Tooley Marquis Abortion Essay

The Ethics of Abortion



For purposes of our discussion we will be defining ‘abortion’ as follows:


Abortion = deliberate removal (or deliberate action to cause the expulsion) of a fetus from the womb of a human female, at the request of or through the agency of the mother, so as in fact to result in the death of the fetus.


That is to say, we want to know about the morality of uncoerced, human abortion—so for our purposes abortions are voluntary, deliberate removal of a human fetus.



Mary Warren, “On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion”, 1973


Warren defends an extremely permissive view on abortion, according to which abortion is morally permissible at any stage of the pregnancy and under any circumstances.


Warren considers the following anti-abortion argument:


1) It is wrong to kill innocent human beings.

2) Fetuses are innocent human beings.


3) Therefore, it is wrong to kill fetuses.




She claims that the plausibility of the premises rest on an equivocation on the term ‘human being’:


Human in the genetic sense = being a member of the biological species homo sapien.


This includes not only functioning children and adults, but also includes fetuses (even very early fetuses) and living human bodies without functioning brains (e.g. those in irreversible comas).


Human in the moral sense = being a full-fledged member of the moral community.


Warren:The moral community is the set of beings with full moral rights, and consists of all and only persons.


If ‘human being’ has the same sense in both premises then one of them is question-begging.Either the argument assumes that it is wrong to kill something merely because it is homo sapien, or the argument assumes that a fetus is a member of the moral community.Both of these claims are contentious and would require further argument.


Warren next considers whether genetic humanity is sufficient for moral humanity.She asks “What characteristics entitle an entity to be considered a person [in the moral sense]?”


Warren’s list of characteristics (not an argument!):


1.Consciousness (of objects and events external and/or internal to the being), and in particular the capacity to feel pain;


2.Reasoning (the developed capacity to solve new and relatively complex problems);


3.Self-motivated activity (activity which is relatively independent of genetic or direct external control).


4.The capacity to communicate, messages of with an indefinite number of possible contents on indefinitely many possible topics.


5.The presence of self-concepts and self-awareness.


Warren claims that:


·any being who does not possess most of 1-5 is not a human being in the moral sense.


·the more like a person a being is, the stronger is the case for regarding it as having a right to life, and the stronger its right to life is.


·there is no stage of fetal development at which a fetus resembles a person enough to have a significant right to life.


·a fetus’s potential for being a person does not provide a basis for the claim that it has a significant right to life.Even if a potential person has some right to life, that right could not outweigh the right of a woman to obtain an abortion, since “the rights of any actual person invariably outweigh those of any potential person”


The spaceman analogy:A space explorer is captured by aliens who are going to make a thousand clones of him unless he escapes.Does he have an obligation to stay?No, says Warren, even if the cloning is done quickly and does not harm him.Not even if the clones have already started to grow and will die if he escapes.


Objections to Warren


If killing fetuses is permissible because they are not full-fledged members of the moral community, then, by the same standard, killing newborns would be permissible as well.Moreover, killing any non-human animal would also be permissible.But this is not the case.


Warren’s Reply: “The deliberate killing of viable newborns is virtually never justified...because neonates are so very close to being persons that to kill them requires a very strong moral justification—as does the killing of dolphins, whales, chimpanzees, and other highly personlike creatures.It is certainly wrong to kill such beings just for the sake of convenience, or financial profit, or sport.”


Is this an adequate reply?Arguably not.Take the example of a premature birth.A six-month “premie” is certainly a “viable newborn”, given modern technology.But it is no closer to being a person than a six-month fetus that happened to stay in the womb.So, to be consistent, Warren must either say that killing the premature infant is permissible, or that aborting the six-month fetus is not.


Since Warren brings up non-human animals, let’s consider what Peter Singer would say about this.Recall that argues against making personhood a necessary condition for moral consideration (that would be “speciesist”).Instead, he proposes that having interests is what matters, and sentience (the capacity to feel pain) is both necessary and sufficient for having interests.


At what stage of development is a fetus capable of experiencing pain?Somewhere between 5 and 6 months, it is now believed.


Don Marquis, “Why Abortion is Immoral” (1989)


Marquis’ analysis of the debate:


“The pro-choicer wants to find a moral principle concerning the wrongness of killing which tends to be narrow in scope in order that fetuses will not fall under it.”The price is that they tend to be too narrow, so that infants, young children, the temporarily unconscious or the severely retarded end up in the same category as fetuses.”


