Saving Keith Richards: Or: An Argument for Abortion

Apparently, Judith Jarvis Thompson argument for abortion was de rigueur.  It popped up each time I sat through the ethics course in all its bizarre and gothic detail.  This damn long and detailed keithrichardsthought experiment to my recollection involved a person, of a certain blood type, being kidnapped by a group of music lovers.  As you may note a thought experiment need not have any relation to any known reality; I can personally think of no group of people less likely to kidnap anybody than a group of music lovers.

But let us say these music lovers have fallen under the spell of a fanatic music lover, and high on crack, kidnap this person, whose blood type they have in some mysterious fashion previously learned. The person apparently makes no attempt to resist the weenie music lovers and is taken and strapped down to a bed where the person is connected up by tubes to a famous musician who will die unless he or she receives a constant infusion of blood from this very particular person. 

Why the famous musician is not in a hospital, as usually would be the case, is not explained.  Nor is it explained how a group of music lovers would know how to hook a person up with tubes.  Apparently, one of them had at one time been pre-med.  Nor is it explained what makes the fanatics think they have the right to kidnap somebody even for the purpose of preserving the famous musician’s life.  Finally, no one apparently has bothered to ask the famous musician if he or she approves of this particular method of saving his or her life.

If one may plow through all the absurdities and improbabilities of the set up for the thought experiment one gets to the crux.  The kidnapped person wakes up.  The situation is explained to him or her, and he or she is told that if he or she stays hooked up to the musician for nine months that the musician will live, miraculously, and be able to resume a normal life unattached to anybody.  According to Thompson all rational persons would agree that the kidnapped person has a right to unattach him or herself from the musician without bringing down upon his or her self any moral onus whatsoever.

As the reader has no doubt guessed, the thought experiment is intended as an analogy to a forced pregnancy, the result of rape, and we are to conclude that just as it would be OK to detach one’s self from the musician so it would be OK for a woman to detach herself from an unwanted fetus. Additionally those who would oppose such a decision must be a group of totally insane musical fanatics, senile fans perhaps of Keith Richards. And this is not the end of the experiment either.  It goes on and on to cover other instances of unwanted pregnancy, including a bad condom that allows buds of some kind to leak into a house and become rooted in a rug. 

 My students couldn’t make heads or tales, though, of this experiment.  They seemed unable or perhaps unwilling even to memorize the basic set up for the experiment. They just couldn’t seem to get it straight. And the whole thing did seem insane: to find ourselves talking about fanatical musicians as we supposedly investigated the right of a woman to control her own body. 

 I found the whole thing and the considerable time devoted to it infuriating because I think the experiment trivializes the pain and suffering involved in a forced pregnancy and the decision to terminate it.  Further, it all seemed ass-backwards.  Whether or not a woman has the right to terminate a pregnancy is not an ethical question, but a political one.  Rather than being asked to think about fanatical musicians, I think it would have been better for students to examine the political and economic reality of women still being very much the “second sex.”  But this would not be doing ethics, since as we can see actually matters of fact have nothing to do with ethics.

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