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Introduction

Judith Jarvis Thomson was a pro-choice philosopher who devised the famous “Violinist Argument.” It goes as follows:

“You wake up in the morning and find yourself back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, ‘Look, we’re sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you—we would never have permitted it if we’d known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it’s only for nine months. By then, he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.’” (1)

When asked if you have a right to unplug yourself from the violinist, most people would say yes. They say this even though the violinist is a human person with a right to life. Why? Because, Thomson argues, you do not have a right to use someone else’s body against their will. The application to abortion is obvious. The fetus may be a person with a right to life. But that does not give him or her a right to use a mother’s body against their will. (2)

David Boonin is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder. In 2019, he released a book called Beyond Roe: Why Abortion Should be Legal—Even if the Fetus is a Person.  In Beyond Roe, Boonin’s goal “is to take the argument that Thomson pioneered in the moral context, adapt it to the legal context, and use it to argue that abortion should be legal even if the fetus is a person.” (3)

Shimp vs. McFall

Boonin makes a legal case for abortion with the real-life situation of Robert McFall, 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. (4)

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.’” (5)

In the end, McFall’s request was denied. Judge Flaherty ruled in Shimp’s favor on July 26, 1978. McFall died fifteen days later. (6)

Boonin assumes that pro-lifers agree it would have been wrong for the judge to force Shimp to give McFall his bone marrow. With this as a starting point, he moves on to try to convince us that abortion should be legal, even if the fetus is a person with a right to life. He admits this approach might seem strange for two reasons. First, the abortion debate usually focuses on whether the fetus is a person or not. If it is a person, abortion would be murder and thus should be illegal. Both the pro-life and pro-choice side agree on that. But Boonin ultimately seeks to show that the question of personhood is irrelevant. Second, none of the people in the Shimp vs. McFall story are pregnant. But Boonin believes that there is a lesson to be learned in the story that can be applied to the pregnant woman’s situation. (7)

Why Do I Agree with Boonin?

This is meant to be the first in a series of articles in which I will be summarizing and then critiquing Boonin’s book. At the outset, let me say where I agree with him. Both Thomson’s violinist argument and the case of McFall vs. Shimp show there are times that being a person with the right to life does not give you the right to use someone else’s body against their will. 

The reason I do not believe McFall should have been forced to give Shimp his bone marrow is that McFall’s bone marrow was for McFall’s body. (8) For McFall to give up his bone marrow to Shimp would have been a supererogatory act. However, there are other times when I do believe human persons have a right to use someone’s body, even if it might be against their will.

Where I Disagree with Boonin

Paul Chamberlain writes about Amy Grossberg and Brian Peterson,

“teenage sweethearts, who left a school dance to check into a motel room. There they delivered their baby boy and threw him into a trash can where he was left to die. Later the two went to court for this action, were found guilty of manslaughter and received jail terms. In addition, they faced the condemnation of the national media and the nation at large, and received a harsh lecture from the judge. ‘There’s a disturbing aspect to your character,” he sternly declared, “an egocentrism… that blinded you to the intrinsic value of the life of your child.’” (9)

This is similar to the Shimp and McFall case in three important ways. 1) The newborn baby was a person with a right to life. 2) The parents did not want to look after their son. 3) They would have had to use their own bodies to do so. Yet in this case, the judge ruled that it was their duty to care for their son. So what is the difference? Pro-life apologist Scot Klussendorf answers, “we… have a duty to sustain our own offspring.” (10) Amy and Brian were the baby’s parents and they failed in their duty. That is why they went to jail.

 But this raises an important question. Since the unborn are also the parents’ children, why shouldn’t the mother and father be expected to sustain them as well? Is it because pregnancy itself is a supererogatory act? I don’t see how. As Stephanie Gray explains, the uterus is the one part of the woman’s body that is designed for someone else: 

“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.” (11)

Moreover, she writes:

“… don’t parents have a duty to ensure they meet the basic, or ordinary needs, of their children… The uterus is what’s needed to feed and shelter human offspring of a certain age, the way breasts and formula and cribs are needed for human offspring of other ages.” (12)

To truly make a convincing argument for abortion that pro-lifers would accept, Boonin would have to do one of two things. 1) Show that the unborn is not the parents’ child. 2) Or show that pregnancy is not part of meeting the child’s basic needs. Up front, I will say that I believe Boonin granting the unborn personhood will make his job a lot harder.

Conclusion

Boonin’s book is split up into three parts. Part 1 consists of him attempting to show that even if the fetus is a person with a right to life, abortion should be legal. Part 2 consists of him responding to objections to his position. And in part 3, he argues that abortion should have fewer restrictions. (13) There are a lot of chapters in this book. When I can, I will try to combine some into one article. Otherwise, you’ll just have to enjoy the step-by-step process! 

Citations

(1)    Judith Jarvis Thomson, “A Defense of Abortion,” in Jonathan Wolff’s, Readings in Moral Philosophy (New York: W. W. Norton, 2018), 333.
(2)    Thomson, “A Defense of Abortion,” in Wolff, Readings In Moral Philosophy, 333.
(3)    David Boonin, Beyond Roe: Why Abortion Should be Legal—Even if the Fetus is a Person (Oxford, EN: Oxford University Press, 2019), ixx. (Kindle Edition.
(4)    Boonin, Beyond Roe, 3.
(5)    Boonin, Beyond Roe, 3.
(6)    Boonin, Beyond Roe, 3.
(7)    Boonin, Beyond Roe, 4-5.
(8) Stephanie Gray, Love Unleashes Life: Abortion and the Art of Communicating Truth (Toronto, ON: Life Cycle Books, 2015), 58.
(9) Paul Chamberlain, Talking About Good and Bad Without Getting Ugly:  A Guide to Moral Persuasion (Downers Grove: IVP, 2005), 48.
(10)    Scott Klussendorf, The Case for Life: Equipping Christians to Engage the Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2009), 188.
(11) Gray, Love Unleashes Life, 58.
(12) Gray, Love Unleashes Life, 59.
(13) Boonin, Beyond Roe, 5-6.

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

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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.

The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Human Defense Initiative.