An Example of an overly narrow principle:“It is always prima facie wrong to kill only rational agents”.

--This seems to be very close to the standard that Warren adopts!


Note on the term “prima facie”:This is latin for “at first glance” or “ on the face of it”.If I have a prima facie reason to believe something, then I should presume it is true unless I have other evidence to the contrary that overrides the prima facie reason.If a type of action is prima facie wrong, what this means is that the type of action is wrong in most cases, with exceptions in special circumstances that would justify the action.


On the other hand, the anti-abortionist wants to find a moral principle so broad that even fetuses at an early stage will fall under it.These principles are often too broad.For example:“It is always prima facie wrong to kill something that is genetically human”, which seems to entail that it is wrong to “end the existence of a living human cancer cell culture.”


If the anti-abortionist tries to fix the problem by adopting the principle that “It is always prima facie wrong to kill a human being” then they simply beg the question against the pro-choicer when they get to the next premise, “Fetuses are human beings”.(The pro-choicer will deny that fetuses are human beings in the moral sense).


Likewise, it is question-begging for the pro-choicer to adopt the principle “It is always prima facie wrong to kill only human beings" (why assume that fetuses aren’t human beings?)


There seems to be no non-question-begging way in which either side can establish a definition of moral personhood that suits their interests.


The solution:An analysis of the wrongness of killing.“If we merely believe, but do not understand, why killing adult human beings such as ourselves is wrong, how could we conceivably show that abortion is either immoral or permissible?”


What primarily makes killing wrong is neither its effect on the murderer nor its effect on the victim’s friends and relatives, but its effect on the victim.


The effect:“The loss of one’s life deprives one of all the experiences, activities, projects, and enjoyments that would otherwise have constituted one’s future”.


“...what makes killing any adult human being prima facie seriously wrong is the loss of his or her future.”


Killing is wrong because it results in the loss of a future of value (like ours).


Points in favor of the analysis (according to Marquis):


·It explains why killing is regarded as one of the worst of crimes:it deprives the victim of more than perhaps any other crime.


·People who are dying believe it is bad because it is a loss of a future of value.It makes sense that killing is fundamentally wrong for the same reason that death is bad.


·Implies that it would be wrong to kill non-humans that have “a future like ours” (a future of value), such as certain animals or intelligent extra-terrestrials.


·Unlike “sanctity of human life” theories, does not entail that active euthanasia is always wrong.Whether it is wrong depends on the expected value of the future of the patient.


·Unlike personhood theories (e.g. Warren’s), it straightforwardly entails that killing children and infants is wrong, and for the same reason it is wrong to kill anyone else.


Marquis’ position in a nutshell:
“The future of a standard fetus includes a set of experiences, projects, activities, and such which are identical with the futures of adult human beings and are identical with the futures of young follows that abortion is prima facie seriously wrong.”



Rival theories as to why killing is wrong


(1)Desire account:What makes killing wrong is that it prevents us from fulfilling our desires.[This might be attractive to the pro-choicer because fetuses don’t have desires].


Can support abortion only if having desires is a necessary condition for having the right not to be killed.But it isn’t a necessary condition:the depressed, the temporarily unconscious provide counterexamples.


Worse, it puts the cart before the horse:we desire life because we value it, not the other way around.

(2)Discontinuation account:What makes killing wrong is the discontinuation of a life of value.[Might be attractive to the pro-abortionist on the assumption that a fetus does not yet have a life of value].


When considering whether it is wrong to kill someone in a case of euthanasia, the person’s past (even immediate past) is irrelevant:only the future matters.“This being the case, it seems clear that whether one has immediate past experiences or not does no work in the explanation of what makes killing wrong.”


Objection:Killing a person may be wrong because a person has a future of value.But it doesn’t follow that killing a merely potential person, such as a fetus, is wrong.

Marquis:“This argument does not rely on the invalid inference that, since it is wrong to kill persons, it is wrong to kill potential persons also.The category that is morally central to this analysis is the category of having a valuable future like ours; it is not the category of personhood.”


A standard fetus has a valuable future like ours:whether it is a “person” or a “potential person” is beside the point.




Is there a way that Marquis can make exceptions in the “hard cases”, such as pregnancy due to rape or incest, or where the life of the mother is in jeopardy?


