Gen X Weighs In

Thought Experiment

Dear Editors,

In “Your Body, My Choice,” Dayna Tortorici expounds on a thought experiment proposed by the philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson in 1971. The experiment tested the logic and ethics of anti-abortion arguments that the fetus is a person with a right to life, and therefore the uterus-bearer is morally obligated to support the fetus for nine months inside the womb and, potentially, outside it until the gestator dies. Thomson asked the reader to imagine waking up beside “a famous unconscious violinist [who] has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and... that you alone have the right blood type to help.” The reader/awakener has been plugged into the violinist and is being told she must remain so because “to unplug you would be to kill him.”

In fact, seven years later Thomson’s hypothetical became a real case before a Pennsylvania court. In McFall v. Shimp (1978), the plaintiff, Robert McFall, needed a bone marrow transplant to survive. The only match was his cousin David Shimp. When Shimp refused, McFall sued to compel him to donate the marrow. Citing statute going back to 13th-century England, the court ruled that a person cannot be forced to put their body in the service of another, even if the other person would die without it:

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