Science and Law: McFall v. Shimp: Are people ethically or legally obligated to help others?

February 15, 2015

Science and Law


McFall v. Shimp, 10 Pa. D. & C. 3d 90 (July 26, 1978)
Allegheny County, Pennsylvania

This case makes an important point about the limits of an average person’s obligations to help another, and reminds us of the difference between what we believe to be moral obligations, and actual legal obligations.

Case Background:

  • The plaintiff, Robert McFall was diagnosed with aplastic anemia, a rare type of bone marrow disease with a low chance of survival without an immediate bone marrow transplant from a compatible donor.
  • The defendant, David Shimp, the plaintiff’s first cousin, was found to be a compatible donor, and if he agreed to donate, McFall would have a 50-60% chance of survival.
  • Shimp refused to donate without providing any kind of reasoning for his refusal.
  • McFall brought a lawsuit against Shimp to attempt to force him to donate.

What issues are being debated?

  • Are people legally and/or morally obligated to help others?
  • Must a person submit to a non-therapeutic procedure to save the life of another?
  • Can a person refuse to undergo a procedure knowing that it will cause another person to die?
  • What power does a court have to legally enforce standards of morality?

How was the law interpreted and applied?

  • Judge John P. Flaherty Jr. found Shimp’s position “morally indefensible,” but simultaneously denied the plaintiff’s request.
  • The court cannot force a person to submit to a non-therapeutic procedure, as it violates the sanctity of the individual’s body.
  • The judge feared that this would set a dangerous legal precedent for bodily autonomy.


On August 10, 1978, the Michigan Daily reported that Robert McFall died of a massive hemorrhage, a complication of his condition. While it is possible that McFall would have died regardless of the transplant, it would have greatly increased his chances of survival.

When asked why he refused to donate, Shimp said that he was not sure whether or not his body could endure the operation, explaining that his position was “common sense.”

Does a bone marrow transplant entail risk?

Yes, all medical procedures involve some level of risk. Around 2.4% of patients experience complications due to anesthesia or damage to bone, nerve, or muscle in the hip region. Less serious side effects can include decreased blood pressure, headache, muscle pain, fatigue, and bruising at the incision site. Pain may last a few days to several weeks, but should not ever be permanent.

Many of society’s laws are created as a way of enforcing generally agreed upon ideas of ethics, such as laws against stealing and murdering. However, this is one area where the legal system finds itself forced to betray its ethical stance in this situation because of the larger legal and moral implications of violating a person’s bodily autonomy.

Bone marrow transplants:

Reporting McFall’s passing:,5656020

The ruling:

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About jslachman381

I'm a Yale graduate who majored in History of Science, Medicine, and Public Health.

View all posts by jslachman381


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