Is there a problem in determining which things can be said to have a future?E.g., do zygotes have a future?


Thought experiment

(from Michael Tooley’s “Abortion and Infanticide”)


Suppose there is a drug that can be injected into kittens to cause them to grow into cat people.



PCP = potential cat person

PHSP = potential homo sapiens person

CP = cat person

HSP = homo sapiens person


Tooley’s argument

1.It is morally okay not to inject the kittens.


2.There is no morally relevant distinction between actions and omissions (The Moral Symmetry Principle, a.k.a. doctrine of negative responsibility)


3.Therefore, it is okay to neutralize the development of a PCP once you have injected the kitten (e.g. to stop the process by killing the kitten).


4.CPs have the same rights as HSPs.


5.PCPs have the same rights as PHSPs.


6.Therefore, it is okay to neutralize the development of a PHSP—abortion is morally permissible.


How might Marquis respond to Tooley’s argument?Notice that PCPs are not merely potential persons, they are also things with futures of value.


Judith Jarvis Thomson, “A Defense of Abortion” (1971)


Thomson assumes, just for the sake of argument, that the fetus is a person from conception.She then tries to show that, even given that the fetus has a right to life, it does not follow that abortion is morally impermissible.


The anti-abortion argument:


(1) All fetuses are persons.

(2) Every person has a right to life.

(3) Therefore, every fetus has a right to life.

(4) Therefore, abortion is wrong.


For the sake of argument, Thomson assumes that (1) and (2) are true.She then argues that (4) does not follow from (3).From the fact that something has “a right to life” it does not follow that it is wrong to kill it.This much is easy to see, since most of us agree that it is not wrong to kill in self-defense.


This suggests that (4) needs to be qualified “except to save the life of the mother”.


But Thomson argues that the gap between (3) and (4) is much wider than this.Along these lines, one suggestion is that a mother has a right to decide what happens in and to her body, and that this might outweigh the fetuses right to life.(Notice that this does not assume that the fetus is literally part of the mother’s body).


But the anti-abortionist can simply respond that the right to life is the strongest and most fundamental right there is, and so outweighs the mother’s right to decide what happens to her body.


But Thomson does not argue that the mother’s right over her own body outweighs the fetuses right to life.Instead, she argues that the right to life has been misunderstood.Once it is understood correctly, it will be seen that (4) does not follow from (3).


Thomson proposes a thought experiment:


"You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist's circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, 'Look, we're sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you—we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it’s only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.' Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says. 'Tough luck. I agree. but now you've got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person's right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him.' I imagine you would regard this as outrageous."



Thomson concludes that (i) it is not true that the violinist has a right to your body, and so, by analogy (ii) it is not true that a fetus that is a product of rape has a right to your body, but (iii) there is no easy way for the anti-abortion argument to be amended to account for this.Saying that those who are products of rape have no right to life or have less of one “has a rather unpleasant sound” (meaning it is discriminatory in a bad way), not to mention it is ad hoc.


The solution, according to Thomson, is not that certain fetuses have less of a right to life or none at all; the solution is that having a right to life simply does not entail having the right to someone else’s body.This means that the argument is invalid; the conclusion (4) does not follow from the premises.


So what does the right to life consist in?One suggestion:

(a) the right to be given at least the bare minimum one needs for continued life


Objection:Sometimes the bare minimum is something you have no right to. (Violinist example).


(b) the right not to be killed


Objection:Sometimes you can be killed by being deprived of something you have no right to.(Also, there is self-defense)


She concludes, “the right to life consists not in the right not to be killed, but rather in the right not to be killed unjustly.”True, but not very informative.


We never have the right to someone else’s body unless that right has been extended to us.(Henry Fonda example)


Thomson’s Thesis:In cases where the right to use the mother’s body has not been extended to the fetus, abortion does not violate the fetuses right to life.


In what cases does the fetus have the right to use the mother’s body?


Rape?Clearly Not.


Sex using birth control?No...

" ... suppose it were like this: people-seeds drift about in the air like pollen, and if you open your windows, one may drift in and take root in your carpets or upholstery. You don't want children, so you fix up your windows with fine mesh screens, the very best you can buy. As can happen, however, and on very, very rare occasions does happen, one of the screens is defective, and a seed drifts in and takes root. Does the person-plant who now develops have a right to the use of your house? Surely not--despite the fact that you voluntarily opened your windows, you knowingly kept carpets and upholstered furniture, and you knew that screens were sometimes defective."


