In this part, I will be reviewing chapters 15 and 17 of David Boonin’s Beyond Roe. These are the chapters that deal most directly with my arguments against his use of the McFall and Shimp story to justify abortion. I will explain each of his points and respond to them.
Chapter 15: Parents
Point 1: Boonin feels the force of the parental obligation argument.
Boonin notes that the fact that a pregnant woman is the parent
“might make a difference because we have special legal obligations to our own children that we don’t have to other people, not even our cousins.” (1)
Response: Boonin and I agree here that parents have a special responsibility to their children. However, he doesn’t go far enough and consider what those responsibilities are. As Stephanie Gray asks, “don’t parents have a duty to ensure they meet the basic, or ordinary, needs of their children?” (2) The answer is yes.
Point 2: Parents also aren’t required to let children use their bodies without consent.
Boonin shows this by changing the story of McFall vs. Shimp so that McFall is now Shimp’s son. This time, Shimp is at work, and someone slips a drug into his drink to knock him out. While he is unconscious, someone steals his sperm and uses it to fertilize an egg. That egg is then implanted in a woman who brings the fetus to term. The baby who is born is Robert McFall. Years later, McFall comes down with aplastic anemia and needs a bone marrow transplant. When asked to donate his bone marrow, Shimp refuses even though he is a match. In this case, McFall is Shimp’s biological son. He is a person with a right to life. And he needs Shimp’s bone marrow to survive. But Boonin is still confident we would say that it would be wrong for the judge to force Shimp to give McFall his bone marrow. After all, if McFall did not have a right to Shimp’s bone marrow before, McFall suddenly being his biological son wouldn’t change that. (3)
Response: I agree that McFall would not have a right to use Shimp’s bone marrow here. That is because Shimp’s bone marrow is for Shimp’s body. For that reason, Shimp giving McFall his bone marrow would not be part of meeting his basic needs. (3)
However, I disagree that this is analogous to pregnancy. While Shimp’s bone marrow is for Shimp’s body, a pregnant woman’s uterus is for someone else’s body which Stephanie Gray demonstrates:
“Can a woman live without her uterus? Yes. Can an early pre-born child live without a woman’s uterus? No. Those questions and answers tell us something: they tell us that the uterus exists more for one’s offspring than for oneself.” (5)
Since a woman’s womb is literally for nurturing a fetus until she gives birth, carrying a pregnancy to term would be part of meeting the child’s basic needs. (6)
Point Three: This argument leads to a conclusion that pro-lifers cannot accept.
Boonin asks those who put a lot of weight on the parent-fetus biological relationship to imagine the case of Alice’s co-worker Alison. She too is knocked out by a drug. While she is unconscious, the stranger implants an embryo in her that belongs to another couple who are infertile and can’t have a baby any other way. The embryo they chose was a male named Alvin. Now, Alvin is not Alison’s biological child, so if being a biological child is what gives a fetus the right to use a woman’s womb, then Alvin would not have that right. And therefore, the state could not stop Alison from having an abortion. Boonin doubts that a pro-lifer would ever accept this argument. And if that is true, then relying on the biological version of the parental obligation is not open to us. (7)
Response: Here Boonin seems to be attempting a reductio ad absurdum argument but it is just asinine. The only way it would work is if someone said that only biological parents have a responsibility to meet the child’s basic needs. But I have never come across such a suggestion when reading pro-life literature. Rather, I think it’s treated like an idea people can safely assume. Sometimes, this is necessary to avoid getting bogged down. As Paul Chamberlain writes:
“When a teacher tells her students, ‘our class will be in session every Wednesday for the next two months,’ the students all know what she means. Class will meet… unless the teacher comes down with pneumonia or unless there is inclement weather… These are all assumptions which are so obvious they do not need to be mentioned. So if someone later on complained that the professor misled the class after she was absent due to illness because she had not said the words ‘unless I get sick,’ this would not be a reasonable complaint. Some ideas can be assumed and do not need to be stated. In fact, a teacher who tried to explicitly state all her assumptions for every statement she made would get very little taught in a day.” (8)
In the case of Alvin and Alison, I would argue that Alison has become Alvin’s temporary guardian. As such, she also has a responsibility to meet his basic needs until he is born and can be given to the couple.
A comparable situation might be if after Amy and Brian abandoned Adrian to die in the hotel room, a maid named Ariana located him. While she is not biologically his mother, she would probably be charged with gross negligence if the judge found out she had left him to die. Why? As Christopher Kaczor states explicitly, “The answer is obvious. Adults have a special obligation to take care of vulnerable children.” (9)
Point four: Being a parent in a social sense does not mean you have to give someone else the use of your body.
