Human Rights

School shootings, abortions, and futures snuffed out

Barack ObamaThe majority of those who died today were children – beautiful little kids between the ages of five and ten years old. They had their entire lives ahead of them – birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own.

So said President Barack Obama in his heartfelt reaction to the Connecticut school shooting that rent hearts and churned stomachs on Friday. For all the chattering class’s subsequent arguing about gun control, mental health screening, violent video games, school security, etc., the hard truth is that the crimes of a madman can’t always be predicted or prevented. Hopefully the victims’ families find some comfort in the president’s words, and hopefully the facts that eventually become clear will inform responsible measures to reduce the likelihood of future shootings.

But at the risk of being seen as politicizing the situation further, I can’t help but notice the incongruity of hearing these words from a man for whom killing “beautiful little kids” is a fundamental right and cherished political plank, when those kids happen to be inside a womb (or are just minutes past escaping one against their mothers’ wishes), rationalized away with the most halfhearted of reasoning.

Particularly striking is the way Obama framed the tragedy’s weight around the futures these children were robbed of – dreams that will never be realized, joys that will never be shared, experiences that will never be had, contributions that will never be given. Without realizing it, he was making one of the most underrated cases against the prenatal violence he champions. Abort73 summarizes Prof. Don Marquis’s Future Like Ours argument:

Instead of basing the morality of abortion on either of the above categories, he suggested that we address abortion within the larger discussion of the ethics of killing. That is, before we make any moral decisions about abortion, we should ask: what makes killing wrong in the first place? According to Marquis, killing is not wrong because it shows the killer to be barbaric nor because it leaves friends and relatives left behind saddened. Rather, killing is wrong primarily because of the effect it has on the victim. Killing deprives the victim of life. The loss of one’s life is the greatest possible loss anyone can suffer. It “deprives one of all the experiences, activities, projects, and enjoyments that would otherwise have constituted one’s future.” It is not merely changing the biological state of a victim from alive to dead that it is wrong, but the effect of that change on the victim’s future, which forever is taken away. In Marquis’ own words: “When I am killed, I am deprived both of what I now value which would have been part of my future personal life, but also what I would come to value.” His conclusion: what makes killing any adult human being wrong is “the loss of his or her future.”

Marquis adds that this explanation for the wrongness of killing should be preferred if it fits with our natural intuitions about killing and if there is no other better explanation. In addition, he finds his explanation to be supported by several considerations: (1) it explains why many regard killing as one of the worst crimes (i.e., killing is regarded as so horrible because of the great loss it causes); (2) it is incompatible with the view that it is only wrong to kill beings that are biologically human (i.e., it would be wrong to kill any being with a valuable future, like aliens and some animals); (3) it does not necessarily entail that euthanasia is wrong (since those who face an incurable future of pain would not lose a future of value); and (4) it accounts for the wrongness of killing newborns and infants (since they indeed have futures of value like adults).

Thus, if the primary reason for the wrongness of killing is that it deprives one of his or her future, then this has obvious implications for abortion. Every normal fetus, just like you or me, has “a set of experiences, projects, activities, and such which are identical with the futures of adult human beings and are identical with the futures of young children.” Since fetuses have a “future like ours,” then it follows that abortion is a serious moral wrong. Thus, it is not the category of “being human” or “being a person” that ultimately makes the moral difference in abortion, but the category of having “future like ours.” Just as it would be wrong to arbitrarily kill someone like you or me, since we have valuable futures full of a variety of experiences and enjoyments, it is equally wrong to kill fetuses, because they also have valuable futures. Lastly, under this theory abortion could only be justified if another life (e.g., the life of the mother) was threatened by not aborting.

However unending debate over value questions like ensoulment may be, it’s indisputable that unborn babies have futures every bit as unpredictable and potential-filled as Sandy Hook Elementary’s students, and that abortion takes them away just as surely as a hail of bullets. If the latter’s futures are valuable enough to make their deaths a travesty, then the same holds true for the former.

Yes, a school shooting is more horrific than an abortion because the former involves many tangential horrors the latter doesn’t – the fear and confusion of a victim who knows something is coming, the pain they perceive that many abortion victims don’t, and the emotional torment their loss inflicts upon their loved ones. But the core effect on both victims is the same.

Violence against our young is unthinkable to most of us, and it rightfully incur our deepest hostility…except for the ones we’ve deluded ourselves into thinking don’t count. If only the pain of events like Friday’s spurred us to reflect on all the “birthdays, graduations, weddings, [and] kids” we allow to be extinguished.

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