Implicit Argument:

1)The fetus has the right to use my body only if it is reasonable to hold me responsible for my pregnancy.

2)If I tried to prevent pregnancy through the use of contraception, then it is not reasonable to hold me responsible for my pregnancy.


3)Therefore, if I tried to prevent pregnancy through the use of contraception, then the fetus does not have the right to use my body.


Ordinary consensual sex without contraception?

If the room is stuffy, and I therefore open a window to air it, and the burglar climbs in, it would be absurd to say, 'Ah, now he can stay, she's given him the right to the use of her house, for she is partially responsible for his presence there, having voluntarily done what enabled him to get in, in full knowledge that there are such things as burglars, and that burglars burgle.



Objection:A fetus is innocent, not a burglar trying to do you harm.But, Thomson would say, this makes no difference:I have the right to eject an innocent person from my home, if that person falls through my window.At this point it may be objected:getting pregnant due to voluntary, unprotected sex is not like having a person stumble into your home or fall through your window.It is more like having someone over because you invited them into your home…


Thomson recognizes that not all moral obligations stem from rights.For example, if a child finds a chocolate bar, then his sister has no right to it, but decency requires that he share it with her anyway.Likewise, in some cases, it would be wrong to abort because it would be “indecent”.


When is it indecent?Thomson doesn’t say, just gives an obvious example:A woman wants to abort at seven months so that she can go to Europe.


But, argues Thomson, making decency a legal requirement in effect requires us to be “Good Samaritans”.Thomson notes that “no one in any country in the world is legally required” to be a Good Samaritan, except in the case of pregnancy.In fact, no one is even required to be a Minimally Decent Samaritan.


Thomson:Abortion is permissible in many cases, but this does not mean we have the right to secure the death of the fetus."The desire for the child’s death is not one which anybody may gratify, should it turn out to be possible to detach the child alive."In Thomson’s view, the death of the fetus is a necessary side-effect of abortion, but is not a legitimate goal of abortion.Were it possible to remove a fetus without killing it, then it must not be killed.




Pro-choice lobbies are concerned about laws and policies that may implicitly recognize the fetus as a person (e.g. criminalizing the harming of a fetus by an attacker, or extending federal funds to poor women for prenatal care on the grounds that the funding is for “low-income children”.)Would such laws and policies be cause for concern for Thomson?What about a personhood theory?


Do we share Thomson’s intuition about the case of the violinist?


Is Thomson’s view about rights compatible with Marquis’ theory of the wrongness of killing?


When is it “indecent” for a woman to have an abortion?


Abortion and Implicit Consent


Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that a fetus must have the consent of the mother in order to have the right to use her body.Under what conditions does the fetus have the consent of the mother?


Explicit Consent:The mother-to-be declares, “I, ___________, hereby give this fetus the right to use my body for the purpose of growing into a viable infant until I give birth to it.I am fully aware of what this will involve.”In general, giving explicit consent to something means making a public, un-coerced and informed statement in which one recognizes certain rights and responsibilities that would not otherwise exist.This is what we do when we sign a contract.This is not what we do when we decide to have a child.If women give consent to fetuses, it is not explicit consent.


Implicit Consent:If you voluntarily enter a restaurant or a bar, then you are subject to certain “rules of the house”.You might be required to dress in a certain way, refrain from shouting, etc.If you fail to follow these rules, you may be expelled.The fact that you are there of your own free will is interpreted as an agreement on your part that you will obey the house rules.In other words, you have implicitly given your consent to be subject to those rules.Similarly, if you enroll in a class, then you are subject to certain requirements necessary for getting a passing grade (usually detailed in the syllabus).At no point do you say, “I hereby agree to the terms of this syllabus.”You have already given your implicit consent by staying enrolled in the course.

Depending on what nation, state and county you live in, you will be subject to different laws.Citizens do not give explicit consent to obey the laws, but it is arguable that they give implicit consent.For example, suppose Smith lives in a county where pornography is illegal.He could easily move to a different county, but he chooses not to.If Smith is caught displaying pornography, he could be fined.If he complained to the judge, “I never agreed to obey your pornography law”, the judge could retort, “No one forced you to live here, did they?”

