Potential People? Abortion in Ireland

Part 3 of the Abortion Referendum Debate

Posted May 22, 2018

There are a lot of things that humans find scary to contemplate. Is death final? How might my life have turned out differently if I had made some different choices? In a deterministic universe, are any of my choices real?

How about this one: What if I’d never existed?

The posters surrounding the abortion referendum in Cork (Ireland) have got, if anything, nastier in the last week or so. Here is a selection of the slogans:

“A licence to kill?”

“In Britain 90% of Babies with Down Syndrome are aborted. Don’t let that happen here”

“Abortion tears her life apart”

“In England 1 in 5 babies are aborted: Don’t bring this to Ireland.”

“Babies will die! Vote No!”

Some have been upset at the bluntness of these posters—I doubt that Psychology Today would let me publish the pictures that accompany some of them—but I value bluntness (sometimes even abrasiveness) in argument. It’s a lot easier than navigating through euphemism and prevarication. Here the argument is pretty clear cut: “Who are you (women) to decide who gets to live or die?” That’s a clear position, and I'm going to offer a clear response: “Who am I? A human being. We all get to decide who lives and dies, that is part of the human condition, and we had better all face up to it”.

Allow me to explain.

There are many many more ways of not existing than there are of existing. How many more? Lots. Each cell in your body has a copy of a chromosome from each parent and its (more or less) random which one goes forward to any offspring you might have. A complete human has (normally) 46 chromosomes—2 sets of 23--so each human can make 223 (which means 2 X 2 X 2…up until you have done this 23 times) different sperm or eggs. That’s over 8 million. A big number—but not so huge. Yet. It's only twice the population of Ireland. However, when a man and woman combine sperm and eggs this multiplies the possibilities. The pair of them (together) can have 6 X 1013 different children. That’s a much bigger number. A six followed by 13 zeros. A hundred times more than the current population of the entire planet. And that is just the number of possiblities from a single heterosexual couple. All those 6 X 1013  are all, in a sense, potential people. Some would have had genetic conditions that made them unlikely to survive, but in that vast store of potential people, there may be more Marie Curies, another Van Gogh or two, a spare Martin Luther King (to replace the one we murdered) and so on.

We will never know. Do you feel a sense of responsibility to these potential people? The fact that you are alive, or one of your children is alive, means that one or more of these others is not. They couldn’t all be born—and you happened to win the greatest lottery of them all. You shoved one of them aside.

Only the teeniest tiniest fraction of these potential people can be born. And before we even get to that stage—of combining genetic material with someone else—we make choices about the people we are prepared to share that genetic material with in the first place. We have a problem facing up to the reality of this but make no mistake—it is a choice about who gets to exist. In biology we call it “sexual selection”. It feels nicer if we call it “falling in love” or “deciding to have a child” but it’s a decision about who gets to be the next round of the human species. A bulk of these choices (not necessarily conscious) fall on women—because female choice mechanisms are the key driver in primate species and we are no exception. However, we are a mutually sexually selecting species and we are all—implicitly—choosing who gets to live or die (if you insist on putting it in live or die terms). And if you find this hard to accept, or if you think evolution has stopped for humans, consider the following: Do you mate randomly?

Zach Weiner (SMBC) used with permission of author
Source: Zach Weiner (SMBC) used with permission of author

I'm guessing not.

All those other possible humans have been condemned to non-existence. Even if you spent your waking hours doing nothing but mating you could not make the tiniest dent in the pile of potential people you have condemned to never be. Even if you were a man running a fertility clinic and impregnated each egg with your your own personal sperm and devoted your entire life to raising these offspring you could not turn more than the most miniscule fraction of these potential people into actual ones. You have ridden roughshod over the "interests" of all these potential people. Your very existence denies theirs. Feeling guilty? Why should you?

Well then—why try to make others feel guilty about their choice about who does or doesn't get to turn from potential person into actual person? This choice--abortion--is more rational, more explicit, and more rooted in psychological, social, and medical necessities than the other implicit choices.

Singling out women for shame around abortion is irrational as well as nasty. We are all in this together.

Update: its 26/05/2018 and the exit polls predict a landslide for the Yes Campaign




Vittorio Bufacchi lays out the case for why the abortion issue is not a human rights issue