The Contraception Objection to Marquis’ Future-Like-Ours Argument

In “Why Abortion is Immoral,” Don Marquis offers what is considered to be the strongest argument for the wrongness of abortion.[1]  He contends that abortion is seriously wrong for the same reason killing a human adult is seriously wrong: it deprives the victim of a valuable future like ours (FLO).[2] In other words, the victim is deprived of all the valuable things that constitute a typical human future (e.g. accomplishment of goals, future projects, pleasurable experiences, personal growth, autonomy, knowledge, etc.).  In fact, Marquis writes that abortion is “in the same moral category” as killing a human adult.  Herein, I will argue that this account of the wrongness of killing implies that certain forms of contraception are tantamount to killing a human adult.

If killing is primarily wrong because it deprives an entity of an FLO, then wouldn’t spermicidal contraception also be wrong as it deprives a lucky sperm cell of an FLO?  Call this the “contraception objection,” which can be formulated as follows:

  1. If an act of killing deprives an innocent entity of a future like ours, then that act of killing is seriously morally wrong and in the same moral category as killing a human adult.[3]
  2. Spermicidal contraception, when it works, is an act of killing that deprives an innocent entity (a sperm cell) of a future like ours.
  3. Therefore, spermicidal contraception, when it works, is seriously morally wrong and in the same moral category as killing a human adult.

Yet, few people think that the use of such contraception is seriously wrong and even fewer think it is in the same moral category as killing an innocent human adult.  Marquis himself admits that the contraception objection is perhaps the most powerful objection to his FLO argument.[4]  However, he believes that this objection can be defeated.

Marquis asserts that his FLO does not imply that contraception is seriously wrong.  Contraception would be seriously wrong, according to the FLO account, only if “something were denied a human future of value by contraception.  Nothing at all is denied such a future by contraception, however.”[5]  To support this latter claim, Marquis asks us to consider the possible candidates whom might be deprived of an FLO by contraception.  He offers the following four as options: (1) some sperm or other, (2) some ovum or other, (3) a sperm and an ovum separately, or (4) a sperm and an ovum together.[6]

Regarding options (1) and (2), he claims that there is no reason to think that some sperm would be the subject of harm instead of some ovum and vice versa.  But this suggestion is questionable.  In the case of spermicide, only sperms are deprived of an FLO by being killed.  On the other hand, the ovum, which remained unfertilized, was merely prevented from having an FLO.  If passively preventing an ovum from having an FLO is seriously wrong, then so is abstinence.  But few people—including Marquis, I think—would endorse such a claim.

Option (3) is problematic, according to Marquis, because if contraception deprives a sperm and an ovum separately of an FLO, then “too many futures are lost.”[7]  That is, if (3) were true, it would result in the loss of two FLOs, instead of one as in abortion and murder.  This reply is also questionable, because the sperm and ovum that join have the same future.  A better objection to this candidate is that neither individual sperms nor individual ova develop into entities with an FLO.  The two must first combine into a conceptus and it is that entity that develops into a zygote, embryo, fetus, and eventually a full-grown human.

Perhaps the best candidate for being deprived of a FLO is the combination of a sperm and an ovum.  However, Marquis objects to this option.  He writes:

At the time of contraception, there are hundreds of millions of sperms, one (released) ovum and millions of possible combinations of all of these.  There is no actual combination at all.  Is the subject of the loss to be a merely possible combination?  Which one?  This alternative does not yield an actual subject of harm either.  Accordingly, the immorality of contraception is not entailed by the loss of a future-like-ours argument simply because there is no nonarbitrary identifiable subject of the loss in the case of contraception.[8]

Marquis seems to assume that in order for something to be deprived of an FLO we must be able to directly identify it.  However, when it comes to contraception, we cannot identify precisely which sperm would have combined with the ovum and thus we cannot identify the combination of the two that was deprived of an FLO.  Yet, it does not follow from this that contraception does not deprive something of a future of value.  Contraception—when it works—prevents all sperms from fertilizing the ovum and if one of them would have fertilized the ovum had it not been for the contraception, then contraception deprives the combination of that sperm and the ovum of an FLO.  To see the problem with this reasoning, consider the following case.  A lunatic who works at a soda-bottling factory injects poison into a single bottle of soda.  The poison will cause the victim to have a heart attack and then it will disappear from the victim’s system—removing any suspicion of foul play.  Assume that it is a fact that someone will drink this bottle of soda and suffer a heart attack.  Has the lunatic deprived anyone of a FLO?  Of course he has.  It doesn’t matter that we will never be able to find out who it was.

Perhaps Marquis will object that what he meant was not that there is no identifiable subject of harm, but rather that there is no fact of the matter as to which combination of sperm and ovum would have been deprived of a FLO.  In a more recent revision of his essay, Marquis seems to clarify his point by writing that “there seems to be no non-arbitrarily determinant subject of harm in the case of successful contraception.”[9]  However, this clarification is also problematic.  If the laws of nature are deterministic and they govern the movement of sperms, then, given the proper technology, we should be able to determine exactly which sperm would have combined with the ovum.  Just because we do not have technology to track the deterministic movement of sperms, it does not follow that in principle there is no way of doing this.[10]  Thus, neither the identifiability nor the determinacy replies that Marquis offers are successful.

