A short story by Philip K. Dick about a world in which children may legally be aborted until they are twelve years old.
In the future Dick describes, children are not considered fully human until they have developed the reasoning ability needed to understand basic algebra. Parents can call an abortion truck (much like a dogcatcher) to take younger children to the local abortion center to be euthanized.
The story follows an adult, Ed Gantro, whose son is found without his "Desirability Card" and picked up by an abortion truck. Gantro protests the legal situation by demanding that he, too, be aborted. Although he studied math at Stanford, Gantro claims that he has forgotten everything beyond arithmetic, and thus can no longer legally be considered fully human.
Published in 1974, the year after the Roe v. Wade decision, "The Pre-Persons" is Dick's reductio ad absurdum of the extreme pro-choice position. The question posed, as Thomas Disch puts it in his introduction, is, "if abortion, why not infanticide?"
Or, as Ed Gantro asks,
If an unborn child can be killed without due process, why not a born one? What I see in both cases is their helplessness; the organism that is killed had no chance, no ability, to protect itself.
Dick recognizes that to justify abortion on grounds of a mother's rights to privacy and free choice is to assert that the fetus has no rights of its own worth considering. He sees also that attempts to specify a precise point at which a gradually developing human acquires individual rights are necessarily arbitrary.
The whole mistake of the pro-abortion people from the start, he said to himself, was the arbitrary line they drew. An embryo is not entitled to American Constitutional rights and can be killed, legally, by a doctor. But a fetus was a "person," with rights, at least for a while; and then the pro-abortion crowd decided that even a seven-month fetus was not "human" and could be killed, legally, by a licensed doctor. And, one day, a newborn baby- it is a vegetable; it can't focus its eyes, it understands nothing, nor talks...
...even then, where was the line to be drawn finally? When the baby smiled its first smile? When it spoke its first word or reached for its initial time for a toy it enjoyed?
Dick's slippery slope
argument has become more trenchant with the continuing progress of medical science. In 1973, when Roe
was decided, fetuses were considered viable
(able to survive outside the womb) at about twenty-eight weeks. As this is written, in 2004, many infants survive who are born a month earlier, at twenty-four weeks- still within the second trimester
. Dick tried to avoid this sort of confusion by considering fully human life to begin at conception
- though conception itself is now known to be a gradual process, taking place over the course of a full day.
"The Pre-Persons" was, naturally, a controversial story. Dick later wrote of it,
In this I incurred the absolute hate of [fellow SF writer] Joanna Russ who wrote me the nastiest letter I've ever received; at one point she said she usually offered to beat up people (she didn't use the word people) who expressed opinions such as this. I admit that this story amounts to special pleading, and I am sorry to offend those who disagree with me about abortion on demand... But for the pre-person's sake I am not sorry. I stand where I stand: "Hier steh Ich; Ich kann nicht anders," as Martin Luther is supposed to have said.
The line of reasoning Dick takes in "The Pre-Persons" has been followed to the obverse conclusion by (philosopher/Princeton professor/animal rights activist) Peter Singer. Singer would agree that birth and fetal viability are not morally significant points, but concludes not that abortion at any stage is always wrong but that infanticide is sometimes justifiable, as in the case of severely disabled infants.
The concept of "The Pre-Persons" was turned to a humorous end in an episode of South Park. In episode 202, "Cartman's Mom is Still a Dirty Slut," Cartman's Mom tries to obtain a fortieth-trimester abortion for her eight year-old son.
Dick, Philip K. "The Pre-Persons." The Eye of the Sibyl and Other Classic Stories. Introduction by Thomas M. Disch.
New York: Citadel Press, 1987. 275-296.
Singer, Peter. Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of our Traditional Ethics. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.