Amending the Future-Like-Ours Theory


How the “Future-Like-Ours” Theory of the Immorality of Abortion Marginalizes Women; and How to Improve It

Note before we begin: This post is not supposed to provide the ultimate moral argument for or against abortion rights. This is an examination of one argument that opposes abortion; and how I amend it to expand abortion rights to more people.

Second note: I wrote this as a paper for my Ethics class two years ago. But I thought it was worth revisiting. I don’t pretend that this paper still accurately reflects my views.

But onward with my paper:

Don Marquis, an American philosopher, wrote that abortion was immoral, but not because fetuses were more deserving of life or they had some kind of sanctity only afforded to them. Instead he argued that abortion was immoral for the same reasons any killing of any being would be immoral: it robbed the being of a future of value. As Marquis put it, killing “deprives one of all the experiences, activities, projects, and enjoyments that would otherwise have constituted one’s future”. This Future-Like-Ours theory, as Marquis calls it, is an approach to killing that states that aforementioned idea, and his argument is as follows:

  1. Abortion generally deprives the fetus of a future of value.
  2. If an act deprives someone of a future of value, then it is, except in very extraordinary circumstances, wrong.
  3. Therefore, abortion, except in very extraordinary circumstances, is wrong.

don marquis
Don Marquis, American Philosopher [Image Source]
Don Marquis’ Future-Like-Ours theory was suggested in 1989 as a way to determine the morality of abortion by equalizing the moral statuses of fetuses and human adults. In the argument, however, he includes a small caveat that states that (although most abortions are immoral because they deprive a fetus of a future of value) in some “very extraordinary circumstances” abortions may not be immoral. This caveat is problematic because it does not explain what extraordinary circumstances are. One judges whether a circumstance is extraordinary or not based on the frequency of that circumstance occurring. Judging a circumstance on frequency, however, ultimately marginalizes the suffering and problems of the women seeking abortions whose circumstances are not deemed as “extraordinary” and thus devalues their moral status.

I will argue that Marquis’ theory is not sufficient in explaining the immorality of abortion because it does not give fetuses and adult humans the same moral status as it intended to do, but rather dismisses the futures of value of the adult humans. Below, I will explain Marquis’ Future-Like-Ours theory, the caveat in question, and why it undermines Marquis’ theory. Then I will present my solution to this problem by simplifying the theory into a single Net-Future-of-Value principle, which does not base the morality of abortion on the frequency of the circumstances, thus solving the problem of marginalization and therefore the problem of unequal moral statuses. Finally, I will address a possible objection that society will fix the problem itself in time by noting that although society and its ideas of what constitutes “common” and “extraordinary” change, the two terms will always exist, and will always cause marginalization.


In Marquis’ “Why Abortion is Immoral”, he explained that the act of aborting a fetus is no worse or better than killing an adult human. That is to say, a fetus and human adult have the same moral status. And therefore since killing an adult human is immoral, killing a fetus is immoral. Marquis explained his ideas about the morality of abortion with his Future-Like-Ours theory, which is again paraphrased below:

  • Abortion generally deprives the fetus of a future of value (that is, a future with all the experiences, projects, feelings, activities, etc. which one would typically bear).
  • If an act deprives someone of a future of value, then it is, except in very extraordinary circumstances, wrong.
  • Therefore, abortion, except in very extraordinary circumstances, is wrong.

The point of Marquis’ argument was to go beyond explaining the moral permissibility or impermissibility of abortion by defining what a human being is or is not, on which he believed (rightly so) that the current abortion debate focused too much. His Future-Like-Ours argument provided a reason why any killing, including abortion, was immoral without needing to define what a human being was. All in all, the argument states that if any creature has the potential to live a life similar to human adults, then it is just as immoral to kill them. It is immoral to kill them because their futures are as valuable as the lives of adult humans.

But surely not all abortions are immoral. What if some radical terrorist organization forced a woman to terminate her pregnancy lest they kill two other people? Perhaps then the abortion would be the moral choice, since saving two lives is better than saving just one. Accounting for situations possibly like the one written above, Marquis avoided absolutism in his theory by adding the simple caveat: “except in very extraordinary circumstances”. And certainly a circumstance in which the only choice was the killing of one innocent fetus or the killing of two innocent people is an extraordinary circumstance.

