Potential Lives Can Matter, but Only Through Actual Lives (Pt. II)
In the first part of this two-part article, I presented a way of thinking about the moral importance of potential which would support viewing most abortions as morally uncomplicated. The key claim is that potential matters only insofar as it matters for someone who already exists. I want to contrast this with, and criticize, an opposed way of thinking, one which I think is common among opponents of abortion. For this way of thinking, the embryo counts as a moral individual already, simply because of its potential. Potential lives can matter all by themselves – and, on the more extreme views, can matter as much as actual lives.
I think this way of thinking about potential is confused: moreover, I think its popularity comes from smuggling in illiberal ideas about gender. Let me explain.
Once we move away from how potential matters for already-existing people, we can’t make reference to what actual people want, intend, or care about, or to what’s realistic for them. We’re just talking about what is objectively possible. And many, many things are objectively possible.
For example, after removing your inflamed appendix, a doctor using sufficiently advanced medical technology could make the cells in it revert to a pluripotent state, implant them into somebody’s womb, and grow them into one (or more) clones of you – people who might be just as thoughtful, loving, and reflective as me or you. So if we say that an embryo already counts as a person because of its potential, why don’t we say the same about an appendix?
Of course one of these is far more likely, far more feasible, than the other. But does it make sense to assign degrees of moral status based on relative probabilities? Perhaps it does (though opponents of abortion generally don’t talk that way). But even if we accept that way of thinking: the odds of an embryo in the womb of someone determined to abort it has virtually no chance of becoming a person – because it’s very likely to be aborted. So it has virtually no moral status, and aborting it is morally uncomplicated, as I’ve been arguing.
It’s no good to say that the appendix won’t grow into a person on its own, that it requires outside intervention (and a surrogate womb). Exactly the same is true of an embryo: it won’t develop into anything on its own, it requires outside intervention. It requires another person and their body to feed it, house it, and protect it for nine months (and more care after that).
To say that the embryo is “in itself” a potential life, while the appendix is just something that “could be used to make” a potential life, is a way of positioning the pregnant person as a passive receptacle, and erasing the work that pregnancy is.
Could we say that the embryo’s development into a person is natural, while the appendix could only develop into a person in an artificial, technological, way? I think this is exactly how many people see it, implicitly or explicitly: the embryo is meant to become a person, that’s its proper function, while the appendix is meant to do something else, but could be unnaturally turned into a person.
The problem is that what is or isn’t natural can’t support this kind of moral weight. It’s not that we can’t make sense of it: statements like “my heart has the natural function of pumping blood” can be true and informative. What they mean is: “my heart wouldn’t be the way it is, if analogous organs in my ancestors hadn’t improved their odds of reproducing, and the way those organs did that was by pumping blood.”
This isn’t a moral prescription for a good and fair way to live, it’s just a convenient way to summarize a long causal chain of morally-neutral events. If we accept the theory of evolution, we can’t guide our moral judgments by reference to what is or is not “natural.”
So why do we keep doing so? Why do so many people find it deeply intuitive that embryos matter because of their potential, while appendixes don’t? I think it’s because “nature” is here a cover for a value-laden idea of how humans should live. In particular, it’s a cover for an idea of how women should live: for the idea that women are meant to be mothers, that parenthood is their “proper function,” and abortion is thus a perverse rejection of their own nature. It feels right to some people that an embryo is already somehow latently a child, because it feels right to them that anyone with a womb is already somehow latently a mother.
We can also put this in the language of possibilities and potential. In part 1, I said that a pregnant person might experience the destruction of an embryo, intended or unintended, as a tragic loss because the potential life it represented – a life where it becomes a child and they become a parent – was important to them. The moral importance of a possible future flows from an autonomous person’s capacity to choose.
But the anti-abortion perspective we’re considering doesn’t fit with that. It assigns importance to one possible future: the one where an embryo becomes a child and a pregnant person becomes a parent. And it seeks to promote this future, sometimes to the point of effectively mandating it for anyone with a womb.
So it severs the link between possible futures and autonomous choice, and treats this future as mattering all by itself, objectively, as “a potential life,” embodied in an embryo, that must be defended. It justifies this by appeal to “natural development,” but biological science, I’m suggesting, has nothing to do with it. The underlying explanation of why this potential is given independent moral status is, as Kate Manne puts it, to “Designate [a woman] a mother as early as is imaginatively possible, by reenvisaging a tiny cluster of developing human cells as a fully fledged human being.”
If this demand were presented explicitly, it would be obvious that it rejects the basic idea of liberal democracy. In a liberal democracy you can’t say: “we should ban abortion because women should be mothers (and anyone who can get pregnant should be a woman).” You can’t base laws on your specific view of what sort of life certain people should live: the law exists to protect people’s ability to choose for themselves what sort of life to live. That’s why it’s so useful for opponents of abortion to be able to repackage the demand that women be made mothers against their will as a demand to protect the equal rights of “unborn children.” It allows a deeply illiberal demand to masquerade as an extension of liberal rights to a vulnerable minority. But if the argument laid out here is correct, this relies on a philosophical mistake: selectively treating certain “potential lives” as independent bearers of rights. But potential lives only matter through actual lives.