The social sense is where you stand in a special kind of relationship with the child even if you are not biologically related to them, for example when you adopt. He considers the idea that Al is Alison’s son in the social sense. Would Alison being a parent in this way give Al the right to use the woman’s body? Boonin once again tests this by another version of the McFall and Shimp story. In this version, Shimp and his wife adopted a baby boy thirty years ago named Robert McFall. Shimp was a good dad to him and they were close. Tragically, McFall came down with aplastic anemia and Shimp turned out to be a match for bone marrow. Could the state force Shimp to give McFall his bone marrow here? Boonin still believes we would say no. While we might think Shimp is a selfish jerk, we would still revolt against the idea of the state forcing him to give his bone marrow to McFall against his will. (10) But then Boonin argues
“If the fact that McFall is Shimp’s son in the social sense doesn’t give him the right to use Shimp’s body, then the claim that Al is Alice’s son in the social sense won’t be enough to show that Al has the right to use Alice’s body, either.” (11)
However, Boonin is willing to consider the fact that someone might disagree here. For example, they could point out that by adopting McFall, Shimp agreed to care for him. For him not to give McFall his bone marrow would be to violate that agreement. But in this case, Boonin believes, the fetus would only be the parent’s child in the social sense if the woman agreed to care for the baby first. If she didn’t, then the baby still does not have a right to use her body. (12)
Response: I agree with Boonin that Shimp should not be forced to give McFall his bone marrow even if Shimp had adopted McFall and they had a great relationship. But I also disagree that this has any bearing on the abortion question for all the reasons mentioned in my response to point one.
I would also disagree with anyone who tried to base a child’s right to have his or her basic needs met on whether the adults had agreed to do it ahead of time. After all, Ariana would not have agreed to care for Adrian before finding him in the garbage bin but I would still expect her to do something! In the same way, I’d expect Alice to meet Al’s basic needs even if she hadn’t volunteered first. The only way that abortion would be acceptable appears to be if Boonin could show that carrying a pregnancy to term is not part of meeting a child’s basic needs. He has not done that in this chapter.
Chapter 17: Natural Purposes
In this chapter, Boonin offers a rebuttal to pro-lifers who try to ground the baby’s right to use a woman’s body in the fact that gestating a fetus is what the womb is for. He makes three points.
Point 1: Boonin acknowledges that giving someone your bone marrow is unnatural while being pregnant isn’t.
“We might say the purpose of a woman’s uterus is to gestate the fetuses she conceives, while the purpose of a person’s bone marrow isn’t to keep other people alive. Or we might put it this way: a woman’s uterus is for gestating the fetuses she conceives, while a person’s bone marrow isn’t for keeping other people alive.” (13)
He imagines the argument going something like this: The fetus has a right to the pregnant woman’s uterus because gestating the fetus is what the uterus is for. On the other hand, McFall does not have a right to use Shimp’s bone marrow because keeping him alive is not what the bone marrow is for. And thus, you could deny McFall the right to use Shimp’s bone marrow consistently while still affirming the fetus’ right to use the woman’s uterus. (14)
Response: Boonin and I agree about what the purpose of the uterus and bone marrow is. However, he misunderstands how pro-lifers are using this argument. He treats it like it is a positive apologetic for why the baby has a right to the mother’s body. In fact, it is a defensive apologetic against pro-choicers who try to compare pregnancy to donating bone marrow. (15) If you read Gray, Trent Horn (16), Francis Beckwith (17), and Scott Klussendorf (18), you will see what I mean.
Here, it is worth mentioning a big weakness that I noticed while reading Boonin’s book. He does not cite any pro-life scholars except in the last chapter of his book as suggested reading. (19) He never references them when even while explaining the pro-life arguments. This gives the impression that he is simply imagining what we might say. But if you look in my bibliography you can see the dates when these other books were published. They all came out before Beyond Roe. So, this misunderstanding seems avoidable. Even if he had run into this misuse of the argument on the popular level, this is a scholarly work so he should have also included scholarly arguments.
Point 2: This argument also leads to conclusions that pro-lifer would not be able to accept.
Boonin concedes that this argument might be enough to force Alice, who conceived her own natural child, to carry the pregnancy to term. But it would still allow Alison, who had been drugged and implanted with another couple’s embryo to have an abortion since her uterus is not being used to look after a fetus she conceived. But he doubts pro-lifers would be okay with conceding that, and so we’d still have to abandon the natural right objection. (20)
Response: Once again, I would argue that Alison is Alvin’s temporary guardian. And temporary guardians have a responsibility to sustain a child under their care by meeting their basic needs. And since she is still using her womb for what it is meant for, gestating a fetus, and carrying Alvin to term would be part of meeting his basic needs.
Or to go back to the case of Ariana, it could be argued that it is not as natural for her to use her body to look after Adrian as it is for Brian and Amy to use theirs. However, let’s say that she had to carry Adrian down to the front desk where she could call for help. She is not using her arms for anything out of the ordinary. And she is not using her legs for anything out of the ordinary by walking to the front desk. And that is what we would expect her to do. As Patrick Lee writes,
“I think we recognize the truth that even reluctant parents have responsibilities to their children. When we read or see in the news that people have left their newborn child in a garbage dumpster, we react with horror or disgust. I believe [this kind of argument] would lead to condoning such acts, but I also believe such acts are completely immoral.” (21)
Point 3: The idea that the woman’s uterus is for any baby leads to conclusions that pro-lifers wouldn’t be able to accept.
