Abortion, natal discrimination, and the rights of potential persons.

One nice thing about Canadian politics is the lack of debate on the question of abortion. Recently [in 2013] ‘Parliament Motion 408’ was introduced into parliament by pro-life conservatives in order to try and put some cases of abortion ‘on the table’, by proposing to outlaw the troublesome practice of aborting female fetuses because they’re female. Because I come from the US, I would expect that such a motion would be an embarrassment to the pro-choice side. It is a tribute to Canadian civic culture that it was not voted on for fear of forcing MP’s to ‘come out’ against choice.

Ignoring political considerations, being pro-choice should not make one oppose a motion to outlaw ‘gendercide’, which we will here call ‘natal discrimination’.  ‘Why the name change?’ you might ask. The  term ‘gendercide’ is meant to allude to the term ‘genocide’, thus playing upon the idea that killing female fetuses is the moral equivalent of killing girls. This idea is mistaken. Natal discrimination, however wrong, is not murder. Rather, its wrongness consists in its being discriminatory.


Natal discrimination is wrong for the same reasons other forms of discrimination are wrong. For example, it’s not wrong to fire an employee, but it is wrong to do so for the wrong reason, e.g. their sex or race. Similarly, it is wrong to deny women or racial minorities the right to vote or drive cars, but it is not wrong to deny these rights to minors. Nor is it wrong for a pregnant woman to deny her own unborn the right to be born. This is not to say that a fetus, embryo or zygote are completely lacking in rights. In fact, actual adults have significant obligations to children who have yet to be conceived, for example the right to an intact biosphere and  sufficient resources to sustain them, should they be lucky enough to be born someday. Also, we have obligations to continue cultural progress in the fields of science, politics, economics and art. Thus, while future persons are not yet actual persons, they are persons none the less, with all the rights pertaining to their level of development.
Every level of development has its own proper level of morality, from the unconceived, zygotes, embryos, fetuses, infants, toddlers, children, teenagers, adults, the elderly, the recently dead, to those who are dead long ago. While a fully rational adult has more rights than any other level of development, this is not discriminatory since they also have more obligations than those younger or older than them.


However, not one of us have the obligation to produce children to enjoy these benefits. Certainly, if every person in the world decided not to have children, no one would have the least right to complain against them or the right to force them to conceive, gestate and care for future generations. This is the pro-choice philosophy; we have the right to decide for ourselves the purpose of our lives; many people have decided that raising children are their purpose for living, but that is their decision.  What is wrong about natal discrimination is that it is discriminatory, and discrimination is wrong even against potential people. If someone programmed a robot to wake up in a thousand years to kill a bunch of people, it would still be wrong today, and the people wronged would be those future people, yes, those merely potential people who are not even conceived yet. But guess what? We are not obligated to conceive those future people, not are we obligated to gestate them if they get conceived. But if we bear them, we have obligations to care for them and not kill them. Perhaps this age-limit on the right to life may seem arbitrary to some, but it is no less arbitrary that age limits on the right to drive, vote, drink, legal consent, bear arms, run for political office, work, or any other right you may think of. I am willing to think that the right to be free from torture has no age limit save the stage at which one grows a nervous system, however this is not a very damning exception for choice advocates to to make.



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