If your mother had had an abortion, then yes, alas, there would havebeen no you who has had such a good life. But it’s also true that, ifyour mother had done anything different on that fateful nightin the early sixties– had she decided to stay home, had she decided shewasn’t really in the mood that night, had her amusing story gone on justa little bit longer– then, chances are, there would have been no you:that particular egg and that particular sperm just wouldn’t have gottentogether. In fact, had a multiplicity of other events in the past–e.g., the weather on a night millions of year ago when your ancientancestors got together-- been different from what they in fact were,then there would have been no you because there also wouldhave been none of your more recent ancestors. When you think of all ofthe events that had to conspire from the beginning of time to produceyou, then it becomes clear how very lucky each of us is even to havelived for just one minute. The odds against each of us wereastronomically high.
Now let’s imagine all the unimaginablymany possible unions of human egg and sperm that might have been, whomight have developed into people who had had a life as good as yours.If your mother’s story had gone on just a bit longer, then someone elsemight have been conceived that night. Was your success his loss? Shouldwe feel sorry for him? Should we grieve the losses of all of theindefinitely many people who might have been, had things turned outdifferently?
The difference between these other cases that I’masking you to imagine and the case that you imagine when youcontemplate your mother getting an abortion is that in the latter caseyou’re imagining a very near miss: all of the events over the eons had managed to lead to the union of that sperm and thategg, and had that abortion not taken place, then chances are, you wouldhave existed and lived your wonderful life. Near misses are morepsychologically painful than events that seem never to have been in thecards. If you almost landed that perfect job– in fact, you learn later,that as far as the search committee was concerned, you and thesuccessful candidate were both equally qualified and, in the end, theyhad to flip a coin in order to make a decision–, then your apparentloss is much more painful than if you had never even received aninterview. The job was practically yours, but then stupid fate snatchedit from you. Similarly, when you imagine the near miss of your motherhaving an abortion, you are imagining her taking away from you a lifewhich, it can seem, was already and rightfully yours. But was itreally? The job wasn’t really yours, even though it nearlywas. Was the life that you ended up living really the rightfulpossession of that fertilized ovum, which as things actually did turnout, developed into you?
In order for a wrong to have been done,I think (though many will disagree), there has to be some identifiableindividual who was harmed. (I have a much broader notion of harm, Ithink, than most people, and so, I will baldly assert that many of thecounter-examples that you’re now imagining don’t apply to my position.)If life (under most circumstances) is a good, as I think that it is,then to take away a life from an individual is to harm that individual.Of course, there are many significant harms to many individuals (e.g.,the ants that keep attempting to invade my kitchen this spring) thatmost of us don’t worry about very much: I set out ant-traps without amoment’s moral hesitation. Humans are different, most of us think. Ifsomeone had cut short my life, a significant moral wrongwould have been done to me. But I have to have existed in order for alife to have been taken away from me. Those merely possible people Iasked you to imagine never really had a life, and so, there was noidentifiable individual who was harmed when circumstances didn’tconspire to bring them into existence. The question you are raising,then, is: when I am imagining my mother having had an abortion, am Iimagining me and a life being taken away from me, or, am I imagining asituation in which I do not yet exist, but would soon exist if eventstake their normal course. Am I imagining my life being taken away fromme, or am I imagining the possibility of my never having existed at alland so never having been a candidate for harm?
The answer to this question depends, of course, on when Icame into existence, and at what stage we are imagining my motherhaving an abortion. And the answer to this question depends on whatfeatures make me me. Did I exist once that particular egg andthat particular sperm got together? Did I come into existence when thatfertilized ovum developed into a fetus with some mental properties? DidI come into existence only when that fetus developed into a being withhigher mental functioning?
These are very difficult and complex philosophical questions which I can’t explore here. But I willassert, again very baldly, that this third suggestion strikes me ascompletely implausible. Before there was a creature with higher mentalfunctioning, there was a me, and had my life been ended at that point, a significant harm would have been done to me, a harm that would have been equal if not greater than the harm that would be done to me now if my life were now ended.