Boonin sees the natural use argument leading to consequences that pro-lifers would not accept for McFall and Shimp. To Boonin, if we can say that Alice’s uterus is meant for everyone, then we can say the same about Shimp’s bone marrow. If we are going to be generic and say that Alison’s uterus is only for gestating just any fetus, then we can be equally generic and say that Shimp’s bone marrow is simply for producing red blood cells for just anyone who needs his bone marrow. (22)
Response: Boonin moves too quickly here. The fact that bone marrow can be used by anyone does not necessarily mean that it is for everyone. Here we can ask the same question about bone marrow that we asked about the uterus: can a person survive without bone marrow? What the story of Robert McFall tells me is not long and not well. This reveals that bone marrow is still more for our own bodies than for someone else’s. (23) That is why as Gray writes, “whether we are obligated, or not, to share our” bone marrow “is a different matter entirely.” (24)
The Overall Weakness of Boonin’s Argument
Boonin has failed to convince me that 1) the unborn is not the woman’s child, and 2) that carrying the pregnancy to term is not part of meeting a child’s basic needs. Therefore, even though I do not believe that McFall has a right to Shimp’s bone marrow, I do believe the unborn have a right to use the woman’s body.
It seems that the only way it would make sense to say that a woman can kill a baby or refuse to meet her child’s basic needs so that he or she dies is if we can determine that the unborn is not a person. (25) But Boonin has already granted that because he didn’t think the unborn being a person was relevant to whether he or she had a right to the woman’s body. It now seems to be very relevant. As pro-choice philosopher, Kate Greasley, writes in her review of Beyond Roe:
“If we think the woman still ought to be able to control her procreative destiny by intentionally ending the life of that embryo… What this action amounts to in moral terms, and how it should be treated under the law, will surely then depend on the intrinsic moral status of that embryo. Is it a creature whose life we are permitted to end so as to secure the all-round wellbeing of a more developed human being, or is it not?” (26)
In this article, I responded to Chapters 15 and 17 of Beyond Roe. I did not find that Boonin’s rebuttals adequately addressed pro-life arguments. Nor did some of the conclusions that he tried to draw. Thus I am forced to conclude that abortion should not be legal, especially because the fetus is a person.
This is Part 4 of a 5-part series. To read the 5th and final part, click here.
(1) David Boonin, Beyond Roe: Why Abortion Should be Legal Evan if the Fetus is a Person (Oxford, EN: Oxford University Press, 2019), 88.
(2) Stephanie Gray, Love Unleashes Life: Abortion and the Art of Communicating Truth (Toronto, ON: Life Cycle Books, 2015), 59.
(3) Boonin, Beyond Roe, 90.
(4) Gray, Love Unleashes Life, 58.
(5) Gray, Love Unleashes Life, 58.
(6) Medcine Plus. “The Uterus.” https://medlineplus.gov/ency/imagepages/19263.htm#:~:text=The%20main%20function%20of%20the,developing%20fetus%20prior%20to%20birth. (accessed July 10th, 2022).
(7) Boonin, Beyond Roe, 91-92.
(8) Paul Chamberlain, Why People Stop Believing (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2018), 149.
(9) Christopher Kaczor, The Ethics of Abortion: Women’s Rights, Human Life and the Question of Justice (New York: Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, 2015), 172.
(10) Boonin, Beyond Roe, 92-93.
(11) Boonin, Beyond Roe, 93.
(12) Boonin, Beyond Roe, 93-95.
(13) Boonin, Beyond Roe, 100.
(14) Boonin, Beyond Roe, 100.
(15) For more on offensive and defensive apologetics, check out William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 3rd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Book, 2008), 23-24.
(16) Trent Horn, Persuasive Pro-Life: How to Talk about Our Culture’s Toughest Issue (El Cajun, CA: Catholic Answers Press, 2014), 170.
(17) Francis Beckwith, Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion (Cambridge, EN: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 189.
(18) Scott Klussendorf, The Case for Life: Equipping Christians to Engage the Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 190.
(19) Boonin, Beyond Roe, 209.
(20) Boonin, Beyond Roe, 103-105.
(21) Patrick Lee, Abortion and the Unborn Human Life, 2nd. Ed. (Washington, D. C.,: The Catholic University of America Press, 2010), 112.
(22) Boonin, Beyond Roe, 105-106.
(23) Gray, Love Unleashes Life, 58.
(24) Gray, Love Unleashes Life, 58.
(25) Scott B. Rae, Introducing Christian Ethics: A Short Guide to Moral Persuasion (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 65.
(26) Kate Greasley,. Review of David Boonin, Beyond Roe: Why Abortion Should be Legal Even if the Fetus is a Person (Oxford University Press, 2019). Criminal Law, Philosophy 15, 535–544 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11572-021-09580-x (accessed July 11th, 2022).
Photo by Michal Bar Haim on Unsplash
Born in Vancouver, B.C., Chris has been married to Amy for 3 years. He has a BA in Religious Studies (Youth Leadership), and an MA in Theological Studies (Apologetics). He enjoys acting, evangelism, and debates.