However, Marquis has also offered a different response to the contraception objection.  He claims that the sperm, ovum, or their possible combination is not identical to the later human person who would have had a FLO.  He writes:

Prior to conception there is no individual that is the same individual as the later human being that has, or would have had, the valuable life.  Individual identity does not survive fusion or fission, whether contraception, amoeba reproduction, or brain bisection are the examples.[11]

This appears to be a rather convincing reply to the contraception objection, however, there is reason to doubt its effectiveness in all possible cases of contraception.  For example, imagine that in the future (or in an alternate universe) zygotes are solely created by the male sperm cell.  The sperm cell enters the woman’s uterus, which houses it will it develops into a zygote, embryo, fetus, etc.  If this were the case, then according to Marquis’ view has a rather counterintuitive implication: the act of using spermicide to kill the sperm that would have fertilized the ovum—had it not been killed— would be tantamount to killing an innocent human adult.  Yet, even in this fantastical scenario, it strains credulity to think that using contraception is seriously wrong.

Perhaps Marquis would objection that one’s moral intuition regarding the previous case cannot be reliable given its fantastical nature.  If this true, then one need only consider a similar case in which a cloning technology is more advanced than it is today such that a human being can develop from a single human cell (e.g. a skin cell).  Imagine that during the first few months of this procedure, the developing cell is kept in a glass container filled with special fluids providing the necessary hormones and nutrition for the cell to develop.  Now imagine that I intentionally knock the container onto the fall resulting in the death the developing cell.  Have I done anything seriously wrong?  I think not.[12]  How about if a do something to prevent the skin cell from entering the glass container necessary for it to develop into a human being?  For instance, imagine that after a skin cell has been inject with some special person-making chemical and before it is placed in the glass container, I intentionally scratch my arm and thus destroy the skin cell’s ability to grow into a human.  Again, have I done something serious wrong—something as wrong as murder?  I think not.  Thus, Marquis’ second response to the contraception objection is unsuccessful.

[1] Don Marquis, “Why Abortion Is Immoral,” The Journal of Philosophy 86, no. 4 (April, 1989): 183-202.

[2] Strictly speaking, Marquis’ account only entails that abortion is seriously wrong most of the time, i.e. abortion may be permissible under certain circumstances.

[3] Throughout this essay, I will be assuming that if an action is “seriously wrong,” then it is in the moral category as murder.  Thus, if certain kinds of contraception are seriously wrong—like abortion is—then is also in the same moral category as killing a human adult.

[4] Don Marquis, “An Argument that Abortion is Wrong,” in Ethics in Practice: An Anthology, 2nd edition, ed. Hugh LaFollette (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2002), 91.

[5] Marquis 1989, 201.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 201-202.

[9] Marquis 2002, 92.

[10] This objection is also raised by Keith Allen Korcz in “Two Moral Strategies Regarding Abortion,” Journal of Social Philosophy 33, no. 4 (Winter, 2002): 584.

[11] Don Marquis, “Korcz’s Objections to the Future-of-Value Argument,” Journal of Social Philosophy 35, no. 1 (Spring, 2004):57.

[12] Korcz raises a similar objection (582-583).

4 thoughts on “The Contraception Objection to Marquis’ Future-Like-Ours Argument

  1. I like your exploration of the contraceptive ‘weak link’ in Marquis’ argument. Here’s another thought:

    Does Marquis ever define what a “future like ours” entails? Certainly it’s not wrong to kill livestock for meat even though we deprive them of a future, because their future is not “like ours”. However, no two human beings have the same future. There is no guarantee that a fetus will have a future even remotely similar to “ours”. Intellectual disabilities, economic inequalities, unequal playing field, etc are all possible barriers preventing a fetus from potentially attaining a standard future “like ours”.

    Marquis’ definition of a “future like ours” is unsatisfying and ambiguous. This is the fundamental issue I have with his entire argument. Initially, he makes the claim that “Killing is wrong because it deprives the victim of a future”. Later in his essay, however, he expands it to become “Killing is wrong because it deprives the victim of a future “like ours”” — an entirely different claim, even though he uses the two interchangeably in his essay.

    • Thank you so much for you comment. I’ll have to check to see if Marquis expands on his notion of a future “like ours.” I know he has also referred to it as a “valuable” future like ours. But I take it that he’s referring to all the meaning life projects, accomplishments, relationships, pleasurable experiences, exercise of autonomy, and other aspects of many people’s lives that make them very valuable. While somewhat vague, it seems to me that many humans have very valuable lives—often for different reasons. Marquis need not commit himself to a single conception of a valuable future, I think he could accept any number of conceptions and hold that if a being is deprived of any of these kinds of valuable futures, then that being has been wronged.

      As far as your concern about some people not being able to have valuable or very valuable futures, Marquis has a good response. He explicitly notes that he’s only arguing for a sufficient condition for the wrongness of killing, so if an act of killing does not deprive someone of such a valuable future, then that act is not wrong for that reason. It may be wrong for other reasons though. Here, by “sufficient condition,” I mean the following: feature X is a sufficient condition for feature Y if and only if anything that has feature X also has feature Y. For example, anything that has the feature of having the molecular structure H2O and being liquid also has the feature of being water. So, any act that has the feature of being an an act of depriving a being of a future like ours also has the feature of being a wrong act.

      I hope this helps.

  2. Pingback: L’âme du fœtus (1re partie) | analyse - synthese

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