Why Abortion Is Immoral: An Argumentative Analysis
The argument on the immorality of abortion is a long standing philosophical discourse which opens itself to numerous discussions or even attacks. That the pro-choice and anti-abortionists stances stand or fail is based on the strength or weakness of the other’s claim against the other and vice versa. The morality or immorality of abortion, however, leaves an open question which also leaves the partisans reflecting on whether or not there can be a clear and evident claim of its morality or immorality, wrongness or otherwise. Don Marquis’ “Why Abortion is Immoral”(1989) is an argumentative essay that attempts to dissect the assumptions for and against abortion with the end view of presenting an alternative proposition that generally sets up a discussion that abortion is seriously immoral.
This essay seeks to further dissect Marquis’ work and critically analyze his propositions and arguments to present its successes and failures in defending its own thesis. Conversely, this essay does not seek to argue on whether abortion is right or wrong, but rather, seeks to analyze the arguments of Marquis on the immorality of abortion. Although Marquis’ arguments seem generally sound and plausible, it admits of some inconsistencies and weaknesses which this essay seeks to address in the hope of suggesting possible enhancements in his discourse. Marquis’ Propositions and Arguments
Marquis’ essay sets out an argument that “purports to show, as well as any argument in ethics can show, that abortion is, except possibly in rare cases, seriously immoral, that it is in the same moral category as killing an innocent adult human being.”(p. 183). To do this, he sets up analyses of numerous arguments on the wrongness or soundness of abortion. First, he analyzed the standard anti-abortion and pro-choice arguments. Then, he presented arguments on the ethics or morality of killing to establish the wrongness of killing and thereafter derive his justification for the immorality of abortion.
To Marquis, the anti-abortionists’ and the pro-choice’s claims stand on similar strengths and suffers from similar weaknesses. Anti-abortionists argue that life is present from the moment of conception while pro-choice partisans argue that fetuses are not persons. The anti-abortionists stand, according to him tends to be too broad in scope such that even fetuses at the early stage of pregnancy will fall under this category. The pro-choice argument, on the other hand, tends to adapt an argument that is too limited such that fetuses shall not fall under it. In fine, the pro-choice adapts the person account.
If even fetus, however, are to be considered persons, it may be problematic to characterize them as such because a ‘person’ typically is defined in terms of psychological characteristics which the fetus do not have as of yet. On the other hand, if fetuses are to be considered human beings, there is a need to identify if it shall be categorized as biological or moral. If biological, the challenge is explaining why biological category should make a moral difference if it is moral. If this is the case, then the anti-abortionist cannot use the argument that fetuses are human beings because this morality is what is needed to be proved. Marquis claims, however, that “a pro-choice strategy that extends the definition of ‘person’ to infants or even to young children seems just as arbitrary as an anti-abortion strategy that extends the definition of a ‘human being’ to fetuses.”
Because of this existing and seemingly irresolvable standoff, Marquis suggested a more theoretical account on the wrongness of killing to resolve the abortion controversy. Marquis presented a number of arguments why killing is wrong. He explained the brutalization concept of killing which makes it wrong, that is, it brutalizes the victim and is focused not on the loss brought to the victim’s friends or relatives. Under this premise, killing is wrong because it inflicts one of the greatest possible losses on the victim—the loss to him of all those activities, projects, experiences and enjoyments which could have otherwise constituted the victim’s future personal life. There, however, should be value on these activities or personal future life.
Marquis then resorts to explaining the wrongness in terms of the natural property account. The point of analysis according to him is to establish which natural property ultimately explains the wrongness of killing given that it is wrong. Thus, what makes killing a particular human wrong is what it does to that particular human. Here, he derives the future-like-ours account to state that killing is wrong. Under this account, it is required that there be a perceived future for the being, then a value for that future, and a perceived valuer, otherwise, it defeats the purpose of the argument. The fetus may not be able to value his future or his own life, but some other may value it for him just as in the case of some suicidal youth, or the severely unconscious.
He then makes reference to the discontinuation account. Based on this, what makes killing wrong is the discontinuation of the experience of living and the wish for valuable experience to continue. Conversely, continued existence, requires the desire to continue his existence. Absence of this desire to continue leaves another question. The desire account requires that there be a capacity to desire, otherwise, there can be no perceived value of the future (consider mentally ill, or the unconscious who do not have the capacity to desire). The loss of the value of the future of the victim, however, is not supported by the biological category of the wrongness of killing. It also neglects the idea that they may be some other creatures who may also have futures and the question is what it is in their futures that makes it wrong to be taken away.
