…the argument from potential is significant because it is the only thing that explains the stewardship that adult human beings have in regard to human neonates. Newborn infants lack the psychological maturity to possess goals, aims, beliefs, or purposes. This does not, however, exclude them from the moral community. The reason why it does not is because we realize that infants have the potential to develop these conscious goods, and it is this potential that, as Jim Stone argues, grounds the infant’s interest in growing up and realizing that potential . Every single semester that I teach the issue of abortion in class, I put up a picture of two cells that look striking similar, almost identical. I then reveal to my students that one is a skin cell, and the other is a fertilized egg at the zygotic stage of development. “Do they have the same moral status”?, I ask them. When I scratch my arm and kill skin cells, is my action as morally problematic as abortion? My students always answer that the two cell types are morally different; that the zygote is of a different status than my skin cells. In defense of this distinction, they always give the same reason: the zygote, if implanted into a uterus, has the potential to become a baby who will then become a person, whereas my skin cells do not. Since the vast majority of my students, in my seven years of teaching, share this intuition, I think that it is an intuition that is worthy of being explored rather than cavalierly dismissed.
One of the most famous, and most derided, arguments against the morality of abortion is the argument from potential, which maintains that the fetus’ potential to become a person and enjoy the valuable life common to persons, entails that its destruction is prima facie morally impermissible. In this paper, I will revisit and offer a defense of the argument from potential. First, I will criticize the classical arguments proffered against the importance of fetal potential, specifically the arguments put forth by philosophers Peter Singer and David Boonin, by carefully unpacking the claims made in these arguments and illustrating why they are flawed. Secondly, I will maintain that fetal potential is morally relevant when it comes to the morality of abortion, but that it must be accorded a proper place in the argument. This proper place, however, cannot be found until we first answer a very important and complex question: we must first address the issue of personal identity, and when the fetus becomes the type of being who is relevantly identical to a future person. I will illustrate why the question of fetal potential can only be meaningfully addressed after we have first answered the question of personal identity and how it relates to the human fetus.
© Manninen; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2007