When you think about a court ruling and abortion, what comes to mind? If it’s some other case than Roe v. Wade, I want to hear your answer! Today I want to talk about a different case that can be seen as relevant precedent on the subject, McFall v. Shimp.
I was digging around the Wikipedia article about bodily integrity in order to get my bearings before venturing into primary sources, when I came across this case for the first time. This is a case between two men–cousins in fact.
Picture it: Pennsylvania, 1978. Robert McFall was battling aplastic anemia, and his doctors believed that his only chance for survival was a bone marrow transplant from a suitable donor. The only donor he was able to locate was his cousin, David Shimp.
Let’s think about this for a moment. Someone, perhaps even someone you know, approaches you with the knowledge that some part of your body can save their life. And luckily, it’s a part that you don’t need to stay alive. The risks are minimal. It’s the only chance they have.
In this scenario, you might have a moral calling to donate. You say yes because it’s the right thing to do. Hell, some would say yes reflexively, I suspect.
Obviously, this isn’t what happened because the matter ended up in the Common Pleas Court of Allegheny County.
Identifying a donor was not a relief to McFall. Shimp refused to donate. It seems as though he wasn’t interested in risking his own health for McFall, though it looks like there’s only one interview on the matter. McFall sued him in hopes that the court would compel Shimp to undergo the procedure.
You may have some judgement right now towards Shimp, especially if you found yourself standing in moral conviction a moment ago. You aren’t alone. The court stated that it felt the “the refusal of defendant is morally indefensible.” But the court swallows its feelings on the matter because to enforce morality at an individual scope in this case, “… would defeat the sanctity of the individual, and would impose a rule which would know no limits, and one could not imagine where the line would be drawn.”
Remember this was 1978. The court couldn’t imagine what this would be like in modern America. Had they ruled in McFall’s favor, we might be living in a very different world.
Imagine it: Alternate Universe America, 2017. Since people have a duty to donate tissue in order to save another’s life (it was deemed a duty after the courts were swamped by cases compelling people for their kidneys, blood, bone marrow, bones, portions of livers, and lobes of lungs), everyone is required to be tested, and our blood and tissue types are stored in a database. Someone could knock on your door at any time and compel you to come with them in order to have your blood drawn or have a non-essential organ removed. Who would get to determine what is “non-essential?” What, if anything, would be deemed too risky for the donor if the recipient’s life hung in the balance? How would you feel about your body not being your own?
The court felt as though Shimp as a person was acting immorally, but the state must attend to a different set of morals. You should really go read the ruling if you haven’t already followed the links above. It’s blessedly short, and it’s pretty accessible as legalese goes.
Are you back? McFall was trying to use precedent from ancient English common law (yeah, you can try that in the US). The court deemed that the precedent was in conflict with our nations principles: “Our society, contrary to many others, has as its first principle, the respect for the individual, and that society and government exist to protect the individual from being invaded and hurt by another.”
Shimp is responsible for his own soul. The court is responsible for ensuring our nation respects the principles on which it is founded, specifically that of individual liberty in this case.
So I started this post mentioning abortion, and the only woman in it so far is me as the writer. What does this have to do with anything?
Pretty much everyone agrees that people are people between birth and not requiring life-support to be alive. As per usual, things get murky in the margins. Is a person still alive if they are in a persistent vegetative state? At what point in gestation or birth does a fetus become a person? Debates quickly become a clash of personal values, with the same words being used to represent a multitude of definitions.
During abortion debates, the debate over personhood is brought up to cast doubt as to whether abortion is the killing of a person or, more directly, murder. In the light of McFall v. Shimp, the “personhood” of a fetus become immaterial.
Pregnancy is considerably more risky than donating bone marrow. I had my kiddo three years ago and learned the important lesson of NEVER GOOGLING PROBLEMS WITH PREGNANCY. Especially when one of my symptoms of pregnancy was anxiety attacks that could last for hours. Livers can fail. Women can have strokes or bleed out. There is so much more that can go wrong. If you ever plan on being pregnant, I would not recommend looking into it (a rare case where I advocate ignorance).
A woman grows an entire organ in the process of pregnancy and then expels it when its over. The fetus depends on this organ, the placenta, and its mother’s blood in order to survive.
And the principle of individual liberty, particularly regarding bodily autonomy, says that the woman is not required to dedicate her body to the survival of another.
The State is not there to be responsible for the morality of the woman’s choice regarding the use of her own body. It is there to “protect [her] from being invaded and hurt by another.”
In the case of any hypothetical woman, as it is with Shimp, she is responsible for her own soul.
How any woman calculates the morality of dedicating her own body to the survival of another is her own calculation to make, according to this reasoning, just as it is of a man who must decide whether to donate bone marrow. To shift this burden onto the State would not only violate the liberty of women (and men, since now their marrow, kidneys, and other bits are fair game), it violates the distinctive principles upon which our nation was founded.
You can tell I find this argument compelling. Through a combination of luck, education, and diligence, I have never needed to have an abortion. There have been times in my life, however, that I would have had one had I gotten pregnant. Those reasons are my own and no one else’s, because I am a person within the US, and we as the People have decided to value individual liberty as a core principle of our nation. I prefer leaving any responsibility for my soul (whatever that abstract concept may be) to me.