The above examples of implicit consent all have two things in common:(i) the consenting person makes a voluntary choice to engage in a certain type of activity, (ii) the activity in question is generally understood to entail certain responsibilities.Because the person involved, like most other people, understands that certain responsibilities come with the activity, there is no need for the individual to explicitly agree to take on the responsibilities—they take them on automatically.


What has this got to do with abortion?


In a typical case of unwanted pregnancy, the pregnant woman


(A) Engaged in an activity (sexual intercourse) that is known to cause pregnancy, and in fact is the usual way in which people get pregnant.

(B) The now pregnant woman knew this at the time.

(C)Either (i) she was not using birth control, and she knew this, or (ii) She was using birth control, but she knew that birth control sometimes fails.

(D) The woman voluntarily chose to have sex.


For Discussion

In a case where all of these conditions are met, has the woman given implicit consent to give birth to a child?


Notice the following:In the uncontroversial examples of implicit consent, it was generally understood that the activity entailed certain responsibilities.But in the case of unwanted pregnancy, there is widespread disagreement about whether unprotected voluntary sex entails being responsible for the life of a fetus.On the other hand, It could be argued that there being a “general understanding” is not necessary for implicit consent…

The future of value argument for the immorality of abortion claims that the best explanation for the wrongness of killing children and adults is that killing us deprives us of our futures of value. Our futures of value consist of all of the goods of life that we would have experienced had we not been killed. Fetuses have futures like ours. Therefore, (given some defensible assumptions) abortion is seriously wrong on almost all occasions.1

Julian Savulescu has offered numerous objections to the future of value argument.2 He points out that “abortion and embryo destruction prevent a future of value, but that does not make them wrong”. Savulescu notes that many actions prevent the existence of a future of value. An animal’s future has value, but we do not believe that it is seriously wrong to kill animals. There is value in works of art, but an artist may have good reasons for not creating a work of art if such creation would prevent her from adequately caring for her children. “On a future of value argument, killing a fetus is like failing to conceive a baby”. Failure to clone a skin cell prevents the existence of a future of value, yet we do not believe that it is wrong not to clone skin cells.

Savulescu’s objections to the future of value argument can be understood as a dilemma. Either the argument entails that actions, such as a successful attempt not to conceive a child, are as seriously wrong as the murder of an adult or child or it entails that many actions (such as abortion) are, at most, only minor wrongs (like, perhaps, choosing not to create a work of art) whose apparent wrongness easily can be overridden by other considerations.2 On the first alternative the argument entails conclusions that are absurd. On the second alternative the argument does not show that abortions are seriously wrong. On either alternative the future of value argument is unsuccessful in showing that abortion is seriously wrong on almost all occasions.

A response to these objections requires an explanation both of the nature of a future of value and of the motivation behind the future of value theory. Before this theory appeared on the philosophical scene the debate in philosophy over the abortion issue appeared to have reached a stalemate. Typically critics of abortion argued that as fetuses are clearly human beings, it is wrong to kill them, for we all agree that it is seriously wrong to kill human beings on almost all occasions. Abortion’s defenders normally argued that since clearly fetuses are not people, they fail to possess the crucial property that underwrites the serious wrongness of killing adults and children on almost all occasions. The future of value argument is based on the claim that neither abortion’s defenders nor abortion’s critics had offered adequate theories of the serious wrongness of killing (Marquis,1 p 189). If we do not have an adequate understanding of what makes it wrong to kill us—that is, individuals in cases where the serious wrongness of killing is uncontroversial—how could we understand whether it is seriously wrong to end the life of a fetus?

According to the future of value theory, killing adults and children is wrong because it deprives them of all of the goods of life that they otherwise would have experienced. This seems right because it makes killing a harm, and not only a harm, but one of the most serious harms that can be inflicted on someone. This fits with the attitudes of people who face premature death. It does not rely on an illicit inference from a biological property (being a human being) or from a psychological property (being a person) to a moral property (having the right to life). According to the future of value theory, fetuses can be victims of abortion in exactly the same way as adults or children can be victims of murder.


Because this theory offers an account of how killing harms a victim, an action that the theory claims is wrong will affect a victim (Marquis,1 p 189). Therefore, the future of value theory does not imply that it is wrong not to create things of value, for in such cases there may be no victim. It does not (apparently) imply that deciding not to conceive a child is wrong, for (apparently) there is no victim in this situation either. It does not imply that it is wrong to kill non-human animals. Fetuses have futures that are so much like ours that they contain everything that ours contain. The futures of (non-human) animals do not. The future of value theory does not tell us whether non-human animal futures are sufficiently different as to make it permissible to kill such animals. Note the discussion of this in my paper (Marquis,1 p 191).

