"I wish my mother had aborted me"

"Aeolus" sent me an article from the Guardian with that very puzzling title. The author, Lynn Beisner, says she's tired of all the abortion deliverance stories that pro-lifers like to tell.  They seize upon accounts of people who were nearly aborted, but whose mothers changed their minds.  She writes--
What makes these stories so infuriating to me is that they are emotional blackmail. As readers or listeners, we are almost forced by these anti-choice versions of A Wonderful Life to say, "Oh, I am so glad you were born." And then by extension, we are soon forced into saying, "Yes, of course, every blastula of cells should be allowed to develop into a human being."
Beisner tries to counter abortion deliverance stories, and the argument based on them, by saying her case is just the opposite -- she thinks her mother should have aborted her.  Her mother had a terrible life and gave her a child a terrible life as well, though she says she's come to be happy in the last 12 years. You have to read the article to see how moving this is--I won't try to summarize.

I like the anti-pollyanna tone of this article, and it's worth knowing that not every mother heroically overcomes adversity.  But truth be told, giving examples of lives that shouldn't have started isn't the best way to counter the "argument from gladness": the argument that moves from "I'm so glad you were born" or "I'm so glad I was born" to "aborting this pregnancy would be wrong." That gladness is a very hice thing, but nothing really follows from it about abortion.

Think about it.  I'm glad I was born.  Had my mother had an abortion, I wouldn't have been born.  But there are lots and lots of other precursors of my birth besides her not having an abortion--things that had to be that way, or I wouldn't have been born. Another precursor is that my parents didn't go to a movie on that fateful night. And they didn't use contraception.  And they spent 15 minutes washing the dishes. Because the exact timing of conception alters which sperm meets the mother's egg, there are actually zillions of precursors to any particular person existing.  Lots of things had to be that way for me to wind up existing and being glad I exist.

If I say my gladness means my mother would have been wrong to have an abortion, I'll also have to say she would have been wrong to eliminate any of the other precursors. The fact that I'm glad I exist will mean she had to skip the movie, and had to skip contraception, and had to wash the dishes for just 15 minutes. But all that's absurd.  Surely nobody's obligated to do the vast number of things that imperceptibly make it so that one eventually-ever-so-glad person comes into the world, rather than another person or no one at all.

It's certainly more dramatic and compelling to counter deliverance stories with tragic stories like Beisner's.  But here's the thing. Very, very few people are not glad that they exist.  If the gladness argument made any sense, someone contemplating an abortion would at least be able to reason: my eventual child will almost certainly be glad she was born, so I shouldn't have an abortion.  It's crucial, then, to see that it doesn't make sense ... ever, at all.

The fact that I'm glad I exist tells us literally nothing about what my parents should and shouldn't have done many moons ago, when all the events were transpiring that eventually brought me into existence.  I suppose that's sort of surprising. The gladness argument seems rather appealing at first. That's why the deliverance stories are a good marketing device for pro-lifers. But scratch the surface and you actually find something barking mad. There's no way we're all obligated to do whatever it takes to create exactly those people who will eventually exist, just because they'll be glad they exist. 


Wayne said...

I'm glad that my parents went away for the weekend.... Because if they hadn't I wouldn't have been able to have the raging party that I had. So it must be a good thing for them to have gone away.

The Gladness argument seems to ignore the parent's happiness usually.

BTW this is off topic, but I've discovered the convenience of reading blogs on my ipod touch, but I can't comment if there is captcha security... So I've been reading, just not commenting.

Jean Kazez said...

I was actually wondering where you'd been the other day...

OK, OK, I'll get rid of captcha.

Gladness may have moral weight in some contexts--I think the problem here is peculiar to the issue of our existence, and what people did/didn't do to cause us to exist.

Wayne said...

Well in my example the goodness is the gladness or happiness from the party. But I don't think the goodness extends to the cause of the event necessarily. We can be good utilitarians and say that I'm happy, and that's good. But what caused my happiness could invite different moral evaluations.

I think you're right that there isn't any sense in talking about this person being happy vs the billions of others that could have been happy (or not).

And after thinking about the article some more, I think you're right that her argument isn't the best response... It actually, could return a number of perfectly legitimate conclusions, besides, I wish my mom had an abortion... It could be I wish my mom wasn't abusive. That doesn't alter her conception, but could alter her existence to the point where she wouldn't want her mom to have an abortion.

But is it really rare that people wish that they didn't exist? I mean if we gather all the suicidal people in the world together, wouldn't the majority of them wish that they had never existed, than commit suicide (That would seem to be the preferable choice to me anyways). It's just that suicidal people normally don't use their particular outlook to vocalize against the pro-life movement.

