Friday, July 31, 2015

Only a "Potential" Person?

Meme via Live Action
[Today's guest post by Acyutananda is part of our paid blogging program.]

“A woman is an actual, living, breathing person, and a zygote/embryo/ fetus is only a potential person.”

This statement is a staple feature of discussions about abortion, and the meaning is always that the woman can rightfully abort the “zef” if she finds it to be of any benefit to her to do so.

But let’s look at a woman’s objective when she gets an abortion. No sane woman does it for the sake of the immediate abortion experience. She does not expect it to be fun to go to the clinic, fill out forms, pay $350, lie on an operating table, and perhaps experience significant pain. She is always thinking of benefits, perhaps the benefits of freedom from pregnancy, at least a few hours in the future.

And if she is getting an abortion in order to avoid problems for herself after the birth of the child, she is thinking still farther in the future. And if she feels an abortion will make it easier for her to finish grad school, she is thinking of benefits years down the road. In every single case, she is thinking of her future – that is, her potential.

So those who say that we don’t need to think of the child’s welfare or interests because “a woman is an actual person and a zef only a potential person” are essentially saying:
  1. The woman’s potential should be taken into account, and therefore she has a right to kill her unborn child 
  2. It’s okay to kill an unborn child, because its potential should not be taken into account.
Actually, the morality or immorality of any action must always be related to the future. The real scientific present (not to be confused with a person’s experience of the present, and the possible value of “living in” that present) has no duration. It is just a dividing line between past and future. Nothing we can do that affects another person or oneself only for a moment of no duration will have any consequence for the other person’s or one’s own well-being or suffering. And no action we might take can alter anyone else’s past, nor our own past.

If I have already reached the moment of my death for reasons unrelated to you, it does no harm to me if you shoot me. It may harm bystanders in terms of shock, but only if they, unlike me, have enough future left to be able to feel shock. It does no harm to me if you shoot me, and it does no good to me if you serve me a cappuccino.

Someone may point out that the pro-choicer’s “only a potential person” refers to the ontological status of the unborn, whereas their position about the “potential” of the woman and unborn refers to future life events. That is true in terms of the pro-choicer’s literal words; literally the pro-choicer only mentions the ontological status. But the practical consequence of the unborn’s ontological status, according to the pro-choicer (which is his or her only reason for mentioning that ontological status), is that the potential, or future, life events of the unborn can and should be disregarded, while the woman’s potential life events are taken into account.

Since personhood is a subjective concept, it can legitimately be at least argued that the unborn right now is only a potential person. But though “only a potential person” literally refers only to the ontological status, those who say “a woman is an actual person and a zygote/embryo/fetus only a potential person” are in fact also making points 1 and 2 above: that the unborn’s potential life events should not be taken into account, while the woman’s should. So the inconsistent treatment and unfairness remain. And they remain regardless of whether the zygote/embryo/fetus is in fact a person. Whether it is presently a person or not, the fact that the unborn has some future of life events ahead of it (if only it is not subjected now to violent death) cannot be denied.

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