Why Fetal Potential is not Enough


A common argument for the pro-life position relates to the potential of the fetus. Even if the fetus isn’t presently conscious and self-aware, the argument goes, they nonetheless have the potential for these things. On this view, the mere potential for complex psychological capacities is sufficient for significant moral status and the right to life. Actual consciousness and self-awareness are not required. Abortion would be prima facie seriously wrong because killing the fetus thwarts its potential to achieve experience conscious states.

This line of reasoning faces serious problems. Contrary to popular pro-life belief, the mere potential of the fetus is not enough to ground the immorality of abortion. It is the job of this post to explain why.

There is a Wide Chasm Between Potential Rights and Actual Right

Why should we take potential properties to be morally relevant? As Nathan Nobis and Kristina Grob note, “in general, potential things of a kind don’t have the rights of actual things of that kind”. Michael Jordan is potentially the president of the United States, but this is no basis for awarding him the rights of an actual president. Moreover, a 12 year old child is potentially a 25 year old adult, but this does not mean the child actually has the right to consent to sex. Why are fetuses the exception to the rule? Why does potential consciousness and self-awareness give a creature the same rights as an actual subject of conscious experience?

Further, why does the pregnant women have a moral obligation to donate her bodily resources to help the fetus realize its potential? If my child is potentially an elite skier, do I have an obligation to drive her to the mountains for practice? Surely not. So, why should a pregnant woman be obligated to provide what’s necessary to bring about a fetus’s potential, especially when doing so involves an incredibly invasive biological process?

The trend should be obvious at this point. The potentiality argument for the pro-life view requires adopting a bizarre and seemingly arbitrary interpretation of what potential entails, ethically speaking. It is must simpler and less ad hoc to posit that moral status is hashed out in terms of the actual properties that people have. This is a significant mark against the argument.

What Kind of Potential?

Another problem with the potentiality argument relates to the kind of potential under discussion. Should we care about potential in terms of theoretical capacity or in terms of yet-to-be-realized ability? Both answers lead to difficulties.

If we understand potential in terms of the mere theoretical capacity to become a person, then the potentiality argument proves too much. Philosopher Michael Tooley gives an example of a magic serum that, when administered to kittens, turns those kittens in talking, reasoning persons(Abortion and Infanticide, 60). The moment this serum is discovered, then, all cats have the latent potential to become persons. If the potentiality argument holds that the right to life is grounded in the theoretical capacity to become a person, then all ordinary kittens, even if they never receive this serum, will have a right to life.

But this is certainly absurd. The actual interests and properties of kittens are left entirely unaffected by the discovery of the magic serum. If kittens did not possess a right to life prior to the discovery of the serum, then surely they do not suddenly gain a right to life after the magic serum is discovered.

Alternatively, we could understand the concept of potential in the potentiality argument to be about potentials that will be realized. This option holds that only creatures that will in fact become persons have a right to life. Such a modification still falls prey to the magic serum case. It implies, for example, that whether a particular kitten has a right to life depends on if someone will, in the future, decide to inject said kitten with the magic serum. Two kittens that are the same in terms of all their other properties will stand oceans apart in terms of their moral status simply because luck has it that one of them will receive the magic serum. This result is clearly unacceptable.

One might wonder whether an appeal to innate or active potentiality can save the day for the pro-life advocate. That is, can the pro-life advocate claim that potential that matters morally is the current and active progression towards consciousness and self-awareness as a consequence of a being’s very nature? Again, Michael Tooley shows why this is not a viable option.

Consider the case of a temporarily comatose adult. There is no doubt that such an adult has a right to life. Crucially, the adult have a right to life even if some medical intervention was required to end the comatose state. To quote Tooley himself, “The fact, for example, that the person could emerge from the coma only if an operation were performed to relieve pressure on the person’s brain would not make it permissible to kill the person”(Abortion: Three Perspectives, 39). The key takeaway is this: to the extent that potentialities are relevant to an entity’s right to life, purely passive potentialities are just as relevant as fully active potentialities.

If that’s right, then it is not available to the pro-life advocate to limit the scope of potentiality to active potentialities. If only active potentialities mattered, then the temporality comatose patient from before would lack a right to life, a clearly mistaken deduction. However, it is also not open to the pro-life advocate to embrace both active and passive potentiality as being morally relevant, for then their view is vulnerable to the aforementioned magic serum case.

Even more damming, if passive potentiality matters just as much as active potentiality, then every one of the trillion-plus somatic cells that make up a human organism would have a right to life, for, given human cloning by somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), every one of them has the passive potential for consciousness and self-awareness.

In short, there is no type of potentiality that can do the philosophical work necessary to derive the pro-life conclusion without falling victim to clear-cut counterexamples.


Potentiality arguments against abortion suffer form two main problems: the decision as to when potentialities matter morally is arbitrary, and there is no interpretation of potentiality that can support the pro-life position while circumnavigating deeply counterintuitive implications.

Until these problems are defused, potentiality remains unable to ground the immorality of abortion.

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