Alan Cooper said...

I'm glad to be alive but if I had been aborted I wouldn't be here to be sad about it (and would never have experienced even the sadness of loss of a future potential happiness - which I probably now *will* have to suffer if I remain conscious at the time of my impending doom).

But then in my case, so far as I know, abortion wasn't being considered at all.

The numbers argument breaks down in many ways - one being that even if the missing gladness of non-existent people were relevant, the only relevant glad people would still be only those for whom abortion was being seriously considered.

Another is that the claim is not that abortion is always the preferred choice but just that the prospective happiness level of the resulting child is a factor worth consideration and that *sometimes* one may reasonably argue that the expectation for a particular potential child is less than sufficient to counter the suffering that its birth might cause (both to itself and others and/or the possibly greater happiness of another child born to the same mother in a better context - whose existence might be precluded by going ahead with this one).

Anonymous said...

Your argument, based on your premise, is irrelevant though.

Every (or at least to my knowledge) pro-life defender will claim that human life starts with the conception. Therefore, every abortion is (by that standard) per definition murder.

Stating you are glad you exist because you have not been aborted is, by such reasoning, not the same as claiming you are glad you exist due to other factors as 'lack of contraception' or 'parents not having gone to the movies' or the like.
The reason being (repeating myself to avoid confusion), that you already existed at the time of the potential abortion.

My own particular opinion drives me to say: who cares whether you or anyone else is unhappy. Nobody said life is a continuous walk in the park. If you're born in terrible circumstances then either make something of your life by yourself, or die trying.

Jean Kazez said...

Anonymous, I think you are mixing up two different arguments.

The people who make the "gladness" argument, and point to abortion deliverance stories, are trying to make an argument that's an alternative to the standard argument that human life starts from conception and every abortion is a murder. If they weren't giving an alternative argument, they wouldn't need to speak of gladness and deliverance at all.

So my objection is not the least bit irrelevant. It's an objection to the gladness argument taken just as it's meant--as an independent argument. It doesn't work, because it has absurd implications--that prospective or possible parents have obligations to do vast numbers of things to secure all the precursors to people existing and being glad they exist.

Faust said...

Jean, I’m afraid you may be giving short shrift to Anon here.

You want to suggest that the statement

“Had my mother had an abortion, I wouldn’t have been born.”

Is equivalent to statements like:

“Had my mother not gone to the movies that night, I wouldn’t have been born.”


“Had my father been kicked just a little to the left, I wouldn’t have been born.”

But here “wouldn’t have been born” is being made to do double duty. It means both:

1. Wouldn't have come into existence


2. Wouldn't have come out of my mother’s womb.

I find it implausible that when pro-lifers speak about these things that they are talking about anything other than the second meaning of being born. They already assume that at the time of abortion, that “you” are in a morally meaningful sense extant.

Thus the statement: “I’m glad I was born, had my mother had an abortion I wouldn’t have been born” just means: “I’m glad that my mother didn’t choose to remove me from existence” and NOT “I’m glad my mother chose to bring me into existence.

It’s clear from your own writing that you are making this leap when you write:

“The fact that I'm glad I exist tells us literally nothing about what my parents should and shouldn't have done many moons ago, when all the events were transpiring that eventually brought me into existence.”

Again, at the time of abortion “you” are already assumed to have been in existence on the pro-life view. I do not believe the arguments can be separated in the manner you seem to suggest in your response to anon.

Jean Kazez said...


How's this supposed to work? It occurs to me that I'm glad that I exist. That is supposed to lead me to the conclusion that my mother would have been wrong to terminate me once I was already conceived.

But, you say, it doesn't lead me to the conclusion that she would have been wrong to do things different, so I was never conceived in the first place. Why not?

If the gladness itself (not the rights of the unborn--that's a different argument) creates duties on the part of my mother, why only this one duty--not to abort?

Torquil Macneil said...

I think Faust is on to something here too. I am 'glad my mother didn't abort me' is, with the conditions he mentions, similar to 'I am glad my mother didn't kill me in my infancy'. That does not imply that the mother had any moral obligations to you before you existed or was obliged to bring you into existence, but once you do exist your entitlement to pleasure in your own life or to eventual autonomy can have moral significance and impose duties on those around you including the mother. It is only if we consider the foetus not to be 'you' in any meaningful sense that this changes, but that is the crux.

Torquil Macneil said...