Finally, it discounts the possible future of pain that may be avoided by the severely ill who may opt for active euthanasia instead. To derive his argument that abortion is seriously wrong, he needed to base his argument not on the personhood but on the account that the concept of ‘person’ is used to state the conclusion of the analysis rather than to generate the argument of the analysis. He suggests to state the argument by “starting the analysis in terms of the value of the human future, conclude that abortion is, except perhaps in rare circumstances, seriously morally wrong, infer that fetuses have the right to life and then call fetuses ‘persons’ as a result of their having the right to life.”(p.192)
Despite these accounts for the wrongness of killing, these alternative general accounts still unsuccessfully or inadequately got around the anti-abortion consequences of the value of a future-like-ours argument. Marquis’ suggestion was to limit the scope of the value of a future-like-ours argument by arguing that fetuses lack a property that is essential for the value of a future-like-ours argument to apply to them. He counter argues, however, that his proposition stands because it may not be necessary that it be the fetus who values his life but it may be some other person. Another argument presented is whether or not an embryo or fetus may be victimized.
He cites Bassen who says that embryos lack mentation that establishes the reason why fetuses and embryos cannot be victims and therefore cannot be the basis for the wrongness of abortion. Marquis overturns this by noting that Bassen’s examples and discussions eventually lead to deprivation of a value of a future-like-ours and not mentation as the basis of the victimization. Marquis, argues, that in fact, “embryos can be victims: when their lives are deliberately terminated, they are deprived of their futures of value, their prospects” and this fact makes them victims because it directly wrongs them. Despite his proposition that majority of deliberate abortions are seriously immoral, Marquis does not consider contraception as wrong.
To him, nothing at all is denied such a future by contraception because in his analysis, there is in fact no subject of harm. Accordingly, Marquis claim that “the immorality of contraception is not entailed by the loss of the a future-like-ours argument simply because there is no nonarbitrary identifiable subject of the loss in the case of contraception.”(p.202) Finally, Marquis was able to propose an alternative generalization on the immorality of abortion. His purpose of setting out an argument for the serious presumptive wrongness of abortion based on the assumption that the moral permissibility of abortion stands or falls on the moral status of the fetus was successfully laid out. Strengths and Weakness of Marquis’ Arguments
Marquis’ essay is quite impressive in that it was able to deliver a deliberate and provocative analysis of existing arguments on abortion. In order to derive his position, he in fact delved into numerous philosophical accounts and went into categorically offering the premises, the arguments and even the possible counter-arguments for and against the wrongness of abortion. His persuasive style of writing is engaging in that he makes reference to his readers in attempting to appeal both to their pathos and logos. His use of “us” and “or you, reader” (as in pages 190 and 193) repeatedly in the text on the subject of killing is an effective tool in involving the readers in the active thought process. A closer analysis of his discussion, however, reveals some weaknesses. It is worthy of note that his thesis is not capable of standing on its own in that its soundness rests to some extent on the unsoundness of the arguments on which it was based or grounded.
Thus, its strength lies in the weakness of other arguments, and its full understanding is reliant upon the understanding of the consequences of other premises and argument. In the process, Marquis was successful in delivering his points. He presented his contemporaries arguments along with their weaknesses, delivered his personal propositions and even offered the possible attacks on his arguments. He offered strategies on dismantling standoffs or of avoiding certain consequences by limiting the scope of specific arguments. In the end, however, he left the readers to fill in the gaps and knit together his arguments rather than offering them a definite suggestion.
How and why his conclusions are derived at is left to the discretion and understanding of the readers of how he presented his ideas. In the text, one may notice that he explicitly excluded or tried to avoid certain issues. For example, he neglected issues of great importance to a complete ethics of abortion (p. 183) and what it is about our future or the future of other adult human beings which makes it wrong to kill us (p.191). In order to stress his conclusion, he deliberately left out some issues and focused on some other. That he presented these issues by excluding them from his analysis, however, brought more questions unanswered and left his readers in quandary on how his argument could have been arrived at if the issues he avoided had been considered in the analysis.
