A Future Lost

Like any act of homicide, abortion steals from its victims the opportunity to live out their future life.

Both pro-lifers and pro-choicers make claims about their positions that they take to be quite obvious and sufficient for establishing abortion as either an immoral or a moral practice. On the one side, pro-lifers claim that human life begins at conception. Since this can be established scientifically by looking at the number of chromosomes present in a fertilized egg, it is enough for the pro-lifer to conclude that abortion (at any stage of pregnancy) is morally akin to murder. On the other side, pro-choicers claim that foetuses are quite obviously not persons. Since foetuses lack certain psychological properties of person-hood (e.g., reason, mentation, consciousness, self-awareness, etc.), it is enough for the pro-choicer to conclude that most abortions (esp. early ones) are not wrongful killings. Generally speaking then, each side wants to utilize a governing moral principle that will allow for its particular position to stand as correct.

Upon examining the respective positions, we find that both make a similar move and suffer from a similar difficulty. When pro-lifers claim, “it is wrong to kill an innocent human being,” they utilize a biological category to establish their moral standpoint. That is, invoking the biological category of “human being” in reference to the foetus is enough to establish that abortion is morally wrong. When pro-choicers claim, “it is only wrong to kill persons, rational beings, beings with a developed brain stem, etc.,” they utilize a psychological category to establish their moral standpoint. That is, the category of “person-hood” understood by way of psychological criteria does the job of establishing that most abortions are not immoral. The difficulty comes when either side attempts to defend why their category should make the moral difference. Both seem to rely on circular reasoning, assuming their conclusion in the premise. For example, why should I not kill a human being? …because all human life is morally valuable. Or, why should I not kill a person? …because being a person (with the capacity to reason, feel pain, etc.) is what gives an individual moral worth. Both sides believe their preferred category to be sufficient by itself to establish their claim about abortion.

Don Marquis, a philosophy professor from Kansas University, wrote an article entitled “Why Abortion is Immoral,” published in The Journal of Philosophy, proposing a way to avoid the above difficulties. Instead of basing the morality of abortion on either of the above categories, he suggested that we address abortion within the larger discussion of the ethics of killing. That is, before we make any moral decisions about abortion, we should ask: what makes killing wrong in the first place? According to Marquis, killing is not wrong because it shows the killer to be barbaric nor because it leaves friends and relatives left behind saddened. Rather, killing is wrong primarily because of the effect it has on the victim. Killing deprives the victim of life. The loss of one’s life is the greatest possible loss anyone can suffer. It “deprives one of all the experiences, activities, projects, and enjoyments that would otherwise have constituted one’s future.” It is not merely changing the biological state of a victim from alive to dead that it is wrong, but the effect of that change on the victim’s future, which forever is taken away. In Marquis’ own words: “When I am killed, I am deprived both of what I now value which would have been part of my future personal life, but also what I would come to value.” His conclusion: what makes killing any adult human being wrong is “the loss of his or her future.”

Marquis adds that this explanation for the wrongness of killing should be preferred if it fits with our natural intuitions about killing and if there is no other better explanation. In addition, he finds his explanation to be supported by several considerations: (1) it explains why many regard killing as one of the worst crimes (i.e., killing is regarded as so horrible because of the great loss it causes); (2) it is incompatible with the view that it is only wrong to kill beings that are biologically human (i.e., it would be wrong to kill any being with a valuable future, like aliens and some animals); (3) it does not necessarily entail that euthanasia is wrong (since those who face an incurable future of pain would not lose a future of value); and (4) it accounts for the wrongness of killing newborns and infants (since they indeed have futures of value like adults).

Thus, if the primary reason for the wrongness of killing is that it deprives one of his or her future, then this has obvious implications for abortion. Every normal foetus, just like you or me, has “a set of experiences, projects, activities, and such which are identical with the futures of adult human beings and are identical with the futures of young children.” Since foetuses have a “future like ours,” then it follows that abortion is a serious moral wrong. Thus, it is not the category of “being human” or “being a person” that ultimately makes the moral difference in abortion, but the category of having “future like ours.” Just as it would be wrong to arbitrarily kill someone like you or me, since we have valuable futures full of a variety of experiences and enjoyments, it is equally wrong to kill foetuses, because they also have valuable futures. Lastly, under this theory abortion could only be justified if another life (e.g., the life of the mother) was threatened by not aborting.

Content adapted from Abort73.com. Used with permission. http://www.abort73.com/abortion/a_future_lost/