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Jacquette on Abortion

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In this post, I will summarize and discuss Dale Jacquette’s paper “Two Kinds of Potentiality: A Critique of McGinn on the Ethics of Abortion.”


Jacquette begins by introducing Colin McGinn’s argument for the claim that abortion is morally permissible:

  1. A being has rights if and only if it is sentient, i.e., it can feel pleasure and pain.
  2. Up to a certain point in its development, a fetus lacks the neurophysiological development to feel pleasure or pain.
  3. Therefore, a fetus does not have rights up to that point in its development.

Jacquette notes that this account has certain advantages. For example, it explains why it becomes more wrong to abort a fetus the longer you wait. The longer you wait, the more developed the fetus is, and the more moral consideration it deserves. The argument also explains why mothers have an obligation to find out whether they are pregnant and make a decision about whether to abort as soon as possible. The longer they wait, the more wrong the abortion becomes.

Of course, a pro-lifer would probably not be satisfied with this argument, because they think that the fetus has rights due to the fact that it is potentially sentient. McGinn’s response to this is that a sperm and unfertilized egg are also potentially sentient, but no one thinks that they have rights.

Jacquette thinks that the pro-lifer could respond to McGinn by saying that some potentialities are merely logically possible potentialities, and some potentialities are naturally probable potentialities. A fetus, if it is left alone, will develop into a sentient being (naturally probable potentiality), whereas a sperm in Brazil and an egg in the Austrian Alps are not going to develop into a sentient being unless a series of serious obstacles are overcome (merely logically possible potentiality). So, a pro-lifer could maintain that beings with a naturally probable potentiality to become sentient have rights, whereas beings with a merely logically possible potentiality to become sentient do not.

As far as I can tell, Jacquette is not a pro-lifer, and Jacquette does not conclude that the pro-life position is true, merely that his argument is available to the pro-lifer as a response to McGinn. His conclusion is that it is¬†“likely that the abortion controversy will continue¬†indefinitely as a moral dilemma, regardless of the practical political accommodations¬†eventually accepted by society for the termination of unwanted pregnancies.”


To understand the importance of this paper, it is important to understand the background to the abortion debate. Most pro-lifers are actually pro-life because they think that the fetus acquires a soul at conception. However, in a public discussion about whether abortion should be legal, they can’t say that their position depends on the existence of souls, since that is merely a religious conviction of theirs that other people might not share. Therefore, they have to come up with secular arguments against abortion.

In my view, Jacquette is probably right that distinguishing between naturally probable and merely logically possible potentialities is the “best candidate” for a secular response to arguments for abortion’s permissibility like McGinn’s. The implausibility of the argument, with its appeal to bizarre examples like an egg in the Austrian Alps and a sperm in Brazil, attests to the fact that the pro-choice position is much easier to defend rationally than the pro-life position.


Written by William

October 16, 2015 at 9:07 am

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