Quantifying the Unquantifiable
What if we could know—perhaps through a prophetic vision or an exquisitely refined predictive algorithm—that a particular human fetus developing in the womb of a particular abortion-seeking woman would, if rescued from prenatal death, grow up to be a source of human misery on a colossal, Hitlerian scale? Would we then have the right—perhaps even the duty—to abort the child?
Sometimes, to illustrate the ever-widening ripples of destructiveness set in motion by abortion, prolifers emphasize how greatly the human race has been impoverished by the millions upon millions of preborn deaths since the onset of legalized abortion. What scientific discoveries, technological inventions, and medical breakthroughs have we lost? What powerful artistic works have been left uncreated?
It is simple truth that, among the massive body count, many likely would have made positive and even planet-enriching contributions. But of course, two can play at that game, and the ancestors of our opponents began fashioning less rosy “what ifs?” decades before Roe v. Wade. For example, in the heyday of the pre-World War II eugenics movement, those peddling contraception and sterilization did not merely or even largely base their arguments on Malthusian concerns about over-population. They focused more on the harm caused by certain kinds of people propagating—the “unfit,” the “criminal elements,” the carriers of diseased genes (as in Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s Supreme Court declaration that “three generations of imbeciles are enough”). In the eugenicists’ view, limiting the reproduction of the right population groups (meaning the wrong population groups) would decrease crime, reduce poverty, and lessen the drag on the progress of the human race.
In our own time, this kind of general eugenics argument is out of favor, but more individualized and sociologized aspects of it appear as defenses of abortion and lower fertility rates. For example, in the guise of aid to developing nations, philanthropic efforts to reduce the reproductive rates of poorer nations are justified in terms reminiscent of livestock management or agriculture—you thin the herd (or weed out excessive vegetation) to increase the health and value of what remains. Analogously, in the opinion of folks like Bill and Melinda Gates, large families in, say, Africa or South Africa are obstacles to both individual and national thriving.
In countries like our own, prenatal testing has long played a role in planning for a well-functioning family. When the results suggest a genetic disability, something that could impose lifelong struggles for the child and hardships for the parents, it is understandable for parents to feel overwhelmed—even terrified—and tempted by the seemingly more sensible choice. To go forward with the pregnancy rather than playing the odds by seeking a better genetic outcome later on can appear foolish.
Even so, even then, it is wrong to let the terror born of an imperfect glimpse into an imperfect future determine the choice of life and death. It is wrong not because the outcome is likely to be so much better than the myopia of fear allows us to see (though it may) or because the test result may be flawed (though it may), but because the distinctiveness and indivisibility of a human life belongs to a wholly different and higher order than our necessarily partial, abstract, and arbitrary measures of its joys, sorrows, rewards, and difficulties. It is appropriate to base our planning for a garden party, a day at the lake, or a ski weekend on probabilities drawn from weather forecasts, but to base the fate of a child—an unrepeatable human being—on incomplete and often faulty prognostications about the happiness or unhappiness of the child and those around him or her is wrongheaded.
Of course, in similar ways many of us are accustomed to making plans about the timing and size of our families all the time. Particularly if we are prudent people in fortunate circumstances, we hold off on “starting a family” until we’ve finished our education, secured a good job, and met and married someone suitable. Then perhaps we take a look at the state of the economy, job security, odds of war and peace—and these days, the presence or absence of a pandemic.
However, prudence only carries us so far, even when it comes to conceiving a child: As 2019 was drawing to a close, who could have foreseen that 2020 would prove to be such an anxious time for pregnant women to contemplate giving birth in Covid-plagued hospitals? Who knows during “normal” what “non-normal” conditions may lurk on the horizon? (Who knows during “non-normal” what “normal” conditions are about to dawn?)
In short, our common-sense assessment of the best time and place to have a baby relates very imperfectly to our child’s future happiness and well-being—or our own, for that matter. And while juggling possibilities and probabilities—attempting to divine the near or distant future from the entrails of chickens or from our horoscope or from an Excel spreadsheet—may seem sensible before conceiving a child, none of those dodgy divination techniques justifies ending the life of a child already conceived.
