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The “Future Like Ours” Argument Against Abortion

The “Future Like Ours” Argument Against Abortion


May 19, 2008 / By: Jeffrey Jones
Category: Abortion Arguments

Both pro-lifers and pro-choicers make claims about theirpositions that they take to be quite obvious and sufficient for establishing abortion as either an immoral or a moral practice. On one side, pro-lifersclaim that human life begins at conception. Since this can be establishedscientifically by looking at the nature of the chromosomes present in afertilized egg, it is enough for the pro-lifer to conclude that abortion (atany stage of pregnancy) is morally akin to murder. On the other side,pro-choicers claim that fetuses are quite obviously not persons. Since fetuses lack certain psychologicalproperties of personhood (e.g., reason, mentation, etc.), it is enough for thepro-choicer to conclude that most abortions (esp. early ones) are not wrongfulkillings. Generally speaking then, each side wants to utilize a governing moralprinciple that will allow for their particular position to stand as correct.

Examining the respective positions more closely, we findthat both make a similar move and suffer from a similar difficulty. Whenpro-lifers claim “it is wrong to kill an innocent human being” they utilize abiological category to establish their moral standpoint. That is, invoking thebiological category of “human being” in reference to the fetus is enough toestablish that abortion is morally wrong. When pro-choicers claim “it is onlywrong to kill persons, rational beings, etc.” they utilize a psychologicalcategory to establish their moral standpoint. That is, the category of“personhood” understood by way of psychological criteria does the job ofestablishing that abortion is not immoral. The difficulty with these isexplaining why either a biological category or a psychological one should makea moral difference, as both seem to rely on circular reasoning. For example:why should I not kill a human being? …because all human life is morallyvaluable. Or: why should I not kill a person? …because being a person,reasoning, etc. is what gives an individual moral worth. It seems that nomatter what category I prefer for making a moral claim about abortion, I amalready presuming that my preferred category makes the moral difference. But indoing so, it is difficult to avoid resorting to circular reasoning.

Don Marquis, in his article “Why Abortion is Immoral,” TheJournal of Philosophy (1989), proposes thatwe may bypass the above difficulties by addressing the question of abortion inlight of the more general discussion on the ethics of killing. That is, beforewe address the morality of abortion, we should ask: what makes killing wrong inthe first place? According to Marquis, killing is wrong not because itbrutalizes the killer nor because of the effects on friends and relatives leftbehind, but because of the effect it has on the victim. The loss of one’s life is the greatest possible lossanyone can suffer because 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 deadthat it is wrong, but the effect of that change on the victim’s future. InMarquis’ own words, “When I am killed, I am deprived both of what I now valuewhich would have been part of my future personal life, but also what I wouldcome to value.” His conclusion: what makes killing any adult human being wrongis “the loss of his or her future.”

Marquis thinks this explanation for the wrongness of killingshould be preferred if it fits with our natural intuitions on the matter and ifthere is no other better explanation. In addition, he finds this explanation tobe supported by several considerations: (1) it explains why we regard killingas one of the worst crimes; (2) it is incompatible with the view that it iswrong to kill only beings that are biologically human (e.g., aliens and someanimals); (3) it does not entail that euthanasia is wrong (since those who facean incurable future of pain would not lose a future of value); and (4) itaccounts for the wrongness of killing newborns and infants (since they indeedhave futures of value like adults; personhood theories cannot easily accountfor why it is morally wrong to kill infants).

So, if the primary reason for the wrongness of killing isthat it deprives one of his or her future, then this has obvious implicationsfor abortion. Every normal fetus has “a set of experiences, projects,activities, and such which are identical with the futures of adult human beingsand are identical with the futures of young children.” Since fetuses 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 makesthe moral difference; it is the category of having “a valuable future likeours.” What is more, under this theory abortion could only be justified ifanother life (e.g., the life of the mother) was threatened by not aborting.

The “future like ours” argument is the best non-religiousargument against abortion that I know of. What are your thoughts on it?

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