I’d meant to say something earlier about this odd article in the weekend’s New York Times about how some people generally supportive of abortion rights are voicing discomfort about the combination of abortion with genetic testing as a mechanism of filtering out fetuses with serious congenital defects or disabilities. But the article is awfully vague about what, exactly, the problem here is supposed to be.
One suggestion is that it’s offensive because it’s like eugenics. Now, at the risk of sounding pedantic, “eugenics” usually refers to a macro-level social policy, usually coercive, based on the idea that some wise technocrat will decide for others who is fit to reproduce, and (usually) enforce that determination by means of state power. Eugenics in this sense has about as much in common with voluntary embryo selection as consensual sex does with rape, or theft with gift giving. I suppose we can use a definition of “eugenics” sufficiently broad as to encompass any series of actions, coercive or voluntary, macro- or micro-level, that have the effect of weeding out certain traits in the population or promoting others. But I find it fairly self-evident that there’s just nothing wrong with that per se, insofar as it just means people not wanting their future children to suffer disabilities: If this be eugenics, then make the most of it.
The other (related) issue is whether such selection is discriminatory. This too seems confused. The problem with “discrimination” against the disabled (and this surely distinguishes it from other kinds of discrimination) is not that it’s morally ugly or unenlightened or otherwise wrongheaded to regard severe mental retardation or cystic fibrosis as undesirable conditions from which it would be better to spare one’s children. If not “nobody,” then at any rate very few people would regard it as in any way problematic to (safely) treat a young child in order to cure these conditions, were it possible, or to take steps before pregnancy to reduce their likelihood. What’s wrong with able-ist discrimination normally, rather, is that it involves treating actual people badly and unfairly. (It might, one supposes, be of long term disadvantage to the remaining disabled if there are, in future generations, many fewer of them, such that their power as a political bloc declines. I’m going to hope it’s self-evident why this line of thought quickly becomes perverse.)
On what assumptions, then, does it make sense to cross-apply the opprobrium due able-ist discrimination against adults to “discriminatory” abortion? Certainly not in the case that you think fetuses (at least at early stages of development) just don’t have anything like the moral status of born persons. The other alternative in the pro-choice camp, then, is people who do think fetuses are (sometimes, at some stages) either persons or almost-persons, but that the powerful autonomy and bodily-integrity interests of the mother nevertheless take precedence. And people with that position certainly might consistently regard it as morally unfortunate for women to exercise that right for “bad reasons.” But it’s hard to come up with a plausible ranking of reasons where this stands out as a bad one. I am supposing, for instance, that as self-identified pro-choicers, they’re not raising a fuss about abortions had on the grounds that a child would be too disruptive or economically draining at some point in a woman’s life. Why are these very reasons suddenly suspect if instead it’s that the added difficulty of raising a child with a serious disability would be too disruptive or economically draining? (It should go without saying that for people who think abortion is essentially like murder—especially those who count themselves as principled opponents of hate crimes legislation—the “goodness” or “badness” of the reasons for it ought to be very much beside the point.)
This seems like a case people are vaguely uneasy about something that seems analogous to various other objectionable things, but where in fact the analogies break down precisely at the points of objectionableness.