This post is a reflection upon the essays highlighted in my last post (Gender Neutrality), “Why Abortion is Immoral” by Don Marquis and “Abortion and the Concept of a Person” by Jane English. Marquis, obviously, is against abortion, and English is somewhat for it.
Marquis’ position can be paraphrased as such:
- A fetus is the sort of being whose life it is wrong to end
- Killing anyone is wrong because it deprives them of a future
- The value of the future is what makes killing wrong (hence why killing children and infants is considered particularly evil)
He goes to great length at the beginning of his essay to outline the painstaking “personhood” debate that usually encompasses the abortion debate – people for abortion tend to claim that a fetus is less than a person and people against it tend to claim that a fetus is a person, more or less. According to Marquis, it is easy to fall into a sort of trap, where you advocate killing a fetus on the basis that it is less than a person, but you become hard pressed to explain why you should also not kill children, infants, babies, or the severely retarded. Those that attempt to extend the definition of person or human-being to children, infants, babies and the severely retarded but NOT to fetuses seems to be arbitrary – Marquis points out that there are no hard and fast criteria that compose a person, and questions, furthermore, “why pyschological characteristics should make a moral difference” (his emphasis).
In order to sidestep the quagmire that is the personhood debate, Marquis instead presents a more general theory of why killing is wrong, period. “…This suggests that a necessary condition of resolving the abortion controversy is a more theoretical account of the wrongness of killing.” To him, the loss of one’s life is the ultimate loss: “The loss of one’s life deprives one of all the experiences, activities, projects, and enjoyments that would otherwise have constituted one’s future. Therefore, killing someone is wrong, primarily because the killing inflicts (one of) the greatest possible losses on the victim…what makes killing wrong is the loss of the victim’s future.” He goes on to say that “the claim that the loss of one’s future is the wrong-making feature of one’s being killed does not entail…that active euthanasia is wrong. Persons who are severely and incurably ill, who face a future of pain and despair, and who wish to die will not have suffered a loss if they are killed. It is, strictly speaking, the value of a human’s future which makes killing wrong.”
Ultimately, Marquis concludes: “Since a fetus possesses a property [a valuable future], the possession of which in adult human beings is sufficient to make killing an adult human being wrong, abortion is wrong.”
To rightly accept his conclusion (abortion is wrong), you would also have to accept these propisitions:
- (1) Killing a human being is wrong because it deprives them of a future
- (2) The value of one’s future is what makes killing wrong
- (3) A fetus is a thing which has a future valuable enough to render killing it wrong
- Therefore, abortion (the killing of a fetus) is wrong
Marquis’ position is, in my estimation, unsound on several fronts. His first proposition is easily refuted. There are several instances where it can be shown that killing is generally considered to be moral – for example, in the line of duty (police officer, CIA, FBI, as a military service member, and so on) or, as Jane English points out in her own essay, in self-defense. In all of these instances, one person (the killer) is depriving another person of their future, yet most ethical and moral theorists would agree that such killing is ethical/moral. These counterexamples seriously undermine the effectiveness of Marquis’ first propisition, and thus all inferences that rely upon it.
Furthermore, the propisition that what makes killing wrong is the deprivation of the victim’s future has hidden assumptions – as Marquis later admits in what I have labeled as his second proposition, it is the value of the future that matters in this theorm. It could be argued that Marquis assumes the reader to understand that killing an innocent victim is wrong (in order to remedy his disconnect with the self-defense and in the line of duty examples), and assumes that the reader understands the fetus to be an innocent victim. However, that’s two more propositions he hasn’t stated and that might not necessarily be true – for example, there are times where even killing innocents is thought to be moral (if, in self-defense, you felt your life threatened at the time, or in the line of duty under similar circumstances). There are also arguments that suggest that the fetus should not necessarily be assumed to be entirely innocent, either (as in “not causing physical or moral injury; harmless”) which will be outlined later. So, here too, the second propisition (and related hidden assumptions) don’t seem to hold up well to scrutiny.
The third propisition also has compelling counterexamples. The author endorses euthanasia in cases where the person faces a future “of pain and despair.” There are several medical conditions that a fetus could be diagnosed with that could lead to such a life – ancephalic fetuses are just one such example. Additionally, Marquis fails to examine the significance of a child raised in a home where it was not wanted – or the impact of a child being given up for adoption instead of abortion. According to research I did for my class, adults who grew up as children in orphanages or as adopted children have much higher rates of both suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts – when they became old enough to make the choice for themselves, they tried to end their own lives. They decided that life had not been and would continue to be not worth living, so why should we force life in scenarios where the potential child will grow up unwanted? One might argue that “everyone deserves a chance to live,” and while this sounds nice and makes everyone feel good, the person arguing this point doesn’t have to grow up with all of the proposed disadvantages (not being wanted, having serious medical conditions that would reduce quality of life, and so on).
Lastly, such thinking tends to elevate the perceived interests of the fetus (as no one can yet communicate directly with a fetus and ask it if it wants to live, or to be adopted, and so on) above the combined interests of the parents and even the family. If the parents have legitimate reasons to not want a child – for example, being unable to provide sufficient resources for the child, or in the case of children born with certain medical conditions or “diasabilities,” being unwilling or unable to provide for the child’s special needs (which can irrevocably and drastically alter the course of the parents’ lives) – why are we forcing them to bring these children to terms? Examined from another angle – if contraceptives are considered okay (meaning, it is okay to determine when and how you want to have a child through the use of contraceptives) why then is it wrong to determine when and how you want to have a child through the use of an abortion? Contraceptives are not 100% effective and accidents can happen – additionally, not everyone has the same level of education and so not everyone has an equal understanding of the importance of contraceptives. Hence, pregnancies will “slip through the cracks,” so to speak. Does it really make sense to condemn a teenage mother, for instance, who decides it would be more responsible to get an abortion rather than to try and raise a child on a meager income and potentially with no outside support (a father, and/or a strong extended family)? One might argue that the mother could put the child up for adoption, but again, that seems to condem the child to a worse fate than the ideal of being wanted and loved by its own biological parents. I suppose I have a hidden value here, in that I believe every human has the right to have parents that want and love them – irregardless, even, of the parents’ financial situation. If, however, a parent’s/family’s financial situation causes them to no longer want a child, why are we forcing children into a world where they will be unwanted?