(See also Defending Abortion, Part IV in the March 2010 posts)
The argument from potential, I think, is the strongest card the anti-abortionists can play. Anyone considering an abortion should grapple with it both emotionally and rationally.
The basic idea is that by killing an embryo, or even conceptus, you are eliminating an entire potential lifetime of joys, feelings, thoughts and accomplishments. It is a common tactic of pro-lifers to present a woman, say Ms. Chavez, and her a grown child Marcos, and perhaps grandchildren, and have her give a heartfelt and deep testimony: if she had gone through with her plans for abortion, all these lovely people would never have come to pass.
You can take it a step further and point out that killing an embryo wipes out an entire genealogy of future people extending far into the future. In this way, the death of the preborn eliminates thousands of potential lives.
Anti-abortionists usually don’t take it this far. Placing so much weight on the inch-long back of an embryo shows the weakness of the argument. Potential is only reliable so far. After that, it becomes an unruly basis for behavior, even a ridiculous one.
Yes, the preborn might grow up to be a Beethoven; but that doesn’t mean we should treat it like Beethoven now. There’s also, of course, the possibility that the embryo will grow up to be a Nero, or just have a very tough life. Again, we don’t treat the preborn like a criminal just because someday the adult might go bad.
Potential can be used in all kinds of dubious ways. You might argue that children from women who wanted to abort them will grow up in difficult homes--either with the unhappy mother or foster parents. Such children are more likely to have tough lives and sow the seeds of even more misery, creating more unhappy mothers and children, and so on, forever.
Maybe. All this talk about future happiness or unhappiness gets very speculative, revealing flaws in the use of potential for an argument.
One thing, though, is certain: in most circumstances, the embryo will grow to become an infant. The potential to travel through developmental stages is high. Disease, faulty genetics, or accident could cut the young life short; but barring such calamity, embryos proceed toward fully complex brains and body states.
An abortion, then, has a high chance of preventing the existence of a sentient human sometime in the future.
This is the key case that pro-choicers must grapple with. And guess what? It is a tough decision. A choice to abort DOES eliminate a progressing human life. If you’re fully aware of what you’re doing, it should be emotionally painful to choose to terminate.
Just to emphasize: if you chose to abort, you are taking a human life, and you are annihilating that little being’s potential to develop and experience a full range of thoughts and sensations.
If you deny this, and claim you are dealing with a “lump of tissue” you might well regret it later. Furthermore, in a philosophical and political sense, you are playing right into the anti-abortionists’ hands. They want to make pro-choicers to look ignorant, callous and cruel.
That being said, abortion is still morally acceptable. A potential mature human is not a mature human. Pro-lifers know this and often use the potential argument only as a last resort. When you appeal to potential, you effectively admit that there is a relevant difference between the embryo and the developed child.
Pro-lifers want to say that the embryo has a soul, not that it has a potential soul. Potential to have a soul sounds fishy. It exposes a gap. It effectively puts the embryo on a lower level because it focuses on the embryo when it is no longer an embryo--but instead like us.
On the other hand, if you believe the embryo has a soul, there is no need to appeal to its potential to reach a later stage. It’s a no-win situation for the anti-abortionist.
The Supreme Court was well aware of the difference between embryos and later stages, and wisely recognized a legitimate gap. That is why the Court focused on the notion of a “person.” Persons get a right to life, but embryos, not yet elaborated into persons, do not.
A pro-lifer doesn't want to admit that the embryo is different than you or I--no way--but the appeal to potential forces it. They step on their own toes when they talk about future thoughts, future feelings, future loves. It highlights the embryo’s lack of thoughts and feelings, and its inability to love.
Next time a pro-lifer presents Ms. Chavez and her grown son, you can reply: Why do you need to show me matured humans to defend the rights of the embryo? Aren’t you implying that the embryo is lesser?
“But the potential is there,” a pro-lifer might insist, “and it is great.”
“Yes,” you could reply, “but the potential is not the actual. And the difference is great.”
Indeed, potentially having something and actually having something are VERY different.
A five-year-old will have a right to vote someday. That doesn’t mean the five-year-old gets a right to vote. The same goes with the right to own guns, drink, marry, receive welfare, or get a driver’s license.
In all these cases, potential to get a right someday does not mean you get it now. Complicating things further, we often, in ordinary everyday choices, deny human life.
You heard me right. Many potential humans--who might have been Beethovens or Solomons--are denied existence all the time, even by pro-lifers. For instance, if you have two children but choose not to have a third, you are denying a life.
If you use birth control, you are thwarting a potential being, denying it conception.
If you choose not to have wild inappropriate sex at a party, you might have avoided getting pregnant, which in turn means you may have denied life to a new preborn implanted in your womb.
Strange as it may seem, potentials for humans to live and thrive are being created and destroyed all the time. Usually we have no regrets over this, and don’t even think about it. It’s absurd to decide to have wild inappropriate sex at a party just because otherwise you might be preventing a life.
A practical truth, seldom mentioned in the abortion debate is this: deciding to have an unplanned unwanted child now, under pressure, might well lead to not having more children in the future, ones who could have been better cared for.
Ms. Chavez has her son Marcos, but because of the expense and bad timing, she decides not have any more children. These lost children, if they had been born, as originally planned, would have been called Xavier and Maria, and they would have had families of their own. But they will never get an opportunity.
Marcos suffers from behavior and physical problems due to bad timing and preparation, but of course Ms. Chavez loves him anyway. She would have loved Xavier and Maria too, and they would have had a better chance to be well and healthy.
The issues around potential are bewildering, even bizarre. Every time you have a child, it eliminates the possibility of other children coming into being. Countless Xaviers and Marias don’t make it.
When one sperm reaches an egg, millions of other sperm lose the race and the potential people they represent are denied.
You could say that entire worlds are denied every day, all the time, by ordinary decisions and just plain old happenstance.
Such is the astounding reality we live in. Miracles are everywhere, but they are necessarily destroyed as well as birthed as part of evolution and life. (See Defending Abortion: Part I).
When you’re deciding on abortion, you must grapple with a specific potential: you have a human life in the womb. The living embryo is farther ahead in its journey toward the third trimester (where partial rights take hold) than a human not yet conceived. The pregnant woman has a beautiful little being inside her.
But that is not enough to imbue the embryo with the rights we have. A potential person is not an actual person. This is a manifestation of common sense. We couldn’t function at all without the following general rule: potentials vary in strength and importance, they are often difficult to assess, and the potential state is very different from the actual state, once it is realized.