Cartoon: Forced Kidney Donation

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In 1971, the philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson wrote “A Defense of Abortion,” in which she used the example of a person waking up in a hospital, with medical equipment attaching them to a world famous violinist, to illustrate a point: Even if we accept that a fetus is a person with rights (which I don’t), it doesn’t follow that enforced childbirth is morally acceptable. It might be nice of me to allow the violinist to use my body for nine months, because that’s the only way to save the violinist’s life, but a world in which such extreme charity was enforced would be a nightmare.

This cartoon is an attempt to make that nightmarish aspect of what pro-lifers want visceral. It’s ironic, of course, that one way to make the nightmare clear is to imagine a man being put in the position that pro-lifers want to put women in.

* * *

This cartoon was written in a swimming pool. I usually go to a aqua fit class at a gym two or three times a week, and one of the ways I pass the time while exercising is to try and write political cartoons in my head.

Usually it doesn’t work; aqua fit isn’t really an ideal environment for brainstorming. (The best place for me to think of ideas is sitting on a public park bench watching kids play; because of that, it’s easier for me to write in warm weather. Seriously!) But sometimes an idea comes to me, and this is one.

I remember I described the idea to Emily, who I think is a patron here (hi Emily!), and from her reaction I thought it could be a good idea.

An idea isn’t enough, of course. There’s a lot of editing and refining. In this case, I got very far along in the process – actually finishing the pencils – before I decided to restructure the cartoon in a major way. Here’s the earlier version of this cartoon:

At first I was tickled at how much I’d managed to fit into just six panels. But then it started feeling cramped to me. And I couldn’t help thinking that the final panel should somehow be different than the others.

Then I thought about longtime patron Bonnie Warford (hi Bonnie!) commenting that she likes it when I break out of the grid. So I started to think of how I could do that with this comic, which eventually led to the idea of the first six panels being a giant word balloon, indicating that this was a story being told by the main character in the final panel.

The way the cartoon is set up, I think this cartoon will “work” even for readers who miss the “giant word balloon” aspect. But for me, that aspect adds a lot to this cartoon, visually.


This cartoon has seven panels, arranged in a grid of six small panels (three across, two down), followed by a final panel which is quite large.

Panels 1-6 are colored in a minimalist color scheme featuring shades of brown and yellow.


Panel 1 shows a close-up of man with a van dyke beard with his head on a pillow, snoring. A voice speaks from off-panel.

MAN: Zzzzz…
OFF PANEL VOICE: Wake him up.


Panels 2 and 3 have a continuous background, showing a bedroom. In panel 2, Man is still asleep in bed, but a man in a solider-or-guard-like uniform is standing over him, with a hand on his shoulder.

SOLDIER: Get up! You’re going to the hospital!


The man is now out of bed, with another soldier handcuffing him. The man is dressed only in a tee shirt and underwear. In front of him, a middle-aged woman, wearing a jacket and skirt, with a bun and a clipboard, is addressing him.

CLIPBOARD: We’re taking your kidney.


A close-up of Man and Clipboard. Man is wide-eyed with shock and fear; Clipboard is officious.

MAN: What? WHY?
CLIPBOARD: Your son is ill. He needs your kidney to live.


We’ve changed locations; Man is now strapped won to an operating table. His tee-shirt is gone, and he’s yelling, futility. Two people in surgical gowns, gloves and masks – one of whom is Clipboard – stand over him. Clipboard is pointing to something on her clipboard.

MAN: But I don’t HAVE a son!
CLIPBOARD: You do. He’s from a one-night stand 20 years ago.


No dialog in this panel. We see Man’s terrified face and, in the foreground, a gloved hand holding a scalpel.

The bottom border of the above six panels forms a word balloon, which is pointing to MAN in panel 7, indicating that the first six panels are a story that Man is telling in panel 7.


The same man from the first six panels. He is now standing in a parking lot in front of a building, cheerfully telling a story to another man. Man and his friend are both holding signs that say “PRO LIFE” in big letters. They are surrounded by at least five other protesters, both men and women, also holding “PRO LIFE” signs.