What could have happened to his arguments if these issues were in fact discussed and included? Could they have made his argument weak or illogical? Or could they have strengthened his argument? Probably not. Consequently, this further created gaps in the full understanding of the text. The author seems to be in the habit of opening a lot of discussions but leaves them hanging. Although he may have done this on purpose so as to limit his discourse, the resultant is a less than likely confusion or misconception. Note that in the previous section of this essay, Marquis discussed and established the wrongness of killing to a great extent then diverted to his initial thesis on the serious immorality of abortion as if they are one in the same thing.
He apparently seems to claim that wrong is equivalent to immoral. What he failed to do, however, is to establish what makes killing immoral to surmount it to the level that would make abortion seriously immoral in general. To him, the answer may have been obvious, but to logically think about it, he could have presented the morality issues of killing as it related to the wrongness of killing first then established the serious immorality of abortion. Marquis’ style is a bit cyclic in that he jumps from one concept to another and then goes back to a previous concept so as to drive at his comparisons of theories and propositions. It was advantageous in that it opens the readers to a lot logical and illogical possibility in trying to assess his points.
This style, however, requires the reader to go over and over the previous discussions and arguments to refresh his memory. Otherwise, readers find it difficult to draw connections between and among his propositions. In short, his discourse is quite difficult to contextualize in relation to other concepts in one reading. The author proposes in the conclusion that a fetus possesses a property, the possession of which in adult human beings is sufficient to make killing an adult human being wrong, thus, abortion is wrong, but failed to discuss in more detail what this property of a fetus is all about as compared to the property of an adult human being who have a valuable future ahead. In the beginning of the essay, it seems that the thesis is that it purports to show that abortion is seriously immoral and that it is in the same moral category as killing an innocent adult human being. At the end of the essay, however, he says that “the thesis of this essay is that the problem of the ethics of abortion, so understood, is solvable.” They do not seem to clearly jive at all, or at least clearly define what was in the entire text of the discussion.
In fact, his closing left another question hanging. Solvable in what sense, then? Does the author mean to say that his generalization that abortion is seriously immoral has solved the problem of the ethics of abortions? There is a strong reason to disagree. In fact, his jumping from his initial thesis that abortion in general is seriously immoral was not clearly sustained in the entire text when he eventually referred to it as a disputable presumption later in the discussion. He explicitly claimed that “abortion is presumptively seriously wrong, where the presumption is very strong—as strong as the presumption that killing another adult human being is strong”(p.194).
A counter argument, however, that he failed to recognize, or probably avoided, is the issue of what it is in the nature of a thing that could break this strong presumption that killing an adult human being is wrong that could also be made applicable to a fetus which could probably support or dismantle the argument that abortion is presumptively very seriously wrong. How similarly (or differently) situated are adults and fetuses to have (or not have) this strong presumption? In sum, Marquis’ essay is impressive in that it was able to deliver a highly critical analysis and argumentation on the wrongness of abortion. That a few weaknesses was identified in this analysis of his paper, however, does not serve to mitigate or totally overturn his arguments, but merely provided for an alternative suggestion in improving his arguments.
- Marquis, D. (1989). Why Abortion is Immoral. The Journal of Philosophy, 86, No. 4, 183-202.
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In an influential essay entitled Why abortion is wrong, Donald Marquis presents an argument which purports to derive the immorality of abortion from a deceptively simple but intuitively compelling claim: it is presumptively wrong to kill us, competent adult human beings, because doing so destroys our most valuable possession, a future of value.1 Marquis claims that killing actual persons is wrong because it unjustly deprives the victim of his or her future; that the fetus has a future similar in morally relevant respects to the future lost by a competent adult homicide victim,and that, as consequence, abortion is justifiable only in the same special and extreme circumstances in which killing competent adult human beings is justifiable. Marquis presents the gist of the Future Like Ours (FLO) argument in this way:
“. . .we can start from the following unproblematic assumption: it is wrong to kill us. . . when I am killed I am deprived of all of the value of my future. Inflicting this loss on me is ultimately what makes killing me wrong. 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 the futures of young children. Since the reason that is sufficient to explain why it is wrong to kill human beings after the time of birth is a reason that also applies to fetuses, it follows that abortion is prima facie seriously wrong.”2
The Future Like Ours argument has been criticised on the grounds that it ignores the point of view of the pregnant woman; that it is incompatible with contraception and abstinence; and that it understates the explanatory resources of the competing personhood theory while overstating its own explanatory power.3 These objections make a powerful cumulative case that something is amiss in FLO, but none come to grips with the metaphysical thesis at the heart of the argument: the claim that actual persons possess a future of value. What exactly does it mean to have a future of value?