How some of Savulescu’s objections have gone astray can be explained. Many of Savulescu’s claims concerning the future of value argument are quite correct. It is true that abortion does prevent a future of value. It is also true that all deprivations of a future of value are preventions of a future of value. According to the future of value theory, all deprivations of a future of value are seriously wrong on almost all occasions. It does not follow, however, that, on the future of value theory, all preventions of a future of value are seriously wrong on almost all occasions. (This is because “All As are Bs” and “All As are Cs” do not entail “All Bs are Cs”.) What is needed for the wrong of killing is an individual who is deprived of a future of value. Mere preventions provide us neither with the requisite victim, nor with a deprivation.

Savulescu’s better objections to the future of value argument concern cases that seem to involve victims. He claims the argument implies it would be wrong to deprive a sperm and an unfertilised ovum (hereafter a UFO) of a future of value. He also claims it would be wrong to deprive any arbitrarily chosen human cell of a future of value by not cloning it. If Savulescu is correct, then, because of these implausible implications, the future of value argument must be rejected.

Consider first the sperm and UFO objection. The future of value of which I would be deprived by being killed is the valuable life of a later stage of me, of the same individual that I am now. Killing me deprives me only of my future of value, not your future of value, nor anyone else’s. Accordingly, if my parents had failed to conceive me, their inaction would have been wrong only if the sperm and the UFO that were my precursors were earlier stages of the same individual I am now. If that sperm and that UFO were earlier stages of me, then each of them would be the same individual as I. If each of them were the same individual as I, then, since identity is transitive, that sperm and that UFO were identical. They were not. It follows that the future of value theory does not imply that if my parents had failed to conceive me, their inaction would have been wrong. This argument can be generalised to show that the future of value theory does not imply that either contraception or decisions not to conceive are wrong.3

Savulescu’s failure to clone objection requires a more elaborate response. On the future of value view (and according to ordinary people) to kill someone is to deprive that individual of a future of value. To deprive someone of a future of value is to harm her. To harm her is to make her worse off than she otherwise would be or should be. Something about the victim is required to underwrite the truth of the claim about how things would have or should have gone for the victim if she had not been killed. Such a victim would have lived a longer life that she would have valued. Our conception of this longer life is well entrenched. It is based on our biological understanding of the natural history of a human organism, on the understanding we gain at an early age from contact with parents, grandparents, and older acquaintances of a natural and full human life span, and on a conception of a human life span found in literature. This comparison is what makes premature death a deprivation rather than a mere non-occurrence of the events of a life. Both “deprivation” and “harm” are implicitly comparative terms.

The nature of a skin cell (or other differentiated human cell) underwrites neither an entrenched notion of a natural human life span, nor an entrenched notion of any other life that is valuable to the skin cell. Therefore, a skin cell is not deprived of anything by a failure to clone. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, cloning involves destruction of a differentiated cell by removing its nucleus and inserting it into a germ cell from which the nucleus has been removed. Therefore, the differentiated cell has not been harmed by not being cloned, for if it were cloned, then it would have ceased to exist. Indeed, failing to clone it preserves it! Secondly, suppose that we waive the first point and suppose that cloning transforms a differentiated cell into an undifferentiated cell. The nature of differentiated cells is to perform the specialised tasks that differentiated cells perform. Their natural history is not affected by their not being transformed into something else. Compare killing a human being, whether that human being is a fetus, a child, or an adult. Her natural history is truncated by being killed. Therefore, the failure to clone objection can also be rebutted.

Savulescu might argue that all these responses fail to recognise the following distinction. He says: “There is a difference between killing or destroying something and preventing something from coming into existence. Preventing something coming into existence denies a future of value, as does destruction. But they are not the same”.2

Savulescu’s remark makes both too few distinctions and too many. I exist at present. My future of value does not. Therefore, they are different. Now ask what has been eliminated if someone kills me at the present moment. My killer has not destroyed the past stages of me, for no one can change the past. Whether the present stage of me exists or not does not (by itself) matter to me because the present is instantaneous. What matters is that my killer would eliminate future stages of me. He would prevent my future of value from occurring. Therefore, not all preventions are equal. Some preventions are what we would call “destructions” and some are not.


