You Wish I’d Never Been Born?

kid-picWith the latest anti-abortion dust-up, I’ve noticed a resurgence of stories from people who tell us that if the pro-abortion folks had had their way, they wouldn’t here.

“I dare you to look in her eyes,” I read, “and tell her you wish she weren’t alive today.” It’s a powerful rhetorical ploy. But a little thought reveals that as an argument, it’s misleading at best.

To see this, consider all the people who are alive today who wouldn’t be if the Catholic church had had its way. Me, for one. My father was in the seminary for a while. The priests there wanted him to remain celibate for the rest of his life. If they’d gotten their way, I never would have been born. You wanna look in my eyes and tell me you wish I weren’t alive?

And I know a dozen kids who were born with the help of artificial insemination, which the Catholic church opposes. You think these wonderful kids shouldn’t exist?

And then there are all my friends who had children before they were married. That’s a big no-no according to all the anti-abortion people I’ve ever met. But would they be willing to look these children in the eye and tell them they wish they’d never been born? Are they willing to tell Bristol Palin’s kids that they shouldn’t be alive?

I expect that the anti-abortion folks will offer the obvious replies to these cases: Yes, we think that the circumstances that brought this person into existence were wrong, but now that the person is here, we embrace and celebrate his or her life.

They can’t very well deny that if they’d had their way then the kids wouldn’t be here. So they’re going to have to say that sometimes the right action would have prevented someone (who is alive and well in the actual world) from coming into existence.

And what they fail to realize (perhaps deliberately) is that the pro-choice people can and should make the exact same claims about abortion. Of course it is true that abortion prevents a human life from developing. But all sorts of choices block potential people from entering the world. Pointing at the moral worth of some actual person in no way implies that there was a moral obligation to bring that person into existence.

There are, of course, many difficult philosophical problems raised by these discussions. What are the necessary and sufficient criteria for something to be a person? What moral obligations do we have to non-actual persons? And so on.

But the emotional pull of wanting to keep an actual person alive is simply irrelevant to issues that matter here.


2 responses to “You Wish I’d Never Been Born?

  1. I think you deconstructed the argument’s flaws effectively from a rhetorical pov. Let me come at it from a different direction. Many of those stories are presented using the pov of Evangelical Christianity. There are more Buddhists in the world than Christians. In their view, if a human isn’t able to be incarnated in one body, they can pick a different one to inhabit. So, if they are right, abortion has no effect whatsoever upon whether or not someone gets to live. (I do enjoy philosophical discussions about unanswerable questions.)

    • I like that; it’s another good perspective to highlight. It does remind me how problematic the notion of personal identity is in Buddhism and other Eastern religions.

      I’ve asked scholars of Buddhism why Buddhists hang on to the notion of reincarnation when their philosophy is committed to the claim that the self is nothing, and they typically agree that it’s problematic. It was just an accepted starting point of the world of appearances once upon a time, they tell me.

      But now, of course, we recognize that we’re just physical processes, and much of Buddhist philosophy can fit comfortably with that recognition.

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