The expression is ambiguous. It could mean that actual persons have a potential future of value in the sense that given favourable conditions they are likely to have a worthwhile life; or it could mean that actual persons have a self-represented future of value in the sense that they can construct mental representations of valuable futures. The FLO argument turns upon this ambiguity. The expression occurs twice in the argument, first in the claim that homicide is presumptively wrong because it deprives its victim of a future of value, and second in the claim that both actual persons and fetuses have a future of value. The Future Like Ours argument would be valid if “future of value” were used consistently to mean either “potential future of value” or “self-represented future of value”, and FLO would be sound if one or the other interpretation supported both the moral claim and the metaphysical claim, but if any interpretation which makes the argument valid renders it unsound, then FLO must be rejected. I first argue that the potential future of value interpretation is unsound because it is not presumptively seriously wrong to deprive someone of a potential future of value. I then argue that the self-represented future of value interpretation is unsound because the fetus does not represent its future. The essay concludes with an analysis of the intuitive appeal of the Future Like Ours argument.
The Future Like Ours argument might be salvaged if homicide were presumptively wrong because it deprives a human being of a potential future of value, whether or not that human being ever imagined his or her future. In this case, the expression “a future of value” could be used consistently throughout the argument: killing persons is presumptively wrong because it deprives them of their potential future of value; a fetus has a potential future of value; thus killing a fetus is presumptively wrong. The second premise is plausible. In most cases the course of a pregnancy can be foreseen with enough confidence to predict that the fetus will be born as an infant who has the capacity to enjoy a life qualitatively similar to the lives of actual persons.
The first premise is implausible, in part because a potential future of value interpretation implies welfare rights which most people would reject in other spheres of life. If deprivation of potential futures of value is presumptively a form of culpable homicide, then culpable homicide is committed whenever a person is denied access to what he or she needs to live. A homeless man who dies of exposure, an elderly woman whose unheated apartment precipitates a fatal case of pneumonia, an injured child who dies for want of a suitable blood transfusion would all be homicide victims. Each case is tragic in its own way, but it is far from clear that these persons' rights have been violated. Persons can die in ways which do not violate their rights.4 This is not to say that no harm is done when a potential future of value is foreclosed. On the contrary, to prevent a person from acting upon a highly reliable anticipated future imposes upon them significant opportunity costs, but it does not necessarily treat him or her unjustly. Only if the person had a right to the favourable circumstances which make possible a potential future of value would depriving him or her of that future be presumptively wrong.
For example, the future quality of life of many actual persons depends critically upon whether they receive prompt and effective medical treatment. Many persons with end stage renal disease could expect bright futures if they were to receive a kidney transplant, but neither medical need nor therapeutic benefit entitles these persons to medical services. Patients have a right to life-enhancing medical interventions because they subscribe to a health care plan which covers the procedure or because they are citizens of a country which maintains a functioning system of universal health care or for some other reason, but they do not have a right to medical services, or to any other external good, simply because they would have a better future if someone were to provide for their needs.
The potential future of value of the fetus is no less dependent upon favourable external circumstances. Since the fetus will become a person who has the capacity to enjoy its life and derive meaning from it only if it has access to the reproductive system of a woman, abortion would be presumptively wrong only if women had no presumptive right to control access to their reproductive systems. The fetus certainly needs its uterine environment if it is to realise its potential, but persons do not in general have a right to satisfy their needs at the expense of the autonomy, bodily integrity and wellbeing of another person. If I need a bone marrow transplant in order to realise my potential future of value, I do not thereby gain a right to your bone marrow, even if you are my mother. Perhaps pregnancy creates more stringent duties than motherhood, but if so, an argument is needed to establish this claim, an argument notably absent from Marquis's presentation of the Future Like Ours argument.
