Self Portrait for Abortions by Steve Zultanski

Self-Portrait for Abortions


So there’s obviously no chance that a cluster of cells that ends up a newborn could grow up to be a perfect copy of me. But every cluster of cells that remains unborn has exactly the same chance of potentially having grown up as a perfect copy of me, given that because it never happened, and thus remains an impossibility, there’s no ruling out any one aspect of such an impossibility.

And given that any of the 42 million clusters of cells destroyed in abortions each year could have, in an alternate future, survived the operation and potentially grown up to be a perfect copy of me, and that only .8 million of these abortions are in the U.S., there is a 1.905% chance that an aborted cluster of cells that survived the operation in an alternate future and grew up to be a perfect copy of me would have been an American.

But there’s a 30.952% chance that I would have been Chinese.

And a .178% chance that I would have been Cuban.

Based on current information, which is of course incomplete given how many abortions go unreported; very many.


As a child, I heard my father tell a friend of his a funny story about storing condiments too near the flame of his new outdoor grill, and accidentally melting the plastic packaging.

Because he didn’t share this story with me, and because I was young enough to associate the word “condiment,” which I didn’t know the meaning of, with the word “condom,” which I didn’t know the meaning of but knew the meaning of just enough to know that its hidden meaning masked the more terrifying hidden meaning behind the word “sex,” I associated outdoor grills with this mystery; and I assumed that when I was old enough I would finally understand the relationship between the two.


If I (the perfect copy of me, which is so perfect that there’s no distinguishing between “I” and “it”) were born in China, there’s a 7.9% chance that I would have the surname 李 (Lǐ), the most common surname in the country.

So overall there’s a .002% chance that I would have been born a Lǐ.

As there’s a 6.12 x 10-7% chance that I would have been born a Borg, the most common surname in Malta.

Given that the chances that the perfect copy of me would be christened with my current name are unfathomably small, I must accept the possibility that a perfect copy of me may remain perfect despite the legal implications of carrying a different name, which distinguishes me from me in the eyes of the law.


As an even younger child, a friend used the unfamiliar word “condom,” and provided a baffling cursory definition.

The mental picture I conjured of the object resembled an action-figure — a hard plastic tube which looked vaguely like a piece of military equipment, with blue stripes running down each side and a narrow boxy tip, like a cockpit for a toy pilot.


Given that these perfect copies of myself will never exist, because the cluster of cells that could have developed into such a copy have been destroyed before assuming any identity at all, much less my identity, we know that I will never meet myself.

However, there remains, because of the potentiality forever condensed in the unborn, the possibility that I would have met myself, or even more than one of myselves.


Say the average person meets about 10,000 people in their lifetime.

Given that one has a .000145% chance of meeting any given person, we can assume that there’s a 1.77 x 10-13% chance of my 李 self meeting my Borg self, by my calculations, which surely leave certain factors entirely out, such as geography, which is a big one, and so the percentage would probably be much lower. So:

“喂 我的名字是李先生”

“Hi, jien jisimni Sur Borg”

is a perfectly unlikely scenario, without precedent. However, as long as it remains without precedent, that is, as long as my perfect copies are unborn, we cannot assume that it’s impossible.


Because a perfect copy of me would, by definition, do what I do, there’s a 100% chance that each and every perfect copy of me would also calculate the likelihood of the existence of a perfect copy, that is, itself, and the likelihoods of their nationalities and names, that is, of its own nationality and name.

The only difference would be imperceptible: instead of calculating the likelihood of another’s existence, the perfect copy would be calculating the likelihood of its own existence, and thus the resultant numbers would function, for the perfect copy, as horrifying existential proof of the unthinkability of its birth.


As an adolescent, I bought condoms presumptuously, hoping to use them with my first girlfriend. When she rejected this idea, I used them by myself, to see what it was like, because they gave me a sense of being with another person.

But because I was too nervous to toss them in the trash, where there was an outside chance one of my parents might inadvertently catch a glimpse, I hid them in a small safe, along with my coin collection, and waited for them to dry out.


And if two of my perfect copies meet, or three, say 李 and Borg and my Cuban self, Romario Martinez, who has a 1.72% chance of being christened Romario and a .00275% chance of having been born at all, chances are (by the way, there’s a much less than 4.867 x 10-16% chance that all three perfect copies would meet) they would most likely engage in a detailed comparison of private minutiae, hoping to map the commonalities between their lives (which commonalities would be abundant enough to remain fundamentally unmappable), in order to bring each perfect copy into sharper focus for the others.

For example, if any one perfect copy has a .6% chance of knowing a girlfriend or future ex-wife who’s had an abortion in the past year or thereabouts, then each has a .6% chance of knowing such a girlfriend or future ex-wife, and would tell the others about it. This goes as well for the perfect copies of me who are women, as it’s equally possible that they know a girlfriend or future ex-wife who’s had an abortion.

They could then figure out for themselves that there’s a .6% chance that three or however many more perfect copies of me might each be, respectively, the co-creators of a cluster of cells, which, by virtue of its having been destroyed, would also potentially have been a perfect copy of me.

And that these perfect copies, because they won’t exist, will always might have grown up to become the co-creators of however many more potential perfect copies, and so on; not to mention they might have met by chance at an arbitrary point after having set out from beds scattered all over the mess of countries; not to mention they might have recognized each other if not by name than by uncanny face; not to mention they might have then calculated the unlikelihood of their being alive, in perfect redundancy, word by word, of the method by which I’m now calculating the unlikelihood of my being alive more than once.

Insofar as any living copies of me, as a cluster of impossibilities, are so perfect as to actually be me, they write whatever I write, at the same time as I write it.

That is, there’s a .6% chance that I wrote this.

Steve Zultanski says:

“This piece is an excerpt from a long poem, Agony, which uses mathematical and logical constraints as a form of confessionalism, or autobiography. Sort of.”