Anything worth talking about, is worth blogging about

A new ad is circulating around in anti-abortion circles. It’s basically goes that since fetuses eventually become children, who have potential no matter what their specific circumstances are, and that abortion is bad because it prevents that potential from being fulfilled. The argument is a weaker variant of an argument developed by philosopher Don Marquis in the 1980s. Formally, the ad’s argument goes as follows:

  1. Regardless of their circumstances of formation, fetuses become persons (Premise)
  2. Persons have unfulfilled good potential (Premise)
  3. Fetuses have potential (Conclusion from 1 and 2)
  4. Abortion prevents fetuses from ever fulfilling their potential and therefore it should be banned (Conclusion from 1 and 3)

The argument is not explicitly stated in the ad, but it is strongly implied.

Observant people will notice that this is a secular argument against abortion, rather than a religious one. This shows that if someone says that “…the only real arguments against it [abortion] are based in religious dogma, not reason“, they are wrong.

The ad was developed by CatholicVotes, and that makes me think it is intended to argue against all or most abortions. In reality, the ad does no such thing. I show why, and demonstrate how it leads to absurdities and unacceptable situations after the jump.

In strict terms, the ad cannot be used to argue against all abortions. What I see as the maximal circumstances that this argument admits abortion in are:

  • Maternal life. If the mother’s life is threatened, the mother will definitely be deprived of her potential, and in this case preserving the potential of the mother at the expense of the fetus’ potential would preserve more potentials than doing nothing and depriving both of their potential.
  • Fetal lives. A variant of the previous, if there is a situation with twins and both are threatened, if it is necessary to abort one to save the other, abortion would be justified because it preserves more potentials than doing nothing.
  • Finally, severe defects. If the fetus has such severe defects that it has zero chance of surviving birth, or would definitely die within a few minutes or hours of birth, with no chance of surviving, it has no potential. Aborting it would deprive it of nothing.

One way to weaken the argument is to attack the second premise. There are two specific objections:

  • First, applying this to analogous situations leads to unacceptable inequalities. If it is wrong to deprive someone of their potential by killing them, it follows that it is more wrong to kill the average 20-year old than the average 80-year old because the 20 has more unfulfilled potential. Few people would believe such a thing.
  • Second, just because a fetus has potential, does not mean that it has good potential; it could easily have the bad potential to grow up and become a murderer. This specific objection was brought up by “gracie-bird” at the site I linked to in the opening paragraph.

The first premise leads to absurd situations and unacceptable results:

  • If a fetus has potential, than so does a fetus’s immediate predecessor, an embryo, and so does an embryo’s immediate predecessor. Going backwards through prenatal development, it reaches the point that any combination of spermatozoa and ova have potential. At this point, if one thinks that abortion is wrong because it prevents a fetus from reaching its potential, then any sort of contraception, including abstinence, must be as wrong as abortion, because they prevent spermatozoa and ova from reaching their potential. Since I’m pretty sure that the tens of readers of this blog are not doing so with a laptop in one hand and their partner in the other, I must ask, “Why are you abstaining from sex right now? You’re depriving your sperm/ova of their potential!” From this it follows that everyone capable of reproducing must have potentially procreative sex whenever possible. If you consider abortion murder for the reasons given in the ad, you must have sex even when doing so makes other tasks difficult because otherwise is committing murder. Imagine teleconferencing in the missionary position.
  • If you hold that abortion is murder for the reasons given in the argument, it follows that if you prevent others from abstaining you are preventing the non-fulfillment of potential and hence doing a good deed. It then follows that rape ought to be legalized as it prevents the victim from doing an act equivalent to murder. Such a horrible conclusion is unacceptable.

Hence, for the above reasons, the ad’s implied argument’s premises offer no support for its conclusion.

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Comments on: "How do you teleconference in the missionary position?" (1)

  1. I particularly like your point about abstinence being as bad as abortion under that argument.

    I’ll also add that potential doesn’t really mean anything – all men are potential rapists, but that doesn’t mean we can prematurely jail all men for rape.

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