A defender of FLO might object at this point that abortion kills the fetus and that killing a person does violate his or her rights in all but the most extreme circumstances, even if depriving him or her of life-sustaining services need not, but this is not a distinction that can be drawn within a potential future of value interpretation of FLO. Someone who has been killed and someone who has been denied access to life support have been deprived equally of their potential futures. The potential future of value interpretation fails because the moral premise if true implausibly entitles persons to welfare rights to valuable futures in addition to liberty rights not be killed. A self-represented future of value interpretation is needed to distinguish between the right not be killed and the right to valuable futures.
The Future Like Ours argument would be valid if the expression “a future of value” consistently meant “a self-represented future of value”. Substituting in, the argument would look like this: killing persons is presumptively wrong because it deprives them of their self-represented future; fetuses have self-represented futures; thus, killing fetuses is presumptively wrong. The first premise is plausible. At any moment a person can project a representation of a self which extends over time, a self understood from the perspective of the present, reconstructed from present remnants of the past and projected from the present into many possible futures. Persons care about their self-represented futures and their memories, their self-represented past, because this self-conception defines who they are and confers meaning and significance upon what they think and do. In contrast with potential futures, self-represented futures do not depend upon outside agencies for their realisation. The value of a self-represented future resides within the person herself, as a feature of a richly complex mental life. Killing a person deprives her of this future: her hopes and dreams are dashed, her goals unfulfilled, her sins unforgiven, longed for reunions and reconciliations never occur. All of this happens in the present, to a person able to unite in a moment of self-consciousness a personal past, present and future. One reason why killing persons violates their rights, but depriving them of life support need not, is that killing persons deprives them of a future and a past which is rightfully their own because it is something they themselves have created.
Even if killing a person is presumptively wrong because it deprives its victim of his self-represented future, this cannot be a reason why it is wrong to kill a fetus because the fetus does not construct mental representations of its future. The neurological and embryological evidence of this issue is clear.5 Higher order cognitive functioning of the type implicated in planning and memory is dependent upon massive cortical/sub-cortical connectivity. Sub-cortical thalamic fibres first begin to form synapses with cortical neurons at about twenty-five weeks' gestation and only at some point well after birth does connectivity reach a critical threshold sufficient for self-awareness. A third trimester fetus may be sentient but there is no medical reason to think it is capable of self-consciousness.
The Future Like Ours argument rests upon two substantive claims: (1) killing persons is presumptively wrong because it deprives them of a future of value; and, (2) fetuses have futures of value. The plausibility of the first claim depends upon the intuition that persons suffer significant harm when prevented from experiencing their self-represented future, but since the fetus does not represent its future it cannot be harmed in this way. The plausibility of the second claim depends upon the proposition that both the fetus and actual persons have a potential future of value, but unless one has a right to the conditions under which this potential can be realised, neither homicide nor abortion are presumptively wrong for this reason. The self-represented future of value interpretation underwrites the moral claim about the wrongness of homicide but militates against the metaphysical claim that persons and fetuses are relevantly similar; the potential future of value interpretation uncovers a genuine commonality between persons and fetuses but not one which can support the moral claim that abortion is presumptively seriously wrong. We may conclude that the Future Like Ours argument retains its force only if one equivocates on the concept of a future of value.
How, then, can the enormous intuitive appeal of the Future Like Ours argument be explained? The answer, I think, lies in the subtle and pervasive influence self-representation exerts upon our experience of time. The intentions, memories, hopes, dreams and plans which define us as persons elicit in us powerful intuitions of temporal extension, for ourselves and on behalf of others. Just as the past can come alive in memory, a long-awaited future can feel more real than the present. Everyone has had the experience of seeing a longed for future evaporate as events unfold in unexpected and unwelcome ways. When this happens, the sense of loss is palpable, even though nothing physical has been taken away. Nowhere is the reality of a self-represented future more evident than in the attitudes of the dying and bereaved. AIDS victims understand how a foreseen death can alter the experience of time; grieving parents dwell upon how empty their own experience of the passage of time has become. In each case, the past and the future become humanly accessible through mental representations, all of which are expressions of the current mental state of a self-conscious person.
