In this article, I will summarize chapters 2-3 of David Boonin’s Beyond Roe. I will then offer an analysis of what I see as the logical conclusions of his argument. My thesis is his arguments leave the door wide open for abandoning or neglecting newborn children as well as the unborn.
Chapter 2: The Lesson of the Case
David Boonin lays out the implication of the Robert McFall and David Shimp story. The reason that the state could not force Shimp to give McFall his bone marrow is that McFall had no right to his bone marrow. This is true even though McFall was a person with a right to life and needed Shimp’s bone marrow. (1) And, he argues, if we the reader are willing to accept those implications: “you are now in a position to draw an important conclusion: being a person doesn’t give you the right to use another person’s bone marrow even if you need to use it… The same goes for having a right to life. Having a right to life doesn’t give you the right to use it.” (2)
And from this implication he draws a lesson:
“The fact that someone is a person with the right to life doesn’t mean they have a right to use another person’s body even if they need to use that person’s body to go on living. A person’s right to life doesn’t include the right to use another person’s body, it doesn’t entail the right to use another person’s body, and it doesn’t imply the right to use another person’s body. From the fact that a person has a right to life, it doesn’t follow that they have a right to use another person’s body even if they need to use it.” (3)
As I said in Part 1, the applicability to abortion is obvious. The unborn child might be a person with a right to life.
Boonin goes on to tell the hypothetical story of a woman named Alice who is drugged by a co-worker and raped while she is unconscious. She soon discovers that she is pregnant with her rapist’s baby. In a nice flourish of alliteration, Boonin calls the baby Al. He assumes for the sake of his argument that Al is a person with a right to life. But he argues that if it is true that being a person with a right to life did not give McFall a right to use Shimp’s body, then being a person with a right to life would not give Al a right to use Alice’s body. And if Al has no right to use Alice’s body, it would be wrong for the state to force her to continue letting him. And it’s wrong for the state to force Alice to continue letting Al use her body, then it would be wrong for them to prevent her from having an abortion. Thus, abortion in the case of rape would be justified. (4)
Chapter 3: Changing the Case
Boonin moves on to consider whether there is some other fact about Alice’s situation that would make it different enough from Shimp’s that we could say it was wrong for the state to force Shimp to give McFall his bone marrow but not to force Alice to take her pregnancy to term. For example, McFall was not already using Shimp’s bone marrow when the court reached its decision. But Al was already using Alice’s body when she decided she wanted an abortion. (5)
Boonin suggests that if this case is bothering us, we should make up our own version of the Shimp and McFall story where McFall is already using Shimp’s body. Then we can ask if that changes our minds about whether McFall has a right to Shimp’s bone marrow. (6) He then gives his own version:
“Suppose the day after the judge ruled in Shimp’s favor, a distraught friend of McFall’s slipped a drug into Shimp’s coffee that rendered Shimp unconscious. Suppose while Shimp was unconscious this friend of McFall then connected Shimp to a device that started slowly extracting bone marrow from Shimp and transferring it to McFall… Suppose when Shimp woke up, he discovered that due to no fault of his own, his bone marrow was already being used to keep McFall alive. And suppose Shimp decided he didn’t want to let McFall continue using his bone marrow.” (7)
This makes the case of Shimp and McFall similar to the case of Alice and Al. Here the state is not forcing Shimp to let McFall start using his body. It is forcing him to let McFall continue using his body. It’s also not McFall’s fault that Shimp is in this position. Boonin amends the story further so that he is in a coma and unaware of what his friend did. (8)
Boonin asks us to imagine McFall’s lawyer seizing on this and going back to Judge Flaherty and pointing out that when Flaherty denied McFall Shimp’s bone marrow, he was not already using it. But now McFall is already using it, so Shimp should be required to stay plugged into the machine. Boonin suspects that people would not find this argument persuasive. And what this shows us then is that if someone did not have a right to use a person’s body in the first place, the fact that they are already using it cannot suddenly give them that right. Thus he does not believe that this first difference affects his case. (9)
I am going to argue that Boonin’s thesis leaves the door open for abandoning or neglecting newborn children as well. As Trent Horn argues, “newborns cannot live on their own outside of the womb…” (10) They still rely on their parent’s bodies for care. But if Boonin is right and being a person with a right to life does not give you a right to use another person’s body, then it doesn’t seem like parents are any more obligated to care for their newborn child than their unborn child. Whether the newborn baby gets care or not should also be the parent’s choice by this logic. Of course, this assumes an ethical position known as moral voluntarism which Francis Beckwith defines as saying “that moral obligations must be voluntarily accepted to have moral, and thus legal force. But that does not seem correct in some cases.” (11)
One way this does not seem correct is that this argument would make it impossible to condemn Amy and Brian for leaving their infant son to die in a hotel garbage bin. Let’s call their son Adrian. Adrian was a person with a right to life. He also needed his parent’s bodies to survive. But if Boonin is right and being a person with a right to life does not give you a right to use someone else’s body, then Adrian did not have a right to Amy’s and Brian’s bodies. They had to consent to letting him use their body. The fact that they left him to die shows that they did not consent. Since Adrian had no right to their bodies, the state should not have been able to force them to care for him with their bodies. And since the state shouldn’t have been able to force them to care for him with their bodies, it shouldn’t have been able to punish them for abandoning him.