But that stipulation may be problematic, because it allows the frequency of the circumstances to dictate whether it is permissible or impermissible to deprive someone of a future of value. “Extraordinary” refers to something that is “unusual or very different from normal”, and thus something that is uncommon, infrequent, or rare (according to Merriam-Webster). When discussing human life and their potential for a future, however, no case or instance should ever be regulated to be an afterthought because it occurred within a circumstance which is extraordinary. The Future-Like-Ours theory may give us permission to abort the fetus to save two other citizens now, but only because it is not often that someone must make a choice like that.

But what if that circumstance happened frequently? What if overpopulation was becoming an extreme problem for a state and so a radical state legislature passed a law that for every child born, two other people must die? It would eventually bring down the population to a reasonable number. And of course every woman would have to know that if she wanted to have a child, it would be at the cost of two other lives. Suddenly the choice of either having a child or saving two innocent people’s lives is not so extraordinary. In fact it’s pretty common. It becomes just another part of life and society, maybe so much that people do not even question it. So what happens then? Because the circumstances are no longer extraordinary, the caveat in Marquis’ Future-Like-Ours theory does not apply. And so even though it would mean the deaths of many citizens, women were morally obligated to carry their child to term in order to not deprive it of a future of value.

[To complicate matters more, Marquis’ theory also says the killing of those two other people would be morally impermissible as well, putting the mother between a rock and a hard place, so to speak.]

These women’s struggles, desires, dreams, feelings, and obligations are being ignored simply because they are pregnant, and the circumstance of the pregnancy is not very rare. But does the frequency of their situation invalidate their feelings, dreams, desires, etc.? It absolutely does not. The women are being marginalized because of the circumstances in which they are pregnant, and Marquis’ Future-Like-Ours theory is only perpetuating that. And it is certainly immoral to marginalize a human being. Ultimately what this means is that Marquis’ theorized potential future of value for the child is worth more than the actual future of value for the mother. And thus potential humans have some higher moral status simply because they have not yet left the womb of their mother. But this directly contradicts Marquis’ intentions of giving fetuses and adult humans the same moral status. If Marquis does want their moral status to be the same, both the mother and child’s futures of value must be considered. That is to say, one of them cannot be marginalized.

Can the Future-Like-Ours theory fix its error of wrongly marginalizing women? At this point, one might consider an abortion case where the mother’s life is threatened to be an extraordinary circumstance. But what if that was not the case? What if mothers’ lives were commonly threatened by pregnancies? The Future-Like-Ours theory, as written above, would then always consider abortions wrong, even if the mother’s life is in danger. This marginalizes the suffering of the woman carrying the child and wrongly dismisses her right to a future of value just because she is human and human lives are commonly threatened by their pregnancies. This is the same kind of problem as described previously.

In order to address this problem, I propose the following, which will amend the theory into a single principle:

  • An act which deprives someone of a future of value is only morally permissible if the projected net value of the futures affected by the deprivation increases by more than the value of future deprived.

This principle still does not take the side that all abortions are morally permissible. It does, however, weaken the impermissibility of abortions, even more than Marquis’ original “very extraordinary circumstances” caveat. The point of the principle is to not just look at the future of value of the child who might be aborted, but consider the futures of value for all people who would be affected by the abortion (including any possible future children). This reinforces the idea that the fetus and all other adult humans have the same moral status. Thus, if the collective futures of value of all the people affected by the abortion is increased because of the abortion, and increased by more than the value of the future of the aborted child, then that abortion is morally permissible. This principle still does not allow frivolous or unnecessary abortions. And although a woman might not want the child in some cases, if the net collective of futures of values are not increased by more than the value of the future of the aborted child, then that woman is still morally obligated to carry the child to term.

Let me explain the principle with an example. Chelsea is a junior at a public university. She is a member of a small sorority (since she cannot afford the dues of a bigger sorority), and is invited to a big party at a fraternity house. She goes to the party with the intention of drinking alcohol, dancing to music, flirting with fraternity guys, and having sex with one of them. Knowing her intentions, Chelsea brings contraceptive tools with her to the party, and during intercourse, her partner wears a condom. In the next few days, however, Chelsea learned she got pregnant anyway.