Unlike the first six panels, this panel is in full color.

MAN: And that’s when I woke up. Thank goodness it was only a terrible nightmare!

This entry posted in Abortion & reproductive rights, Cartooning & comics, Feminism, sexism, etc. Bookmark the permalink. 

4 Responses to Cartoon: Forced Kidney Donation

  1. 1
    dreadfullyawry says:

    I’ve seen quite a few cartoons in this genre – the idea that if men could get pregnant, they’d be pro-abortion.

    I’m not sure this is really true. There are plenty of anti-abortion women, and presumably it’s not hard for them to imagine the experience of carrying an unwanted foetus to term.

    (Ironically when this first began, I thought it was going to be a cartoon about child support… but I doubted that Amp would take that stance)

  2. 2
    Decnavda says:

    I actually like the analogy in this cartoon better the one thought up by Judith Jarvis Thomson. My problem with Thomson’s analogy is that I have always had a negative conception of individual duties. The patient in her example had no responsibility for the violinist being hooked up to her, so of course she has no duty to stay attached for nine months. This analogy is good for arguing for a rape exception to an abortion ban, but a person who chooses to have sex knows pregnancy is a possible outcome, and so they are responsible for the life created, and the violinist analogy does not hold.

    My opposition to abortion bans has always rested on the need for a freedom-maximizing bright line for a legal determination of when personhood begins. Actually, as I write this, I am becoming convinced that the forcible removal of this man’s kidney (assuming he has two good ones) is justified. A fetus is not a person, but a 19 year old man is.

  3. 3
    LimitsOfLanguage says:


    Opposition to abortion is very close between men and women, so I think that a far stronger claim is warranted than just that “there are plenty of anti-abortion women.” In the latest Pew poll, 36% of women and 37% of men oppose abortion. That is probably a statistically insignificant difference.


    a person who chooses to have sex knows pregnancy is a possible outcome, and so they are responsible for the life created

    That is not actually the law. The law holds men responsible for the life created even when the man didn’t consent or couldn’t consent due to being underage. See County of San Luis Obispo v. Nathaniel J and Hermesmann v. Seyer for examples. In that first case, the judge said: “Victims have rights. Here, the victim also has responsibilities.”

    Do you oppose the current precedents and believe that men should only be held responsible if they freely chose to have sex in ways that can cause pregnancy? Note that has been at least one American case where a woman acquired sperm orally and impregnated herself. Boris Becker also claims that this happened to him.

    Do you think that men are responsible for the life created if they deposit their sperm only in a way where pregnancy can be expected to occur without foul play; or do you believe that men are always responsible if a pregnancy occurs, as is the law?

  4. 4
    LimitsOfLanguage says:

    As for the cartoon, it seems an immensely weak argument in favor of abortion.

    Removing a kidney is very much not the same as carrying a child to term. A woman who has had a child has not lost a body part. Having children is the normal reproductive process that evolution has built into humans as the way to preserve the species and something that very many women freely choose to experience because they want the result for themselves. Losing a kidney is not natural at all and donations have a completely different reason, where one sacrifices part of themselves to save an already existing person.

    Furthermore, donating a kidney reduces life expectancy by almost a year. In contrast, having children seems to increase life expectancy for women (this may be a selection effect, but if so, it suggests that the cost of pregnancy on life expectancy is minimal).

    A common rebuttal to the argument that it is unjust to force women to bring a child to term is that:
    – these women took that risk when they chose to have sex and now have to accept the consequences
    – the fetus’ right to life is more significant than costs to the mother of carrying the child to term

    When MRAs argue against mandatory child support and/or no input into the abortion decision, the common feminist rebuttal I’ve seen is very similar:
    – these men took that risk when they chose to have sex and now have to accept the consequences
    – a woman’s rights to decide what happens with her body and/or the well-being of the child is more significant than the costs to the man

    My observation is that to people who favor a certain stance, principles that they argue for in other cases, but that seem to conflict with that stance, are very easily argued as being inapplicable due to a certain detail. However, when people do the same for a stance that they personally disagree with, this is interpreted as hypocrisy.

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