Savulescu also defends his criticism of the future of value argument by suggesting that at least one of several alternative accounts of the wrongness of killing is superior to it. Savulescu believes that there is a “property of killing” that fetuses and embryos lack, but that people have. Killing a human being is presumptively seriously wrong only if a human has acquired that property, which Savulescu calls “p”. What is p? According to Savulescu: “We need not settle on what p is. Property p surely exists”. Savulescu claims that at least one of four candidates for p is reasonable.

Savulescu believes that a property proposed by Mark Brown may be a reasonable candidate for p.4 Thus it may be the case that “Killing is wrong because it deprives a self conscious being of a self represented future of value”.2 He also believes that a property proposed by Michael Tooley5 and Peter Singer6 may be a reasonable candidate for p. Thus it may be the case that “Killing is wrong because it frustrates the desire to live of a self conscious being”.2 A third candidate for p is having a functioning brain.2 A fourth candidate for p is having the capacity for consciousness.2

Will any of Savulescu’s candidates survive critical scrutiny? Consider Brown’s candidate. In two essays in this journal I have offered what I still take to be good arguments for believing that Brown’s view is multiply ambiguous and that any version of Brown’s view is an inadequate account of a serious right to life.7,8 Savulescu offers no objection whatsoever to these arguments. Failing that, I see no reason to believe that Brown’s property is a reasonable candidate for p.

Consider now the Singer/Tooley view. The point of the search for p, of course, is to find a property the absence of which renders the killing of a human being morally permissible and which is absent in fetuses. The problem with taking a self conscious being’s desire to live as the basis for one’s right to life is that absence of this property permits too much killing. Tooley himself described such difficulties in his landmark 1972 essay. Consider the case of an individual suffering from depression who says that he wishes he were dead, or, for that matter, who says sincerely that he sees no point in living. Consider the case of someone who is not a self conscious being because she is temporarily unconscious and therefore not conscious of anything including her own self. Consider the case of an individual who “may permit someone to kill him because he had been convinced that if he allows himself to be sacrificed to the gods he will be gloriously rewarded in a life to come” (Tooley,5 pp 47–8). Killing such people is clearly wrong. Therefore, the Singer/Tooley candidate for p is not reasonable. Indeed, as the interested reader will see, Tooley has (on page 109–page 12 of his book) given up this view because of these problems with it.9

An attentive reader might wonder if the Singer/Tooley view could be salvaged by a minimal alteration so that our candidate for p is, instead of the actual desire to live, the conceptual capacity to desire to live. This alteration does appear promising, both because it underwrites a defence of abortion and because it is not subject to the above counterexamples. John Harris apparently has such a view in mind when he writes: “My suggestion then is that if we ask ‘which lives are valuable in the ultimate sense, which lives are the lives of persons?’, the answer will be ‘the lives of any and every creature whether organic or not, who is capable of valuing his/her or its own existence’”.10

Will this do? The plausibility of giving an account of the wrongness of killing in terms of one’s actual desire for, or actual valuing of, life is that we do believe that we ought to respect the desires, or the wishes, or the values, or the interests of others. The trouble is that we do not, in general, believe that is it wrong to deprive someone of something that she is merely capable of desiring or valuing, but does not in fact desire or value, or care about, or have an interest in. I am conceptually capable of desiring to keep the trash that I set out for the trash man each week, but that creates not the slightest presumption whatsoever that it is wrong for the trash man to deprive me of it. Tooley defends the intuitive plausibility of his view in terms of actual desires, not in terms of desires that one merely has the capacity to have (Tooley,5 p 44). When Harris offers a reason for his view, he talks of actual valuing, not the mere capacity to value. So Harris says: “Persons who want to live are wronged by being killed because they are thereby deprived of something they value. Persons who do not want to live are not on this account harmed” (Harris,10 p 307). Thus the problem with the minimal alteration of the desire view that we are considering is that the price that is paid for accommodating the counterexamples to the unaltered view is giving up the intuitive plausibility of the original view. Accordingly, there are reasons for rejecting both views.

