A thought experiment has often been presented to pro-lifers to try to get them to see that they really don’t believe that human embryos are of equal moral value to born humans. It’s called the Fire in the IVF Clinic scenario. In this ethical dilemma, you are in a burning IVF clinic and you have a choice. You can save a screaming three-year-old, or you can save a tray of 1000 embryos. Which one would you choose?
A lot of pro-lifers will admit that they would save the three-year-old child. As a result, pro-choicers seem to think they have us over a barrel here.
Perhaps they feel like we’re being disingenuous by still insisting the unborn are morally equal to born humans. Or they think that if we truly believed the embryos were of equal moral worth we would save a thousand over just one person. Or perhaps they feel like we’re being hypocrites. Here we are saying we would save someone who can suffer over someone who can’t. But when it comes to a woman who can suffer, we’re trying to save the unborn who can’t suffer. (1)
Pro-lifers do have responses to each of these charges.
We point out that being a person with a right to life does not mean you have a right to be rescued from all harm. (2) We point out that there are times when people may choose to save one person over many. (3) And along with Trent Horn we argue that “Just because we might not save some humans in an emergency does not give us the right to kill those same humans for any reason we want.” (4)
But when I present these arguments to pro-choicers, they sometimes react like they’re the craziest ideas they’ve ever heard. However, I think we can show them that these are ideas they already accept when they’re not busy trying to justify abortion. And we can do that through one of their favorite stories, the story of Robert McFall and David Shimp.
Anyone who has read my articles knows how much I love responding to David Boonin. But it struck me the other day that some of his arguments could be re-engineered to help the pro-life case. (5) The arguments I have in mind revolve around the story of Robert McFall and David Shimp.
Robert McFall was an asbestos worker who lived in Pittsburgh. He was diagnosed with aplastic anemia in 1978 and told by his doctors that if he didn’t receive a bone marrow transplant, he would die. Tests for compatibility were done and it was discovered that McFall’s cousin, David Shimp, was a match. But before further tests could be done, Shimp changed his mind and refused to undergo further testing. He also refused to give his bone marrow even if it would save McFall’s life. McFall was running out of time and understandably desperate. So he took Shimp to court and tried to have him legally forced to undergo further testing and give his bone marrow if he was a match. The case is known as McFall vs. Shimp. It was heard in the Common Pleas Court of Allegheny County by Judge John P, Flaherty Jr. in July of 1978. (6)
The outcome did not swing in McFall’s favor.
“Judge Flaherty wasn’t impressed by McFall’s situation. While he clearly felt sorry for McFall, he just as clearly felt his lawsuit was absurd. For the state to force Shimp to give McFall the bone marrow he needed, the judge wrote in his decision ‘would change the very concept and principle upon which our society is founded,’ a principle, as he put it, of ‘respect for the individual.’ In fact, Judge Flaherty went even further than this, adding ‘For a society which respects the rights of one individual, to sink its teeth into the jugular vein or neck of one of its members and suck from it sustenance for another member, is revolting to our hard wrought concepts of jurisprudence.’”(7)
In the end, McFall’s request was denied. Judge Flaherty ruled in Shimp’s favor on July 26, 1978. McFall died fifteen days later. (8)
Boonin writes, “the fact that someone is a person with a right to life doesn’t mean they have the right to use another person’s body in order to go on living.” (9) This seems to line up with what pro-lifers are saying about how being a person with a right to life does not guarantee you will be protected from all harm.
But maybe we would change our minds if Shimp’s bone marrow could save ten people from Aplastic Anemia. Surely saving that many lives would be worth any inconvenience to Shimp. But in actuality, my reason for saying Shimp was not required to give McFall his bone marrow would apply here. Shimp’s bone marrow exists in his body for his body. For him to donate his bone marrow to one person or ten would be a supererogatory act and that is why he should not be required to do it. (10)
For pro-choicers who so strongly value personal autonomy, this should not be a controversial statement. And thus it’s conceivable that you could choose to save fewer people in a given circumstance, even if you consider them all equally valuable.
Finally, what about the point that failing to save someone does not justify intentionally killing someone? Boonin asks us to imagine a variation of the story where Shimp actually gives McFall his bone marrow, but then three months later “decided that he’d made a big mistake. He now wishes he’d never let McFall use his body in the first place. He doesn’t like having a cousin. Nothing I’ve said here suggests the state should let Shimp kill McFall at this point.” (11)
But let’s imagine he did murder McFall and was brought before Judge Flaherty again. I’d be surprised if anyone would think Flaherty was inconsistent for charging Shimp with murder and punishing him for it, even though he had sided with Shimp on the issue of bone marrow. This shows that pro-choicers understand the pro-life perspective better than they think.
In this article, I have attempted to show how the story of David Shimp and Robert McFall can be used to defend the pro-life position in the case of the Fire at the IVF Clinic. My conclusion is that the pro-life arguments are common-sense intuitions that people on both sides understand – they are just sometimes hesitant to apply those intuitions to abortion.
- A friend of mine suggested as much to me in an e-mail conversation.
- Francis J. Beckwith, Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice (Cambridge, EN: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 186.
- Trent Horn, Persuasive Pro-Life: How to Talk About Our Cultures Toughest Issue (El Cajun, CA: Catholic Answers Press, 2014), 223.
- Horn, Persuasive Pro-Life, 224.
- This section is copied and pasted from my article, Persons of Interest: A Review of David Boonin’s Beyond Roe, Part 1. https://humandefense.com/persons-of-interest-a-review-of-david-boonins-beyond-roe-part-1/
- David Boonin, Beyond Roe: Why Abortion Should be Legal—Even if the Fetus is a Person (Oxford, EN: Oxford University Press, 2019), 3. Kindle Edition.
- Boonin, Beyond Roe, 3.
- Boonin, Beyond Roe, 3.
- Boonin, Beyond Roe, 50-51.
- Horn, Persuasive Pro-Life, 234.
- Horn, Persuasive Pro-Life, 234.
- Boonin, Beyond Roe, 9.
- Stephanie Gray, Love Unleashes Life: Abortion and the Art of Communicating Truth (Toronto, ON: Life Cycle Books, 2015) 58-59.
- Boonin, Beyond Roe, 50.
Born in Vancouver, B.C., Chris has been married to Amy since 2017. He has a BA in Religious Studies (Youth Leadership), and an MA in Theological Studies (Apologetics). He enjoys acting, evangelism, and debates.