Abortion rears its ugly head, yet again, as a topic of public debate thanks to recent candid-video revelations about the behind-the-scenes machinations over at Planned Parenthood, a pro-choice organization that assists with abortion-related issues, but also with issues of neonatal care, ongoing motherhood, etc. From Mother Jones:
[David] Daleidin [a pro-life activist] and major anti-abortion groups say that the footage definitively shows two of Planned Parenthood's top medical personnel haggling over the price of fetal body parts—their sale is illegal—and admitting to altering the abortion procedure in order to better preserve fetal specimens. Planned Parenthood and its supporters say the edited videos are misleading and that Dr. Deborah Nucatola, Planned Parenthood's senior director of medical services who appears in the first video, was only discussing the costs of storing and transporting fetal remains. The group can legally recoup those costs under federal law. And any changes to the abortion procedure, they note, creates no additional risk for the woman.
But the political conversation has quickly outpaced the facts. The videos have already moved Congress to launch two probes into the organization's activities.
Dr. Vallicella, over at his philosophy blog, wrote a post the other day about abortion. The post was titled, "The Potentiality Argument Against Abortion and Feinberg's Logical Point About Potentialty." In it, Dr. V puts forth what he terms "PP," i.e., the Potentiality Principle. The idea seems to be that potential personhood, in a developing fetus, is enough to claim the fetus has a right to life. Dr. V puts forth his Potentiality Argument:
The PA in a simplified form can be set forth as follows, where the major premise is the PP:
1. All potential persons have a right to life.
2. The fetus is a potential person.
3. The fetus has a right to life.
This post was one of the few for which Dr. V had opened up a comments box. I wrote him a response, but he's chosen not to publish it—either because he thought my response was so overwhelmingly powerful that he simply can't deal with it right now, or because my response was so ridiculously trivial as to be beneath his attention. Let's assume the latter.
But I won't be silenced so easily, so I'm going to rewrite my comment to Dr. V here, as well as I can from memory (I'm cursing myself for not having copied and pasted my comment into an email window for safe-keeping). I thought I was making a rather important point, so I'll leave it up to my readers to examine what I say and to agree or disagree as they will.
My response was basically thus:
Let's grant the PP—the major premise of the Potentiality Argument. But what happens when cloning technology catches up with us and makes the PA overly probative? Consider this sci-fi-style Gendankenexperiment:
1. All potential persons have the right to life. (PP)
2. Deliberately stopping a human life, potential or actual, is murder.
3. Cloning tech will allow us to clone a fully realized human (baby or adult—makes no difference) from a single human cell—any viable cell of the body.
4. Thus, thanks to this technology, every cell becomes a potential human being.
5. The mere act of throwing away a bloody tissue after a nosebleed thus becomes tantamount to mass murder.
See, the thing about cloning—at least the way I'm imagining cloning—is that it removes one of the traditional thresholds that figure in the usual abortion debate: conception. Very often, you'll hear that "life begins at conception," which seems to imply that it's perfectly kosher to destroy a single spermatozoon or ovum without worrying about whether you're actually killing a potential person. With cloning, the monoploid-into-diploid fusion that occurs at conception goes out the window as a matter of debate, and now every cell becomes a potential person. If we accept premise (2) above, then it follows—in a world where cloning is commonplace—that the loss of a single viable cell is tantamount to the loss of a fully realized human life.
But intuitively, viscerally, we all think this is ridiculous. No one seriously throws away a bloody tissue while thinking he just killed millions, like Pol Pot or Stalin. In my comment to Dr. V, I did note that the attitude of constant contrition for unceasingly killing unseen beings is something familiar to adherents of the Jain religion—a religion that preaches a radical nonviolence (the same concept of ahimsa found in Hinduism and, later, in Buddhism). But most regular folks can't maintain this mindset for too long: they'd go crazy with guilt.
This brings us back to whether the Potentiality Principle—even now, even in a world in which cloning is not commonplace—actually works as an ethical principle. What if there's something to the pro-choice idea that "it's just a clump of cells" being eliminated, at least during the time when the fetus has no visibly human features, no fully developed nervous system (and thus no recognizable consciousness)? But on the pro-life side, it's legitimate to ask where, exactly, the border lies between "clump of cells" and "recognizably human fetus." What's more, as Dr. V has pointed out in many of his previous posts, the question of how human the fetus is is never in doubt: if it's got human cells, it's human—period.
But the cells in my bloody tissue are human, too, and in a world of ubiquitous cloning, every single one of those cells is a potential human life. Here I am, standing at the garbage can, throwing those human lives away.