivalent of an act which is the direct and intentional killing of another innocent person.

In doing this she opens the door for the organ donor argument, which tries to argue that the act of refusing to donate an organ to a sick person is morally the same as refusing to allow an unborn child to continue to be in a womb for nine months by aborting it.

Anyone with even half an ounce of intelligence can immediately see the major flaw in this line of reasoning.

You see, the first act (refusal to donate an organ) involves a refusal to do something, an act of omission, but the second act (abortion) involves taking a positive action against another innocent person.

So straight away this should alert us to the fact that these acts are not in fact substantially the same thing at all, even if they both result in the same outcome, the death of another innocent human person.

Refusing to donate an organ to a sick person is not the act which will kill that person, instead they will be killed by the sickness which is causing their organ failure, and so their death will be caused indirectly, and not directly, as a result of the action of refusing to donate an organ to them.

I would also suggest that in 99.9% of all organ donation refusals the person doing the refusing does not do so in order to hasten the death of a sick person, instead they are guided by other intentions. In such cases the death of the sick person would also be something unintentional on the part of the person doing the refusing.

Abortion on the other hand is very different.

Firstly, abortion is an act of direct killing, because abortion is the the very thing which will kill the unborn person – they aren’t killed by something else that someone refuses to intervene and do something about, they are killed by the very act of abortion itself.

Secondly, in the act of abortion, the death of the unborn person is intentional.

What this means is that abortion is an act of direct and intentional killing, whereas refusing to donate an organ is an act which could (if another party didn’t donate their organ when the first person refused) lead to the indirect death of another innocent person, and in almost all cases this would be an unintentional death.

Direct intentional killing, and indirect and unintentional death are not morally equivalent at all.

The act of intentionally and directly killing an innocent human being (murder) is always gravely immoral, whereas the act of unintentionally and indirectly causing the death of another innocent person is not.

In refusing the organ donation the person doing the refusing does not allow their bodily organs to be used to keep another innocent person alive, but the case of abortion involves the intentional killing of the other innocent person in order to refuse them continued use of someone’s bodily organs.

The two acts may result in the same outcome (and I say ‘may’ because in the case of refusing to donate an organ a third party could step in and donate their organs and actually save the innocent person), that is, the death of an innocent human being, but this does NOT make them morally the same thing at all, because the mechanisms leading to the death of the innocent person in each scenario is totally different.

So, in answer to the question of today’s Friday life column; ‘no, abortion is definitely not morally equivalent to refusing to donate an organ, as abortion is always a gravely immoral act of murder, whereas refusing organ donation is not because it is not direct and intentional killing.’

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Showing 2 comments
  • eleus
    Reply

    This is the first time I’ve ever heard of the violinist argument and it’s very shaky indeed. As well as the things you’ve pointed out, it relies on the understanding that the person being “forced” to donate their body to sustain the violinist/baby is completely unconnected with the violinist/baby’s situation.
    In the vast majority of cases the mother has chosen to act in a way that will create a baby who depends on the mother’s body for life (I reserve only cases of rape (not that I believe abortion is right there either)).
    So the allegory would be clearer if the “donor” had a direct hand in the illness of the violinist, and then chose to deny the support that will keep him alive. It is more like a case of hit-and-run, where the driver has run over the violinist causing him life-threatening illness, and decided to run over him again to kill him rather than getting out her cellphone to call an ambulance.
    Don’t you think?

  • TooMuchTime
    Reply

    I’m not sure I completely accept the difference between “passive” and “active” killing of another living thing — that it’s okay to withhold something somebody needs but not to take it away if that somebody is already using it. Under this reasoning, the two following scenarios would be “moral”:

    1. infant is born but parents refuse to spend money to feed it or breastfeed it. You know that the child will die if you do not feed it, but it is passive (just refusing to provide something the infant needs) and thus “not direct and intentional killing”.

    2. IUDs (which don’t prevent conception but prevent implantation in the uterine wall) are morally acceptable, because they don’t take away a uterus from an embryo that is already implanted; they simply don’t allow the organ to be used in the first place — thus this is not “direct and intentional killing”.

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