The “Potential” Bait-And-Switch

Based on a blog conversation over at Vox Popoli, I’d like to examine a very particular rhetorical technique often used by the “reasonable” pro-abortion apologists. (These tend to be the ones who use some arbitrary neural development as their “gateway to humanity,” as opposed to the rabid baby-killers who think that partial-birth abortion at eight and three-quarters months ought to be available for free on demand. I will not be going into the problems of one person arbitrarily choosing a physical state as a threshold for granting other human lives moral weight, merely point out that throughout human history, this reasoning is the #1 excuse for genocide and race-based slavery. Nothing good EVER comes from it, only excuses to do evil.) The entire discussion thread is worth reading if you have time; there are a few topics being bandied about but the abortion discussion is the most valuable of them, particularly the back-and-forth between Mudz and Ann Morgan.

However, I’m not going to retread all of it, just point out a mental failure that consistently appears in pro-abortion responses to pro-life arguments, namely their misuse of the word “potential.” Let’s see an example: for background, Mudz has asked Ann if she would object if he were to use a time machine to go back in time and abort her. In response, Ann asks:

Suppose I had a time machine and decided that I would take it back in time to a point exactly 9 months before you were born. I would then provide your parents with free movie tickets, so that they would go out and watch the movies that night, rather than having sex. Therefore, you would never be born. If I announced my intention of this plan to you, would you object? If you would object, would that therefore mean that going to the movies, and all other activities other than continually having sex should be illegal, lest some hypothetical future person not be conceived and born? If not, why not?

In both cases of time machine use, the action taken is expressly intended to end the existence of a particular person. Therefore, both uses of the time machine would be wrong: it would be murder – with malice aforethought – which is the point which Ann appears to totally miss. Notice the second question tacked on: “would that therefore mean that… all other activities other than continually having sex should be illegal, lest some hypothetical future person not be conceived and born?” This is the bait-and-switch.

Another way this argument goes is that pro-abortion apologists demand that pro-life apologists defend gametes (or more ludicrously, shed skin cells) with the same fervor as we do zygotes. They conflate the “potential” human life of an unfertilized egg with the “potential” human life of a zygote and then demand that their opponents treat them identically. Notice, however, that to any educated and reasonable person, these are two totally different meanings of “potential” – and anyone who treats them as equivalent is a moron.

In fact, a gamete does not have any “potential” to become a human life – they are merely components with the “potential” to combine (and then a human life is formed), but gametes alone have no potential to become a human being. In fact, any given unfertilized egg is merely a “hypothetical future” human being – with only one half of the required genetic information, we couldn’t even tell you which sex the hypothetical human person would be, for example. There are any number of genetic and epigenetic conditions that could come into play; the hypothetical future human beings possible for each gamete probably number in the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands. Gametes are hypothetical (conditional; contingent) future human beings, and as such, are given slightly more protection than skin cells in recognition of that fact, but they are not potential human beings in the same way that a zygote is. Gametes have the potency to combine and thus form one out of thousands of hypothetical human beings; zygotes have the potency to grow up into particular adult human beings.

A zygote, in fact, is a particular human being, possessing a unique DNA blueprint distinct from that of his or her mother and father. Note the language I chose: his or her. At the moment of conception, we now have a particular individual who is either female or male (leaving aside the unfortunate misalignment of DNA and epigenetic factors that produce certain rare birth defects). But because life in this fallen world is difficult, even with the best of intentions sometimes zygotes do not fulfill their full potential to become human adults. Any case of miscarriage – a “natural abortion” so to speak – cuts short a potential human life, just as the death of a six-year-old or a fifteen-year-old or fifty-year-old cuts short a potential human life. The miscarried individuals cannot realize their full potential as human beings due to the imperfections of the world, just as people who get sick and die at any age after birth cannot fulfill their full potential. In each case it is a particular individual life that ends. That many miscarriages happen before the mother is even aware of her pregnancy does not diminish the fact that a particular, individual human life is lost forever; to claim that a child at his or her two-month stage of gestation is not “really human” (because neural development!) is to spit on the grief of every mother who desperately wants to carry her child to term and cannot.

In fact, the difference in the “potential” possessed by gametes and the “potential” possessed by zygotes is so obvious that anyone with a basic understanding of sexual reproduction in mammals can easily see that anyone who tries to morally equate the two is either profoundly ignorant or deliberately moronic.

Pro-abortion apologists love to pose these false moral dilemmas on pro-life apologists; Ann herself comes up with another one in the same thread, with the hypothetical situation of a hospital fire in which you can save 100 embryos in 100 petri dishes or a single infant. The pro-life position, in fact, is that it is immoral to create 100 embryos in petri dishes in the first place, even if the hypothetical posits something as highly unlikely and dubious as someone saving a hundred undoubtedly frozen embryos from a fire as a given. What, is there a handy cooler to stuff them all into and an emergency freezer waiting in the street outside? How convenient. You think pro-life apologists don’t know that sometimes hard choices have to be made when lives are on the line and your actions could make the difference in who lives and who dies? This whole “argument” in and of itself is another bait-and-switch: it’s basically, “How pro-life are you, punk? Huh? Huh? HUH???” and it has nothing at all to do with the issue of deliberately ending a particular human life. If I had to guess, pro-abortion apologists do this sort of mental game of twister with pro-life reasoning (warping it into patently ridiculous hypothetical situations with no bearing on the issue or on reality) so that they never have to think about the actual pro-life position and come to the conclusion that it makes logical sense.

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