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Sunday, July 06, 2008

Potential Canadians 

Randall Denley of the Ottawa Citizen has a few words to say about Morgentaler's Order of Canada today. So does David Warren, no doubt sending in his column from an undisclosed location. Denley fusses about the loss of "more than two million potential Canadians": Warren, about "three million aborted babies." (In the "pro-life" rhetorical sweepstakes, what's a million?)

I get a little intellectually twitchy when people talk about "potential Canadians." What is a "potential Canadian" (other than an immigrant or a would-be immigrant)? The 25% of pregnancies that end in miscarriage? Every sperm and every ovum, potentially together? The biochemicals that are transformed into sperm and ova? The elements that are the building blocks of those biochemicals?

When does life begin? A trick question. Sometime in the Archaean, I'd say, in an unbroken chain to the present.

But there's a companion argument, which everyone has heard countless times: "I'm glad I wasn't aborted!" Variations on this theme include "You just aborted Beethoven! Martin Luther King! Jesus Christ!" Or Hitler, Stalin and Robert Mugabe. Or (as Henry Morgentaler unwisely observed), a lot of common-or-garden criminals.

I don't want to get into the ontological status of possible worlds, but just let me note this: the self-same argument can be used about contraception, including the Vatican-approved rhythm method, and even abstinence, the form of birth control most favoured by George W. Bush. "If you hadn't made love that night, I would never have been born!" "If Beethoven's mother had waited for a non-fertile period in the ovulation cycle, think of all the music we would have lost!" VoilĂ ! Conservative Popes and Presidents join ranks with the abortionists.

The moral conclusions here aren't even summed up in the "Every sperm is sacred" Monty Python song, because ova are presumably sacred as well, and when a sperm fertilizes any one ovum, it isn't fertilizing any other ovum, reducing an almost infinite number of potential pairings to one actual pairing. The only morally acceptable solution, if one follows the logic of the "I'm glad I wasn't aborted" crowd, would be to clone all of the sperm and ova in existence so that every conceivable (no pun intended) combination is realized. Oh, wait, what about identical twins? Triplets?

All that vast potential, unrealized. Which, I suppose, is the whole point: potential isn't actual. Potential isn't anything at all. Potential doesn't exist. Potential is only possibility: and as I'm suggesting, possibility is infinite.

Ezra Pound once famously speculated about what "America would be like if the Classics had a wide circulation." I wonder what Canada would be like if journalists knew a little basic philosophy?

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