The Merely Possible and Abortion

Have you ever considered how many children you have disdainfully denied existence by not having (more) children? I expect not. The huddling masses of merely possible kiddies (MPK’s) do not often concern us.

But should they? There are many points in the causal chain from merely possible child to actual child that one can deem morally significant:

  • Conception, the stance of many social conservatives.
  • When a fetal heartbeat can be detected (6 to 9 weeks after conception), a position endorsed by “Heartbeat bills” in Louisiana, Missouri, and other states.
  • 120 days after conception, when God insuflates soul into the fetus, the stance of most schools of Islamic law (fiqh).
  • Etc.

The difficulty arises when these markers are justified by there being a potential person at that time because if the potential of a person is morally significant, we should worry about the bevy of MPK’s.

But, we are told, these markers indicate when there is an actual person either because of biology, the presence of an immaterial soul, or divine revelation. The time of potentiality has passed.

I’m going to ignore talk of souls and revelation because these reasons don’t place any obligation on people who aren’t of a religious mindset. And I certainly don’t think these reasons should dictate policy.

So that leaves biology. But what kind of reason is that? Any reasonable definition of a person will involve discussion of faculties: desire, intellect, and the like. This is why we consider non-human characters in stories to be people (e.g. aliens, animals in fables, etc.). Biology gives rise to faculties, but there’s no reason to think that such faculties are present at conception and little enough when a heartbeat is present (Or if a heartbeat is indicative it’s not causally but only because the nervous system is sufficiently developed as well)

So insofar as proponents of the above marker theories wish to justifiably impact policy, they are left with a dilemma: fret about MPK’s, shift the marker to better agree with a reasonable definition of personhood, or embrace a gradualist picture of human development.

Interestingly, Islamic law tends to the gradualist approach: abortion shortly after conception is sinful, more sinful after the 120-day marker (after which abortion is normally only permissible to protect the life of the mother), and egregiously sinful wa’d (infanticide) after birth.

Christians and Jews, who are commanded to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28), have some reason to fret about MPK’s after all.

As far as policy goes, I’d like to see more talk about the third option: think seriously about what a person is and only then establish a marker.