Dr. Kermit Gosnell was convicted yesterday by the long-suffering Philadelphia jury on three counts of first-degree murder for killing abortion survivors. Next week, jurors will consider whether Gosnell deserves the death penalty. While there are many good reasons to defend Gosnell’s life, pro-choice thinkers may actually have the strongest reasons to call for his death.
As I suggested recently in the Weekly Standard, Gosnell’s departures from the normal and legal practice of late-term abortion were arguably modest. Had Gosnell killed his victims in the womb and complied with a few other minor requirements, he would have committed no crime under the laws of Pennsylvania or the United States. From a prolife perspective, moreover, killing abortion survivors is not morally worse than killing fetuses in the womb. Thus, we should all reasonably wonder whether Gosnell’s departures from the legal practice of late-term abortion could bear the weight of the death penalty.
Nonetheless pro-choice thinkers may have the strongest reasons to demand Gosnell’s death under our current abortion regime. This is because pro-choice thinkers must disagree strongly with my premise that there is little difference between killing a 30-week old fetus in the womb and killing that same child moments after she has passes through her mother’s birth canal. At least, this is true of the many pro-choice disciples of philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson.
Thomson famously defended abortion through a clever thought experiment. She invites us to imagine that a Society of Music Lovers captures a prisoner who is then attached to the kidneys of a famous violinist. This prisoner is told that he must remain connected to the violinist for nine months, at which point the violinist will make a full recovery. Thomson, of course, concludes that just as one is not obliged to stay connected to the violinist, neither should mothers be required to support the lives of fetuses.
If the prisoner disconnects himself, however, he cannot then demand the death of the violinist. As Thomson put it: I have argued that you are not morally required to spend nine months in bed, sustaining the life of that violinist, but to say this is by no means to say that if, when you unplug yourself, there is a miracle and he survives, you then have a right to turn round and slit his throat. You may detach yourself even if this costs him his life; you have no right to be guaranteed his death.
From Thomson’s perspective the violinist does enjoy a right to life, just not a right to be sustained bodily by another human being. Thus, Thomson offers the only philosophical case for making a sharp distinction—one that could bear the weight of the death penalty—between killing fetuses in the womb and killing abortion survivors. Only Thomson’s case could possibly justify a regime that protects the practice of late-term abortion as a fundamental right, yet puts Gosnell to his death. This means that pro-choice advocates may have the strongest reasons to demand the death of our nation’s most infamous abortionist.