If Chelsea receives an abortion, she can go on to finish school and graduate with a marketing degree. She will find a good job with good potential for promotion and a high salary. She will have time to wait to meet a good person to marry and create a loving household. She and her husband have a child, to whom they can give the benefits of a set of loving, caring parents, lack of financial worry, and good educational system found in their suburban neighborhood.

If Chelsea does not receive an abortion, she must drop out of school in order to find a full time job to raise money to take care of the child. Because of her lack of educational degrees, her opportunities for employment, housing, and support are limited. She immediately marries the baby’s father, but does not love him the way she knows other couples love each other. Their child grows up in a poor neighborhood, with minimal education, and lack of attention which Chelsea gives to her own worries, like their desperate financial situation.

Even if Chelsea carries the child to term and puts it up for adoption, that child will still not have a likely future of value. Children who are adopted may have the same IQ as non-adopted children, but lag behind in school performance and language abilities (van IJzendoorn, Juffer, and Poelhuis 2005). If they are left at the orphanage until they are adults, they are just a drain of government resources. Additionally, the child has any stigmatized features (such as any mental health problems or physical issues, being a person of color, or have a mother who used drugs), it will be very difficult for it to be adopted (Hellerstedt et. al. 2008).

In this example, when Chelsea aborts the fetus, the value of her own life, and the value of the life of her next child are increased dramatically. When Chelsea does not abort the fetus, the value of her life and that child’s life are low. In this case, Chelsea’s abortion is morally permissible, because the net value of the futures affected by the deprivation of a future of value are more than the value of the future deprived. Following the original Future-Like-Ours theory, Chelsea would not receive the abortion and both her and her child’s futures would be of little value. What this amendment to the Future-Like-Ours theory does is force each case to be looked at individually, no matter how common (or cliché) they may be.

This solution, however, could come with its own objections. First is the ambiguity with the word “projected”. No one can predict the future with 100% accuracy and no one can assess the value of one’s future objectively. There will always be bias, whether caused by race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, income level, education, etc.  While some might believe Chelsea does have the potential to get a good job and find a loving husband if she received the abortion, they might change their mind if Chelsea’s name had been Chantel or Salwah. Or they would believe Chelsea would not actually have the potential to have a future of high enough value to compensate for the deprivation of the aborted child’s lost future of value unless she was attending a prestigious Ivy League university rather than the state public university.

It is impossible to remove bias from human judgment, however, and no proposed solution to Marquis’ marginalization error will ever find an answer to bias. What philosophers can do, however, is approach this problem like they do with some other problems of bias: use the ideal observer (“Impartiality” 2011). Attempting to be perfectly rational and actively trying to overcome any presumptions based on bias is the best humans can do to combat the problem.

But there is another more pressing objection to my proposed principle. It is the idea that the solution will not be necessary in the future. That is, in a more advanced world, where sexual education is more widespread, contraceptive methods are more available, and thus unwanted pregnancies (read: pregnancies which are desired to be terminated), are rare, even the most common circumstances we see today will become extraordinary in the future, making the Future-Like-Ours theory relevant and perfected in its original form. Take for an example fetal exposure to drugs, such as cocaine, marijuana, and even tobacco. While in the past, drug use was more commonplace among mothers (and the population as a whole), pushes for the discontinuation of drug use among the population (such as Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign) made functioning in society safer for both the mothers and fetuses (“Thirty Years” 2014). So while the health afflictions associated with drug use could have caused the mothers to have been marginalized in the 1970s and 80s, these mistakes were corrected in the future. Now drug related pregnancy complications are uncommon (“extraordinary”) circumstances.

Let us look at the case of child birth and overpopulation. Those who posit this future-advancement objection would simply say that the effects of the law would eventually bring down the population of the state, and once they were at a reasonable level, they would repeal the law. Then those circumstances in which giving birth would mean the death of two people would become extraordinary, and Marquis’ Future-Like-Ours theory, with the caveat, would apply, making it relevant as it is. So while common problems today may marginalize women, society will correct itself, making the marginalization of women less common. Marquis’ theory has its problems now, but the advancement of technology, medicine, and society will eventually solve those problems.

