Remarks on Abortion and the person not-yet-present

By | July 22, 2010

Often the horror that people feel before the prospect of aborting an early pregnancy is caused by thought of the “future person” that is being terminated. In other words, people’s attention focuses on potential existence rather than the actual reality: something-that-will-become-a-person, rather than a zygote or embryo, is being destroyed. From this it becomes an easy step in thinking to arrive at the thought that a person is being destroyed. The thinking is that only time and development separate a potential person from an actual person; and somehow “time and development” become irrelevant to the issue of abortion. Aborting the actual is killing the potential.

Sometimes the position is advanced by way of an anecdote: we’re told that the mother of some famous, creative individual (call him “Beethoven”) considered aborting her pregnancy prior to giving birth to Beethoven. Then we all heave a sigh of relief because Beethoven’s mother decided not to abort, and thus did not deprive the world of a great creative talent. For many the thought is: “What a horrible thing! She almost killed Beethoven!”

From such stories we’re expected to draw the moral lesson: avoid abortions, unless they are absolutely necessary; for you may likely be killing a wonderful and great human being (albeit a potential human being).

From the premise ‘that we have destroyed X which had the potential of becoming Y’ the conclusion ‘that we have destroyed Y’ does not follow.

The zygote has the potential of becoming a human infant, thus we place high value on the zygote. But placing high value on the zygote in virtue of its potential for personhood is not the same as ascribing personhood to the zygote.

What is the mark of personhood? Certainly not the mere potential to develop into a human individual; otherwise, human eggs and spermatozoa would count as human beings.

Abortion should not be seen as merely another form of birth-control; of course, only early-term abortion could reasonably be seen this way. At any rate, destruction of the developing human fetus should not be a routine matter, lightly undertaken. (Spoken like a man! How often do women lightly undertake abortions?)

What’s our concern here? ….the potential human life that’s being destroyed? …the human being who shall not exist, but could have existed? …. “We project our thoughts to a future stage, to the existence of a human individual; and then see this human (potential human) as being destroyed or being denied entry. We see an evil perpetrated on this future being.
Something having the potential to develop into a human infant is not yet a human infant.
If X can develop into Y, or is in the process of becoming a Y, destruction of X prevents the emergence of Y; but surely is not the destruction of Y; for Y has not yet come into existence. The killing of a tadpole prevents that tadpole from developing into a frog; but this cannot be correctly characterized as the killing of a frog. How can we kill something which is not yet present?

Principle: a necessary condition of the killing of @ is that @ is present (exists).
Corollary: given that @ is not yet present, @ cannot be killed.


Human life, as with all life, can be seen as a continuum: a continuous line from conception to death. In principle, all persons can trace their development from the point when an egg was fertilized by a sperm resulting in zygote, which later became an embryo and then a fetus developing to viability, and eventual birth as a human infant.
However, this continuum is not static or uniform. Different kinds of entities exist at different stages. The process is one of growth, development and transformation. An embryo grows and becomes a fetus, which becomes an infant, which becomes a child, and so on. Ordinarily a child will develop into an adult, but disease or accident can kill the child and cancel the emergence of the adult. Suppose the child is killed; surely only from a state of great confusion would one say that the adult was killed. The adult never appeared. How can anyone reasonably say that the adult was killed?

A moral sleight of hand:
We look back to an earlier stage and attribute to the earlier stage (some of) the properties of the later stage.
“At an early stage of our existence we were fetuses (mere embryos, zygotes, fertilized eggs); so in a sense we are just ‘fully developed fetuses.’
Looking back, we specify a fetus as being not a mere fetus, but the fetus-that-will-develop-into-a-person we love and admire. So, in a sense, we assign the same high value to the fetus that we attribute to the person that we love and admire.

A misconception arises: for the view of a value-laden fetus is not based (as it should be) on recognition of the potential of the fetus, but is based on the erroneous belief that, in some sense, the fetus already possesses that future personhood.

A fetus in retrospection is not seen as a fetus, but is perceived as possessing in some way the attributes of the eventual person. Small wonder that abortion of the fetus is seen as killing of the developed human being.

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