A Response to the Contraception Objection

In his essay “Why Abortion is Immoral,” Don Marquis seeks to overcome the impasse between standard anti-abortion and pro-choice arguments by getting to the root issue: what makes killing an adult human being wrong. Marquis establishes the plausibility of his account by showing how it fits with many of our intuitions. He also responds to the objection that his account entails that contraception is immoral. In this paper I will argue that, although Marquis’ response is inadequate, the objection can be refuted on other grounds. It follows that the contraception objection does not invalidate Marquis’ account of the wrongness of killing with its implications for the abortion debate.

Marquis proposes that what primarily makes killing an adult human being wrong is its effect on the victim. Killing deprives the victim of the experiences, activities, projects, and enjoyments which would have constituted his or her future (Marquis 189). Such experiences, activities, projects, and enjoyments are of incalculable worth; they jointly constitute a future of value. It follows that to be deprived of one’s future is to suffer a horrendous loss. Inflicting this loss on an adult human being is what makes killing him or her wrong.

The future of value account fits with a number of judgments so widespread and so devoutly held that a theory of the wrongness of killing must vindicate them to be acceptable. It is consonant with our attitudes regarding the gravity of murder. It avoids unfairly privileging human life merely for being biologically human. It explains why people who are terminally ill and face a future of only suffering and distress may welcome death as a merciful release rather than a catastrophe. It corresponds to our intuitions regarding the wrongfulness of killing children and infants, for they certainly have futures of value. So, the future of value account is plainly in tune with a number of our intuitions (Marquis 190-192).

The future of value account has clear implications for the ethics of abortion. The typical fetus certainly has a future constituted of valuable experiences, activities, projects, and enjoyments. Since the property that makes it wrong to kill a postnatal human being is also possessed by fetuses, it is wrong to kill fetuses. Therefore, abortion is, prima facie, seriously morally wrong (Marquis 192).

However, if the future of value account entails that contraception is immoral, that is a serious problem for the theory. Most people see nothing morally objectionable in the use of contraception. If the contraception objection is sound, it reduces the future of value theory to absurdity. Can the theory escape this unpalatable consequence?

Marquis argues that contraception would be immoral on the future of value account only if it deprives some determinate entity of a valuable future. He enumerates four possible subjects of harm by contraception: (1) some sperm or other, (2) some ovum or other, (3) a sperm and an ovum separately, and (4) a sperm and an ovum together (Marquis 201). Marquis says that no reason can be given for identifying a sperm as the subject of harm rather than an ovum, nor can a reason be given for identifying an ovum as the subject of harm rather than a sperm, so both (1) and (2) are ruled out as the subject of harm. (3) cannot be the subject of harm because contraception is supposed to be wrong for extinguishing one future of value, not two. (4) fails because at the time of contraception there are millions of possible combinations of the ovum and sperm, but no actual combination, and therefore no actual subject of harm. He concludes that since there is no non-arbitrarily identifiable subject of harm, the immorality of contraception is not implicit in the future of value account.

Unfortunately, Marquis’ response is a non sequitur. He assumes that in order for something to be deprived of a future of value it must be identifiable. But this assumption is untenable. Consider the following thought experiment: A mad scientist who works at the BYU Creamery is fired for poor customer service. Upset at his dismissal, he furtively injects a poison he has created in his lab into a banana at the Creamery before leaving. The poison will cause whoever takes a bite of the banana to go into cardiac arrest a year after eating the banana and then will disappear entirely from the person’s body. Everyone will simply assume that the person has died of natural causes and the mad scientist himself will never be able to identify who died as a result of his spiteful act. If someone eats the banana and ends up dying, will the mad scientist have deprived someone of a future of value? Certainly. It doesn’t matter that we will never be able to identify this person. The fact that there is no identifiable subject of harm is not morally relevant. Marquis has argued epistemically when he needs to argue metaphysically.

A better response to the contraception objection is that in order to have a future of value, an entity must be not merely a precursor, but numerically identical to an entity with a future of value. When the sperm and ovum join they cease to be and their genetic material enters into the composition of an entirely new and distinct organism. So, the property of having a valuable future cannot be ascribed to any individual gamete or combination of gametes. The most that can be said with regard to the future of a gamete or combination of gametes is that its demise may contribute to the generation of a numerically distinct entity that is numerically identical to an entity with a valuable future.

Imagine a skin cell is is removed from your arm for cloning. Just as the cell is about to be inserted into an ovum and turned into a zygote, you decide you would prefer not to have a clone of yourself walking around. You turn off the generator just before the electric impulses were to be applied to the cell. Have you deprived something of a future of value? This seems preposterous. There is no continuity of identity between the ordinary cell before its manipulation by the electric impulses and the human zygote that comes into being as a result of the process-the skin cell’s quietus is the zygote’s genesis. But the situation is analogous to sexual intercourse. Just as a human being generated by a process of cloning is distinguishable from a somatic cell, a human being generated as a result of the union of gametes is distinguishable from a sperm or ovum. You were never a gamete, but you were once a zygote.

In conclusion, Marquis deserves acknowledgment for highlighting the importance to the abortion debate of a tenable theory of the wrongness of killing. He is also to be commended for managing to provide one that coheres with so many commonplace moral assessments, including our acceptance of contraception. Those who reject sanctity of human life accounts may nonetheless find in Marquis’ work compelling reasons to oppose abortion.


Works Cited


Marquis, Don. “Why Abortion is Immoral.” The Journal of Philosophy 86.4 (1989): 183-202. Print.



2 thoughts on “A Response to the Contraception Objection”

  1. I agree with you and Norcross (I think?) that it’s not an adequate response to the contraception objection.

    A lot of the reason people don’t find the FLO account persuasive is because, so they say, it relies on controversial metaphysics. Most people are under the impression that you need animalism for it to work.

    There’s a paper about how that might not be the case. Here: http://www.academia.edu/23769001/Metaphysics_and_the_Future-Like-Ours_Argument_against_Abortion

    It does, however, introduce the problem that it may rely on controversial mereological theories.

    My suspicion is that we cannot take a “neutral” ground on the metaphysics. This, I believe, would be the traditional liberal notion of neutrality and I am inclined to think that neutral ground is a pipe dream.

    Let me know what you think if you’re still active. I enjoyed your recent response to the bodily rights argument.


  2. I will check out that article.

    I think you are exactly right that liberal neutrality is ultimately unworkable. Statecraft is soulcraft, whether we like it or not. Our public discourse cannot permanently bracket questions of metaphysics and morality.

    Thanks for commenting and let me know if you have any feedback on my response to the bodily rights argument.


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