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Judith Jarvis Thomson, famed defender of abortion, dead at 91

Philosopher compared being pregnant to being a human dialysis machine for a famous violinist.

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Judith Thomson, May 2016
Judith Thomson, May 2016
(Paul Marotta/Getty)
Updated: December 5, 2020 - 1:10pm

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

Judith Jarvis Thomson, the moral philosopher whose “Defense of Abortion” has become a standard text in moral philosophy courses, died last month at 91.

Thomson, whose death was announced this week, is well-known for her widely read defense of abortion rights, which has introduced several generations of college students to a simple, controversial argument in favor of abortion.

Thomson in the essay compared being pregnant to having been kidnapped and made into effectively a human dialysis machine for a “famous unconscious violinist.”

“To unplug you would be to kill him,” the thought experiment goes. “But never mind, it's only for nine months.” Thomson used that analogy to argue that, just as it would be defensible to unplug oneself from such a scenario, abortion should also be considered morally acceptable.

Throughout her career she was associated with various institutions, including for years MIT, as well as the University of Pittsburgh and Yale. At the time of her death she lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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