The Futures Like Ours argument is beguiling because in ordinary circumstances potential futures of value are linked to represented futures of value. Indeed, this linkage is the point of contingency planning. As agents, persons act upon the value they assign to representations of their own future precisely because they believe that given favourable circumstances their imagined scenarios will correspond to valuable states of affairs. This linkage between represented futures and potential futures is deeply ingrained in practical reasoning. Any form of delayed gratification or other sacrifice of current interests presupposes a representation of a future valued more highly than the present. Savings schedules, life insurance and long term investments make sense only against the backdrop of a perceived future of value; frustrated and impoverished graduate students must remind themselves of the rewards of perseverance; and perhaps most starkly, cancer patients undergo burdensome therapies in the hope that doing so will prolong their futures. Other cancer patients refuse medical intervention in order to have a future perceived as more valuable because free from the toxic effects of chemotherapy. In these and countless other cases, patients consent or withhold consent to medical treatment based upon a judgment of the relative value of alternative futures. All of this is an intelligible and perfectly reasonable response to represented futures believed to be potential futures.
Represented futures and potential futures are conjoined no less when one imagines the future of someone else. When a person enters into relationships she may empathise with and act on behalf of others in the expectation that some of her mental representations of their future will be realised. Parenting is a sphere of life dominated by thoughts of the future on behalf of others. Parents routinely, sometimes obsessively, contemplate the future of their children, hoping that some scenarios will come true and fearing the realisation of others. Why else subject our children to the discipline of learning to read and playing the violin or to the pains of orthodontia? Why else lose sleep over the perils of bicycles, motorcycles and rollerblades? Parents become obsessive about safety because they believe that nothing would be more difficult to bear than the death of their child. The natural, almost inevitable, thought of grieving parents is that the future of their child has been snatched away, that their child has lost a future of falling in love, of worldly success, of raising children of her own and a thousand other worthwhile experiences.
For many women, the thought of the lost future of a fetus aborted in their youth haunts them for a lifetime. These women may replay in their minds first words not spoken and birthdays never celebrated with the same vivacity with which they regret missed opportunities in their own lives and in the lives of their children. These women grieve for their lost child because they have solidly paired a mental representation of a future life as child for their aborted fetus with the potential future of the fetus as it was at the time of the abortion. These attitudes are understandable, but should not impose limits upon the reproductive freedom of other women. One can sympathise with the grief-stricken without accepting their beliefs as philosophically perspicuous constraints upon the resolution of problems in medical ethics. Dying people, for example, may exercise their liberty interest in controlling the terms of their own death by creating the illusion of normalcy; Jehovah's Witnesses may give expression to their religious convictions by refusing blood transfusions, but in neither case do the beliefs of these persons need to be taken as true to be taken seriously.
Similarly, one can understand the natural propensity to attribute retrospectively to the fetus the status of a person because in many spheres of life, including parenting, it is entirely reasonable to think and act as if a predictable outcome were actual. In other spheres of life, the connection between represented futures and potential futures is best severed. When drawn into a fictional story for example, or engaged in fanciful daydreams or when under the sway of irrational fears, the proper response is to recognise that one's thoughts fail to correspond to reality. If the fetus is not self-conscious, as the embryological evidence indicates, feelings of regret (and moral outrage) on its behalf are unfounded in the same way feelings of regret and moral outrage on behalf of a fictional character are unfounded. In neither case, is there an appropriate extramental subject of experience upon which to direct our attitudes. One may imagine a future for a fetus in which he or she had his or her own (unfulfilled) hopes and dreams, but one should not fall into the trap of thinking that the fetus as it was at the time of an abortion had a self-represented future to lose. One may mourn the absence of the child the fetus would have become, but in doing so one is coming to terms with a painful mental representation in one's own mental life, not acting on behalf of a person who had a future of his or her own.
What, then, of the millions of aborted fetuses? Have they been deprived of their future? We may represent a future for them if we choose, but, it is we, self-conscious persons, who make this future. We can also project ourselves into a past of which we have no memory, into early childhood, infancy and in utero. We can represent our self as the human being who is continuous with the infant in the baby pictures and with the fetus in the ultrasound. If we represent the past in this way, we will alter our experience of time and in so doing elicit powerful intuitions of temporal extension and empathetic identification. We can, if we wish, represent to ourselves a future for a fetus, but this is not something the fetus can do. A self-represented future is a terrible thing to lose but this is not a misfortune which can befall a fetus. And a potential future is not a benefit to which the fetus has a right. Either way, FLO fails.
References and notes