Is Abortion Parallel to Declining to Donate Your Organs?

Author Alan Shlemon Published on 09/22/2021

The recent Texas abortion law has stirred up discussion about the ethics of the pro-life view. As usual, there are numerous posts circulating around the internet that many abortion-choice advocates believe are slam-dunk arguments that no pro-lifer can answer. Here’s one a friend sent to me via Facebook (I’ll summarize the argument since the original post is very long).

The abortion-choice advocate claims a woman is not obligated to sacrifice her bodily autonomy for another being. He goes on to describe a hypothetical scenario. Imagine a situation where you are a perfect bone marrow match for a child with severe aplastic anemia. No other person on earth is a match to save the child’s life, and the child will die without a bone marrow transplant from you. The government should not be able to demand the use of your bone marrow (or any body part) for something to which you do not consent. The decision whether or not to donate your bone marrow or other organ should be entirely up to you. Then he claims that the “use of a woman’s uterus to save a life is no different from use of her bone marrow to save a life—it must be offered voluntarily.”

I’ll paste what I wrote in response to my friend below.

This abortion-choice advocate brings up what he believes is an analogous scenario about a person who has the opportunity to donate bone marrow to a dying patient. After describing the analogy, he writes, “Use of a woman’s uterus to save a life is no different from use of her bone marrow to save a life.” But that’s the question, isn’t it? Is the bone marrow scenario really “no different” than a woman who is pregnant with a child? His argument hinges on whether these situations are morally parallel. While I agree that the government should not obligate a person to donate their bone marrow to another person, I would argue this scenario is not parallel in morally relevant ways to a woman who is pregnant. There are (at least) four ways these two scenarios are morally different.

First, the bone marrow scenario presumes the child is a stranger. The dying anemic person is a total stranger to a woman who is a bone marrow match. We don’t have any obligation towards strangers on earth, especially to perform supererogatory acts (actions that go above and beyond ordinary kindness). However, a child who is gestating inside a woman’s uterus is not a stranger. Rather, this is a woman’s own son or daughter. The analogy, therefore, is faulty because it presumes that a woman has no more obligation to her own child than she does to a complete stranger. Parents have obligations to their own children that they don’t have towards total strangers. The government demands and enforces these obligations, which is why Child Protective Services exists.

Second, in the bone marrow scenario, a woman has not voluntarily engaged in any behavior that places the burden of a stranger’s health in her hands. She has nothing to do with a stranger’s predicament. This burden has been imposed on her against her will. That’s not the case with pregnancy. When a woman is pregnant, it is because she has voluntarily engaged in the only act known to get her pregnant: sex. When you consent to sex, you consent to the possibility of getting pregnant. Granted, rape would be different, but that’s a different question altogether and only accounts for less than 0.5% of abortions (according to Planned Parenthood’s own data).

Third, the bone marrow scenario involves refusing to donate body parts to a stranger who has a terminal illness, whereas abortion is the intentional killing of a woman’s own healthy son or daughter. In other words, the former involves passively allowing someone (terminal) to die while the latter (abortion) involves the intentional and physical act of killing through chemical means or physical dismemberment (of a healthy, non-terminal, individual). Just because I have the right to refuse to donate my kidney to a dying patient, that doesn’t mean I have the right to shoot them in the head instead. Allowing to die is not morally equivalent to intentional killing.

Fourth, the bone marrow scenario involves an unnatural use of body parts, whereas pregnancy involves the natural use body parts. The bone marrow inside your body is designed to be used for your body. It produces cells and provides other physiological support for the body it resides in. It was not made to be surgically removed and placed into another person’s body. That’s an artificial or unnatural use. This, however, is not the case with pregnancy. When a woman is pregnant, the child growing inside her is in precisely the one place where human beings are designed to gestate: the uterus. That organ is the natural and proper organ to gestate another human being. There is nothing unnatural about it. It’s designed to provide physiological support for another human body, unlike bone marrow, which is designed to provide physiological support for your body.

These are four significant distinctions between the two scenarios that the abortion-choice advocate alleges are parallel. Therefore, the conditions that make it morally permissible to refuse donating your bone marrow are not present in a situation with a pregnant woman refusing her uterus to a child.