Also, let’s change the story of Amy and Brian a little. Let’s imagine that Amy gave birth. Initially, she was not planning on throwing her baby away. However, Brian suddenly admitted to her that one night he drugged her and raped her. That is why she got pregnant. She then changed her mind and decides to abandon Adrian in the garbage can. Since Adrian wouldn’t have a right to use her body unless she consented, the state would not have a right to force her to care for Adrian in the case of rape either. And since the state would not have a right to force her to care for Adrian in the case of rape, it couldn’t stop her from leaving him behind in a hotel room. And if he died, the state would still not be able to punish her for it according to this argument.
Now here, I can imagine a pro-choicer protesting. They may point out that at this point, Amy has already given birth. Therefore, she has voluntarily chosen to start caring for Adrian. But the thing about volunteering is that you can also choose to stop volunteering at any time. And Amy and Brian would certainly seem to have that right if Adrian has no inherent right to use their bodies. Or to put it closer to Boonin’s point in chapter 3, if Adrian didn’t have the right to use Amy’s body before, the fact that she was already letting him start can’t change that.
We might feel that Amy is a horribly immoral person for letting Adrian die like that. (And Brian too if he didn’t rescue Adrian after Amy abandoned him.) But as Boonin explains, the question of whether an action is immoral and the question of whether an action should be illegal are very distinct. (12) For example, he writes about how “There are actions such as jaywalking, which we may think to be justifiably illegal, and yet not immoral, and there are actions such as adultery, which we may think to be immoral and yet not justifiably illegal.” (13) He considers an action morally permissible if “no one has a valid claim against my doing it, that doing it violates nobody’s moral rights.” (14) According to Boonin’s argument, Adrian would have no right to Amy’s body. So, he has no valid claim against her abandoning him.
Okay, now that I feel really dirty for making the best case I can for why letting a child die from abandonment or neglect is okay, (and possibly making my editors wonder if I’m really cut out for writing on a pro-life website) let me make something clear. I know this essay hasn’t actually proven Boonin’s argument wrong. Just because an idea has implications I do not like does not mean that it’s false. In my next article responding to Boonin, I will bring my positive argument against his position to bear. But what I wanted to demonstrate through this particular argument is that as Paul Chamberlain writes, “There are times when the reasons we set out for doing one thing actually justify other actions that we have not yet begun to pursue and may not even be thinking of at the time.” (15) I’m not saying Boonin and those who agree with him are actually advocating for parents like Amy and Brian to have the right to kill their child through abandonment or negligence. I’m saying that that is the sort of outcome I foresee his argument potentially leading to.
In this article, I summarized chapters 2-3 and Boonin’s book, Beyond Roe. I argued that accepting Boonin’s argument would also open the door for infanticide. I also tried to show that his argument would undermine potential pro-choice arguments against infanticide. In Part 3, I will give positive reasons for why I don’t think Boonin’s argument works.
This is Part 2 of a 5-part series. To read Part 3, click here.
(1) David Boonin, Beyond Roe: Why Abortion Should Be Legal—Even if the Fetus is a Person (Oxford, EN: Oxford University, 2019), 7.
(2) Boonin, Beyond Roe, 7-8.
(3) Boonin, Beyond Roe, 9.
(4) Boonin, Beyond Roe, 7, 9-10.
(5) Boonin, Beyond Roe, 13.
(6) Boonin, Beyond Roe, 14.
(7) Boonin, Beyond Roe, 15.
(8) Boonin, Beyond Roe, 16.
(9) Boonin, Beyond Roe, 16-17.
(10) Trent Horn, Persuasive Pro-Life: How to Talk About Culture’s Toughest Issue (El Cajun, CA: Catholic Answers Press, 2014), 124.
(11) Francis J. Beckwith, Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice (Cambridge, EN: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 182.
(12) David Boonin, A Defense of Abortion, (Cambridge, EN: Cambridge University, 2003), 3-4.
(13) Boonin, A Defense of Abortion, 4.
(14) Boonin, A Defense of Abortion, 5.
(15) Paul Chamberlain, Final Wishes: A Cautionary Tale on Death, Dignity, and Physician Assisted Suicide (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2000), 112.
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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.