Answering a More Sophisticated Defense of Abortion - Part 8
In chapter 2 of his book, Boonin divides up the arguments normally used to protect life from conception (i.e., the conceptus) into a few categories. The first category of arguments deals with species membership, These essentially argue that the conceptus has the right to live because it is part of the species homo sapiens, just like you and me. Boonin thinks all the arguments related to this ultimately fail (see parts 3-6 in the series for my response to him). The second category deals with the relationship of continuity the conceptus has with you and me. Here it is argued that since there is no significant difference between the conceptus at each moment and the next, and since it will eventually develop into an adult that certainly has a right to life, one must conclude that the conceptus does as well. Boonin calls this "the slippery slope argument" and thinks it fails also (see part 7 for my response to him). A third category of arguments deals with the concept of potentiality (pp. 45-49). Put most simply, "If an individual is such that it is developing into a being that clearly has a given right, then this fact about it justifies conferring the right on it already" (46). In other words, since a zygote has the potential to become an individual like you and me who certainly has a right to life, then it already has this right.
It is important to remember, as Boonin suggests, that to criticize the potentiality argument one does not have to worry about what rights the conceptus actually has in the present, but must only show that its right to live is not entailed by its potential possession of it. That is, Boonin here will only attempt to show the potentiality argument to be false, nothing more and nothing less. As far as his discussion goes, it deals with arguments that use analogies for and against the concept of potentiality as a basis for conferring rights in the present. For an analogy against potentiality, some have appealed to the right of the president to command the armed forces – a right that potentiality does not confer. For instance, although Jimmy Carter was potentially president when he was six, this does not mean six-year old Jimmy had the right to command the army. For an analogy in favor of potentiality, some have appealed to the rights of medical students before becoming doctors. That is, a medical student is potential doctor, which means he has the right to participate in medical treatment, diagnoses, etc. In the end though, Boonin finds (and rightly so) the analogies to be weak at best, with neither comparing well to the potential rights of the fetus. He therefore concludes that abortion critics cannot successfully appeal to the potentiality argument.
I would agree with Boonin that it is hard to appeal to this argument as it has been explained here. However, I would disagree with Boonin that it is appropriate to talk about the coneptus in terms of potentiality alone. I think it is a mistake to merely think of the conceptus as a potential individual with a right to live. The conceptus is more than that. It has such potential because it is a human being now. I’ve become increasingly fond of the expression: a fetus is not a potential human, but a human with potential. This expression at least does not limit the conceptus to something far less than what it is. When Boonin makes his categorical distinctions, it forces us to think of the conceptus in narrow terms – e.g., as a potential something. We are overly simplistic if we accept Boonin’s way of catergorizing. The potentiality argument may fail if it stands alone, but we fail to rightly understand life in the womb if we merely think of it in terms of potential.