Could the time at which a human organism begins to possess p be the time at which fetal brain function begins? Savulescu defends this candidate by asserting that: “Death is defined currently in terms of brain death” and “If we cease to exist when our brain dies, we only begin to exist when our brains start to function”.2 This is not an occasion for a discussion of the correct definition of death. Assume Savulescu is right about that (although I do not think he is). Even so, there are at least two problems with this candidate for p. The first is that it is possible to argue that our brain begins to function so early in fetal development that this candidate for p will justify very little, if any, abortion. A little cellular specialisation at the cephalic end of the embryonic neural tube arguably could qualify. The second is that death is defined is terms of the irreversible loss of function. Nothing corresponds to this at the beginning of life. Plainly the mere absence of function is not going to do, for the mere absence of function is not sufficient for death.

Savulescu’s final candidate for p is the acquisition of consciousness. Consciousness begins at about 20 weeks of gestation. On the one hand, this is considerably later than the time at which minimal brain function begins. For abortion’s defenders such a p has the happy consequence of justifying virtually all abortions that are actually performed. On the other hand, this candidate for p cannot be justified by Savulescu’s argument based on the nature of brain death. The most serious problem, however, concerns people who are temporarily unconscious. People who are temporarily unconscious are people who not only are not conscious (think of people who are sleeping!) but who cannot be brought to a state of consciousness. People who cannot now be brought to a state of consciousness are those who (now) lack the capacity for consciousness. Since temporarily unconscious people clearly have the right to life, the capacity for consciousness (much less consciousness) clearly is not a necessary condition for the right to life. It is worth noting that, of course, fetuses are merely temporarily unconscious.

Accordingly, none of the candidates for p offered by Savulescu is a property on the basis of which we can distinguish those who have the right to life from those who do not. I have also shown that Savulescu’s criticisms of the future of value argument are unsuccessful. Does this analysis, then, throw us into the clutches of the opponents of abortion?

Hardly. For one thing, there may be other successful criticisms of the future of value argument that have not been discussed in this essay. I do not think so, of course, but there is nothing in this essay to show that no criticism of the future of value argument is successful. In addition, there may be successful candidates for p that Savulescu did not offer. Furthermore, I have not addressed the important arguments that purport to show that even if fetuses have the same full bodied right to life that you and I have, pregnant women do not have the obligation to provide them with life support.11 Finally there is another prochoice option to which Savulescu refers that I have not yet discussed.

Savulescu endorses Jeff McMahan’s account of when we began to exist. According to McMahan, we began to exist when the consciousness that is causally connected in a particular way with our present consciousness began. Therefore, we began to exist at about 20 weeks of fetal gestation.12

It is important to distinguish McMahan’s view from the property p view. According to the property p view, we are (I suppose) biological organisms who existed from the time of conception or, perhaps, implantation. At one stage in our early history we acquired a property p that underwrites a serious right to life. McMahan denies this. He denies that we are human organisms. On McMahan’s view, we are essentially conscious beings. We cannot exist in the absence of consciousness. We are only that part of the brains closely associated (but not identical) with us that are the physical basis for our continuing consciousness. Thus I did not begin to exist at all until at least 20 weeks after conception. Since the biological organism that I believe I am began to exist either at conception or at implantation, and since if I were that biological organism I would have all of the properties of that biological organism, it follows that I am not a biological organism (and you are not either, reader). Thus, the preconscious biological organism that was my precursor did not have my future of value because that biological organism was not an earlier phase of me. Therefore, even if the future of value argument were correct, it would have been morally permissible for my mother to have an abortion in her first 20 weeks of pregnancy with the biological organism out of which I was created (McMahan,12 pp 88–94).

What are we to say of this view? McMahan’s view is based upon an analysis of the metaphysics of personal identity. Discussion of this view would take us farther into some very abstruse issues than, I suspect, readers of this journal would wish to go, and, in any event, far beyond the confines of a short response to Savulescu. I believe there are difficulties with McMahan’s view that are sufficient to reject it, but, clearly, this is not an argument, but only a promissory note. My scientific prejudices make it very difficult for me to share McMahan’s view that I am not a biological organism. Furthermore, I suspect that readers of this journal with at least as much background in biology as I will also find it difficult. Finally, I note that Savulescu’s presentation of McMahan’s view is ambiguous concerning whether the McMahan view is a property p view or the robust dualistic view it actually is. Perhaps this is because Savulescu himself is unwilling to embrace the radical dualism that McMahan defends.

I conclude that Savulescu has not shown that the future of value argument is defective and also has not shown that there is a viable alternative to it.


I thank John Harris for helpful comments.


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