If the Supreme Court overrules Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, states will have to consider whether and how to restrict abortion. Most Americans suppose the answer depends on when life begins. But that’s wrong. States should ban abortion even if we are unsure when life begins because banning abortion is the only reasonable moral choice.
Human life begins at conception, yes. But the question of abortion does not depend on that. It does not depend on knowing both what, exactly, a person is and when, exactly, a fertilized egg becomes one—because reasonable people do not need to know everything to know what is right. Most of our decisions are based on uncertain suppositions. Many are based on what we expect about the future.
No one decides to buy a stock for $10, for example, because he wants a $10 stock. People buy stocks for their future appreciation. Stocks and unborn children are different, of course. But the main difference is that the appreciation of a fetus or an embryo is more certain. We buy stocks hoping that they will go up in value. But, we abort unborn children knowing that they would almost certainly have grown up into something indisputably—even infinitely—valuable.
A man may know little about what an embryo or a fetus is. He may be ignorant of its nature. He may be clueless as to many things about it. Is it conscious? Does it have a soul? Yet one of the first things he can come to understand about it is that everyone should leave it alone.
The solution to most moral quandaries is to disentangle what is true about the unknowable universe from what is true about our own choices. The 17th-century mathematician Blaise Pascal demonstrated such meta-moral reasoning in his famous “wager.” That was his argument for why you should worship God. There is a strong argument that God exists, but Pascal supposed that the argument for why you should worship Him is even stronger. If you worship God when there is none, Pascal reasoned, nothing all that bad happens. But, Pascal claimed, if you refuse to worship God when it turns out that He actually exists, you may go to hell—and that’s infinitely bad. For Pascal, the risk of being wrong goes in only one direction.
A sort of Pascal’s Wager exists for abortion. If we permit abortion thinking that an unborn child is not a person and we’re wrong, we’ve allowed the slaughter of innocent and defenseless babies. That’s an atrocity. But if we ban abortion, the worst we do is cause mothers to give up their unwanted children for adoption. That’s anything but an atrocity. It’s actually a blessing—for the would-be parents seeking to adopt. With abortion, the moral risk of being wrong goes in only one direction.
But Pascal’s Wager over abortion is far more compelling. Even if a fetus or an embryo is not a person, everyone knows quite well that neither is it a mere clump of cells. Random clumps of cells do not grow up into potential mothers and fathers, writers and filmmakers, teachers and poets. Embryos and fetuses do. Even supposing that an unborn child is not a person right now, it almost certainly will be one soon. That future must weigh in the moral balance.
The future weighs in the balance when we buy stocks. It weighs in the balance when a jury awards future earnings on a wrongful-death claim. It weighs in the balance when a probate judge protects an unborn child’s unvested interest in an estate. So, too, must it weigh in the balance for abortion.
The future matters, and moral reasoning upon the pretension that it does not is as bizarre and unreasonable as selling Apple stock for its 1982 share price of four cents. If that kind of reasoning is too shoddy for a stock portfolio, it’s too shoddy for an abortion law. States should ban abortion because, no matter the philosophic controversies over life’s beginnings, banning abortion yet remains the only reasonable moral choice.