In fact, knowing (or thinking we know) that an unborn child would be unhappy if permitted to be born (whether because of disability, poverty, unstable or dysfunctional family, or even political oppression) does not justify second guessing the child’s life after conception. Because human existence—whether long or short, predominantly happy or predominantly miserable—cannot be measured against non-existence. The gradations of positives and negatives on the seemingly scientific slide rule we use to measure our happiness are incapable of helping us accurately weigh the value of the absolute we know as life. (“Call no man happy until his death,” said the Greek sage Solon, acknowledging that you never know what might hit you. We might add, “Call no man unhappy until his death,” given the possibility up until the very end of what Tolkien termed “eucatastrophe”—the unlooked-for happy resolution of a seemingly catastrophic situation.) To attempt such measurement is an exercise in quantifying the unquantifiable.
The question I opened with—whether, if we felt sure that a particular unborn human being would grow up to commit monstrous acts, we would have the right or duty to abort that child—is really a trick question, given the limits of our knowledge. We can know that an act is evil. We can perhaps know whether the doer performed the act knowingly and willingly. But consider other less easily knowable details we might miss. We might (if we had been born early enough) have foreseen the future of a human fetus whose parents would name him Bernard Nathanson, who would then grow up to become a doctor, advocate for legalized abortion, and himself be responsible for thousands of abortions. Judging from those facts, how much better, we might think, if he had never been born, if instead someone had done to him what he otherwise was destined to do to multitudes!
This would be a reasonable conclusion if we were not also granted glimpses of his later years, after his remorseful realization of the unborn’s humanity and right to life, and hence of the evils he had committed as both an abortionist and pro-abortion ac
tivist. Without such glimpses, we would have missed his attempts to make amends through the pro-life activism of his later years—the books, the film The Silent Scream, the interviews and appearances. Did the effects of his later actions outweigh the damage of the former ones? The children he killed did not come to life again in those he later saved. Or is this question perhaps not even something that we can determine?
Did slave-trader-turned-Christian-abolitionist John Newton, author of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” undo by his post-conversion abolitionism all the harm he had done? Again, this too is not likely to be a useful question with a knowable answer. It is an attempt to quantify the unquantifiable; it is an exercise in utilitarian thinking that should itself go far to disprove utilitarianism as a just and workable moral philosophy. How can the suffering and enslavement of this African man or woman be balanced by the restoration to freedom of that one? Only God can ultimately rectify wrongs and achieve both a cosmic and individual balancing of the scales, by some means largely obscure to us during this life. What we are left with—what John Newton was left with—was the limited assurance that “I once was lost, but now am found, /Was blind, but now I see.”
Finally, what if we posit another version of our fortune-telling thought experiment? What if we could foresee that the unborn child would grow up to be the innocent, unintentional cause of great misery and suffering, whether through sheer accident or ignorance, or through inventing a device that could be co-opted for evil purposes, or through a faulty understanding of medicine? If our concern is limited to preventing human suffering—our own, our unborn child’s, or the suffering of multitudes—why would such a human jinx, however innocent of bad intentions, be exempt from termination? Or what level and extent of anticipated suffering should be programmed into the abortion algorithm? Is one accidental death outweighed by two accidental saves later on? Or two intentional saves? The math becomes monstrous as a justification for either sacrificing or saving lives.
No, we cannot kill the child either for suffering we (perhaps accurately, perhaps not) foresee he or she may undergo, or for suffering we (perhaps accurately, perhaps not) foresee he or she may inflict. Despite our primitive attempts to quantify the value of our lives in terms of how much we harm or help ourselves or others, or how much suffering we are innocently likely to bear, the limits of our sight, and the obstinate indivisible value of human life, contradict the wisdom of T. S. Eliot’s narrator J. Alfred Prufrock in measuring out his life with coffee spoons.