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Marquis' "Why Abortion is Immoral"

The aim of Don Marquis’ article, “Why Abortion is Immoral,” is to argue that except on very rare occasions abortion is seriously immoral. For Marquis, the wrongness of abortion is analogous to the wrongness of killing adult humans. What makes killing an adult human being wrong is that it deprives the victim of a future. Given that an abortion deprives the foetus from developing into a human being, it deprives the foetus of a future. He famously concludes that abortion is wrong because it deprives the foetus of a “future like ours.”

Marquis begins by showing that the two opposing sides of the abortion debate face similar difficulties. We may divide these elements into groupings. First, despite the contradictory conclusions of each argument, none of the elements of each argument is obviously wrong. The premises of the argument on both sides of the debate appear to be true, so the arguments are sound. If we accept the truth of the premises, the conclusion must be true, too.

Second, both sides seem to believe a general moral principle is true. If we were to track a problem for their respective moral principles, it is that each principle suffers from problems relating to the scope of the principle. For instance, one can introduce a counterexample or how arbitrarily the principle seems to apply to show difficulties in the scope of the general moral principle.

Finally, both arguments suffer from ambiguities of moral relevance. On one hand, those people who oppose abortion assume a connection between the biological and moral attributes of a human. That a foetus is a biological entity that may develop into a full-fledged independent human being means that we should ascribe moral agency to a foetus. On the other hand, people who are pro-choice assume a connection between the psychological and moral attributes of a human. Therefore, Marquis believes that the abortion debate ends in a standoff and fails to touch upon the essence of the dispute.

According to Marquis, the essence of the abortion dispute lies in a more theoretical account of the wrongness of killing. If neither argument has serious inferential flaws and if neither argument wins on account of unifying biological, psychological, and moral attributes, then we have to leave such criteria aside to decide which side of the abortion debate is correct. Given that something terminates in an abortion, Marquis likens the procedure to a killing. So, he decides to explore the moral and prudential wrongness of killing.

Marquis' theoretical account of the wrongness of killing starts with the unproblematic assumption that “It is wrong to kill [a human being]” (Marquis 1989, p. 189). It is wrong to kill an average adult human being because of the effect the killing has on the victim. The loss of one’s life deprives that person of all the experiences, projects, and enjoyments that would otherwise have constituted one’s future. Killing an average adult human being is wrong since it inflicts the greatest possible loss on the victim. Therefore, what makes killing an adult human being wrong is the loss of that person’s future. Let us call this the loss of future argument in accord with Marquis’s terminology (Marquis 1989, p. 189).

There are obvious consequences for the ethics of abortion that derive from the claim that the wrong-making feature of killing an adult human being is the loss to the victim of its future. According to Marquis, the future of a standard fetus includes a set of experiences and activities identical with the futures of adult human beings and the futures of young children. Since the reason that explains why it is wrong to kill adult human beings after the time of birth is a reason that conceivably applies to fetuses, it follows that abortion is prima facie seriously morally wrong (Marquis 1989, p. 192).

According to Marquis, to overturn this argument would take one of two different strategies. The first strategy would have to say that a foetus has no life experiences, activities, etc. and, therefore, aborting a fetus is not discontinuing the life of the foetus; however, this seems to be a stretch. Even if we believe that aborting a foetus deprives it of living a future like ours, the question is whether the foetus' current mental states entail knowing that they would be deprived of a future like ours. In the adult killing case, it is easy to understand that the adult who is killed knows that they will be deprived of a future and because they have such an epistemic state, they have been wronged. This implies that the foetus must have or know of having a future life of experiences, activities, etc., which the loss of future argument does not require. Since the foetus doesn't have any epistemic states, or at least our best evidence tells us that they fail to have any epistemic states, like belief states or mental representations, the loss of future argument seems to be very suspect. While the first strategy isn't perfect, it doesn't fail in the way that Marquis suspects.

The second strategy, according to Marquis, would claim that people must possess a strong desire to live in order for killing that person to be immoral. Since foetuses do not possess such a desire to continue to live, it is not wrong to abort a foetus. For Marquis, such a strategy must provide a necessary condition for the wrongness of killing in order to generate a pro-choice conclusion. The necessary condition would have to show that aborting the foetus isn't a killing, I suppose. But this is to presume that abortion is a killing. What would make us believe it is a killing has to do with depriving it of a future like ours, but the point of the strategy is to question that very assumption. Since foetuses do not have a desire to live and since foetuses do not have desires, period, it is seriously questionable that they resemble anything like an adult human, which would have such desires and, especially, a desire to live.

To my mind, several questions and criticisms of Marquis’s argument deserve to be addressed.

First, if it is wrong to kill an adult human being because it deprives that person of all the experiences, projects, activities, and enjoyments that would otherwise have constituted one’s future, then it could be argued that whatever is done to deprive a person of all the experiences of one’s future is morally unacceptable. For instance, suppose that Brandi Chastain had become pregnant just before the 1999 Women’s World Cup, which caused her to be dropped from the team and from not being able to play in the Final game against China. She would never have scored the winning goal, and it seems likely that the US would have lost the game. Since her becoming pregnant deprived her of a future life experience, this might suggest that Marquis’s argument does not take account of the woman’s right to a future different from bearing the child. We wouldn't want to argue that depriving the US of a World Cup win is morally unacceptable. We also wouldn't argue that depriving Chastain of playing in the World Cup was morally unacceptable. Since depriving her of such an opportunity amounts to a moral matter, it may be the same for the case of abortion.

Second, Marquis writes, “since a foetus possesses a property, the possession of which in adult human beings is sufficient to make killing an adult human being wrong, abortion is wrong” (Marquis 1989, p. 202). This statement seems to suggest that a foetus already possesses a future of which it can be deprived; however, it is not at all clear that a foetus actually possesses at a time before being born a future like ours. Perhaps such an argument could be made for a viable foetus if it is able to survive after childbirth. Marquis leaves many personal identity questions about the fetus unresolved.

Finally, what if it were possible that a bird could spontaneously become human and possess a future like ours? (Thanks to Bruce Landesman for this point.) If it were possible for some species to become human and possess a future like ours, then, according to Marquis’s argument, that would seem to entail restrictions on euthanising animals. Once again, it seems that Marquis’s argument does not place enough restrictions on what does and what does not possess a future like our own.

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