But what does it mean to be extraordinary or common? Those are terms of relativity. I will use another example to explain. In a given year in the United States the infant mortality rate (IMR) was 20.0 (which means, on average, 20 infants less than the age of one die per every 1,000 live births) (Singh and van Dyck 2007). Is this common or extraordinary? Well, it depends. This was the IMR in the early 1970s. In 2000, the IMR was only 6.9, meaning those in 2000 would view the death of an infant in the 70s as common. In 1935, the IMR was 55.7. So those in 1935 would view the death of an infant in the 70s as extraordinary.

It is a noble cause to try to minimize the rate of deaths in the United States. But while what is common and what is extraordinary changes, those terms are never eradicated. Let’s imagine some news reports that citizens of the state with the overpopulation law might see on a given day. In the first report, the news anchor reports that while a woman did get pregnant, it marked only the third time it happened that year (making only 3 in 3 months), which is a much lower number than number of pregnancies in other states. Thus their accident is deemed extraordinary, and the women are allowed to receive an abortion. In another possible report, however, the news anchor reports that the pregnancy is part of epidemic, indicating that the incidence of pregnancies is up 50% (from 2 to 3). In the people’s minds, the woman is one of possibly many to get pregnant in the state. And thus their accident is deemed common, and the woman is not allowed to receive an abortion, marginalizing them simply for how their circumstance is viewed.

Marginalization is a problem our society has been battling for a very long time. And when it is suffering and death being marginalized, there is no excuse to let it continue without combating it. The Future-Like-Ours theory must be amended, because it uses frequency to judge the morality of death (specifically abortion). If a woman wants to terminate her pregnancy because she does not want to raise the child in a single parent household, she is told she cannot because a) those following the Future-Like-Ours theory believe her circumstance is not extraordinary (because of their own racial, religious, sexist, or classist bias) even when it is, or b) her circumstance is not extraordinary and it actually is not. In either case, her own feelings, desires, dreams, obligations, etc. are dismissed because she is believed to be merely part of a bigger problem. This is wrong and immoral on its own. The woman is viewed not as a person, but a statistic. And the Future-Like-Ours theory not only allows it to happen, but commands it to happen.

I suggest that the theory be amended to be a principle which is as follows:

  • An act which deprives someone of a future of value is only morally permissible if the projected net value of the futures affected by the deprivation increases by more than the value of future deprived.

It fixes the problem of marginalization of women presented by Marquis’ original Future-Like-Ours theory and its “very extraordinary circumstances” stipulation. It is immoral to not treat the women as humans, but merely statistics. And the end of marginalization of women gives adult humans and fetuses the same moral status, which achieves one of the original goals of Marquis’ theory. The new principle still forbids the frivolous and unnecessary abortions which ultimately decrease the net future of value for those involved, achieving the other original goal. And in the end, the new principle allows each woman’s circumstance to be viewed individually, as it should be.

  • Hellerstedt, Wendy L., Nikki J. Madsen, Megan R. Gunnar, Harold D. Grotevant, Richard M. Lee, and Dana E. Johnson. “The International Adoption Project: Population-based Surveillance of Minnesota Parents Who Adopted Children Internationally.” Maternal and Child Health Journal 12, no. 2 (2008): 162-171.
  • “Impartiality.” Stanford University Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Updated 20 March 2011.
  • Marquis, Don. “Why Abortion is Immoral.” Journal of Philosophy 86 (1989): 183-202.
  • Merriam-Webster, s.v. “Extraordinary,” Accessed 10 May 2014,
  • “Thirty Years of America’s Drug War.” Frontline. Public Broadcasting Service. 2014.
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Health Resources and Services Administration. Infant Mortality in the United States, 1935-2007 by Singh, Gopal K. and Peter C. van Dyck. Washington DC: GPO, 2007.
  • van IJzendoorn, Marinus H., Femmie Juffer, and Caroline W. Klein Poelhuis. “Adoption and Cognitive Development: A Meta-Analytic Comparison of Adopted and Nonadopted Children’s IQ and School Performance.” Psychological Bulletin 131, no. 2 (2005): 301-316.

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