I think that making too sharp a distinction between the 'gladness' and the 'rights;'' might be causing problems, by the way. Surely rights are bound up with 'gladness' in some important sense?

Jean Kazez said...

I agree that he might be onto something, but I'm not really seeing it yet. I think the people making the gladness argument are putting all their stress on the gladness itself. The gladness of the later child or adult creates the mother's duty not to abort. If you thought gladness could create that duty, I really don't see why it couldn't create a vast array of other duties. Like the duty not to use contraception.

In the case where an infant already exists, we certainly don't think it's wrong to commit infanticide because later on the adult the infant becomes will be glad he exists. So I don't think it makes sense to think there's a gladness argument against abortion that works in the same way as the case against infanticide.

In short--if my gladness that I exist gives (retroactively?) my mother duties, I don't see why preserving me is included but not creating me. At least, I don't see it yet ....

Faust said...

But, you say, it doesn't lead me to the conclusion that she would have been wrong to do things different, so I was never conceived in the first place. Why not?

I assume the answer would be something like “because we are not obligated to bring specific people into existence. We are only obligated not to take existence away from them once they already have it.” I’m not (necessarily) obligated to buy you a car just because it would make you happy. I am not entitled to take a car away from you once you have it—whether it makes you glad or not.

I am open to the idea that “gladness” is a superfluous rhetorical flourish that functions as an (illegitimate) intuition pump strapped to a core rights argument, but I’m not convinced that the gladness argument is supposed to stand alone.

On the other hand…

If the gladness itself (not the rights of the unborn--that's a different argument) creates duties on the part of my mother, why only this one duty--not to abort?

It’s not clear to me that it only creates that one duty, or that anyone is making such a claim.

Indeed, it seems that we do in fact think parents have obligations to ensure their children have happy lives. Do parents not agonize over the “potential” of their children? How aggressive should we be about their education? How many instruments should they learn if any? Can we afford private school? Will they be unhappy if we force them to practice sports every day, or will they someday appreciate being excellent athletes? And so on.

An adult looking back over their lives can surely say “I think my parents had a duty to support my ambitions as that would have made me happy, instead they didn’t support my ambitions at all. They really should have.”

Now how all that hooks up to existence qua existence….that I’m not sure about at all.

For the record here is the argument that I think “gladness” advocates would like to make:

1. I exist
2. My existence affords me the opportunity to find gladness.
3. Abortion takes existence away from people.
4. Therefore abortion takes the opportunity to find gladness away from people.
5. We have a duty not to take away people’s opportunities to find gladness.

Now is this argument sound? That is (obviously) debatable.

Jean Kazez said...

Putting it as charitably as I possibly can, I think the steps are more like this--

1. I'm glad that I exist
2. My existence started to be something people could choose or veto back when I was a fetus*. (Before that, they couldn't really choose or veto *me*, since we don't control who is conceived.)
3. Since I'm glad I exist, Mom was obligated to choose that I go on existing, not veto it.

* Note that the argument presupposes that the fetus was me--that's controversial, but I'm prepared to accept it.

So that limits the argument to abortion and doesn't make contraception wrong. Suppose that's the argument. I find all that appeal to gladness very questionable. It will lead us to contradictory conclusions about what we're obligated to do.

Take circumcision for example. I think whether you circ. or don't, very likely the kid will later be glad for his condition. So your parents were obligated to circ you? Can't be, because had they not, you would have been glad too, and then they would have had an obligation not to do it.

Lots and lots of parenting decisions are like that--whichever way you go, you wind up with a kid who is glad that you did as you did.

In the case at hand, you either keep the kid and wind up with someone later on who's glad he/she exists. Or you abort, and you wind up with nobody at all. It is not clear that with that alternative, this is the sort of case where gladness has any moral weight. It clearly does not always have moral weight.

It seems to go too far to say gladness doesn't count ever, at all, but I'm really not sure how it counts. I distrust it.

Wayne said...

Hats off! That circumcision insight is very keen!

Jean Kazez said...

Thank you, Wayne, but I'm prepared to have Faust (or someone else) come back and tell me why gladness about existing does have some moral weight, and why. I'm just thinking aloud here, not 100% committed (yet).

Aeolus said...

The question the piece raises for me is not about the morality of abortion, but about an apparently paradoxical statement by the author: "I love my life but I wish my mother had aborted me" -- not just for her mother's sake, but for her sake as well.

If I am now glad that I exist and look forward to having a positive future from now on, how can it make sense for me to wish (N.B. present tense) that I had never existed (that my mother had aborted me) -- even granting that much of my past life was miserable?