Julian Sanchez header image 2

photos by Lara Shipley

Abortion for the “Wrong Reasons”

May 16th, 2007 · 14 Comments

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.

Tags: Sexual Politics



14 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Chris // May 16, 2007 at 5:43 pm

    The case for allowing abortion for reasons of a woman’s health is one thing, and defensibly on grounds of individual rights. The case for allowing abortion just because a parent wants to absolve themselves of the responsibilities of parenthood after-birth (the burden of which is greater than the burden of pregnancy — the pro-abortion good is called Planned Parenthood, not Planned Pregnancy for a reason) is far less so.

    If we wanted to maximise the ability of potential parents to evade the responsibilities of latter parenthood, why not give fathers-to-be the “right to choose”, too?

  • 2 Chris // May 16, 2007 at 5:46 pm

    ugh. the above should read “the pro-abortion group is Planned Parenthood…”

  • 3 Grant Gould // May 16, 2007 at 6:32 pm

    Keep an eye out in this context for the creepiest of all arguments: The argument that Down Syndrome kids are morally superior to the rest of us. I’ve seen this trope half a dozen places now, including Sen. Brownback (or was it Coburn?) speaking at the Alito confirmation hearings.

    Apparently there are actually folks out there who think that the permanent innocence of brain-damaged wretches renders them in some way “angelic.” I nearly lost my lunch the first time I heard this.

  • 4 Kevin B. O'Reilly // May 16, 2007 at 7:38 pm

    People seem to draw a distinction between aborting *a* fetus because no child of any kind is wanted versus aborting *this* fetus because a particular type of child is unwanted. Considering that many people who favor abortion are, at best, queasy about defending the actual morality of aborting a fetus in plain vanilla fashion this shouldn’t be surprising. What if a large minority in the group in the United States began routinely abortin female fetuses because of their gender? Do you think pro-choice feminist groups would stand up on principle to defend those choices? I doubt it.

  • 5 FinFangFoom // May 16, 2007 at 10:36 pm

    Two things:

    1. While it is currently voluntary on the part of the mother, it might be that in the future that it becomes compulsory or at least strongly encouraged for women carrying children with birth defects to abort them. The path this might track is similar to smoking, perhaps. In my lifetime it has gone from being okay everywhere, to forbidden on planes, to forbidden in parts of restaurants, government buildings, “public” buildings, and now everywhere

    2. Also, within recent memory, the practice of forced eugenics was common in the United States. Oliver Wendell Holmes, still the most respected American jurist, once said “Three generations of idiots are enough,” regarding forced sterilization in the case of Some Lady v. Some State or something.

    I think people might be making an internal slippery slope argument regarding aborting fetuses that have birth defects. While I agree that a woman choosing to do so for her own reasons is unobjectionable, I do understand the sort of scenario that some might be envisioning.

  • 6 Reality Man // May 17, 2007 at 2:45 am

    Do we really need to rely on speculative slipper slope arguments to decide to criminalize things? A fetus is not a cigarette. American society is also not as chauvinist as, say, Chinese society (for instance, rural Chinese women contribute around half of all suicides in the world due to social pressure) and will hopefully / likely continue to become more liberal and feminist with time. We can prevent the emergence of coerced abortions in the first place by not voting for authoritarians, who in the US tend to be against abortion. “Disability Pride” parents, like the students who protested at the deaf university last year, will still want to have disabled children. The only real argument against this I can see is that this could lead to the end of having gay children, but we are also becoming more tolerant on this score as well. Seriously, if you were a pregnant woman and were told that you can either A) spend the rest of your life treating your child’s disability or B) have an abortion and try again to have a perfectly healthy child, who in their right mind would choose A?

  • 7 http://sepdx.wordpress.com // May 17, 2007 at 7:32 am

    You might chalk it up to the internal inconsistency of a lot of pro-choicers, especially the vocal ones. As you said, Julian, the stress tends to be on autonomy and the right to privacy, etc, but to abort when one wants a child, for the very reason that it reminds people of discarding unwanted humans with eugenics, doesn’t go down so easy. The moral center of the typical argument for abortion is damanged when the charge that abortion is on par with eugenics becomes more palpable than it has been previously.

  • 8 John Goes // May 17, 2007 at 7:33 am

    Above comment is mine, I input the wrong name.

  • 9 sara // May 17, 2007 at 9:59 am

    For the life of me I can’t get over all the hand-wringing on this issue.

    When 85% or more of women are taking advantage of technology to choose not to have defective fetuses, how exactly is that not a GOOD thing? I could’ve sworn that’s what technology is like this is FOR…

    You know, any given woman in the United States is likely to have 2 or 3 children. Of all the possible millions of combinations of gametes – and thus millions of potential children – she’ll very likely have either 2 or 3 of them. I kind of have to wonder at the collective arrogance of people who would tell her and her family that she somehow “owes” it to the disabled community to be forced to bear one with defective genes.

    Who are these jerks who think they know better than she does that the child wouldn’t create an unbearable strain on her family? on her other children? on their finances? And will these moral arbiters be around to personally care for her Downs child if it lives on after her death? You people are too much – I can’t wait for one of you to be in her shoes!

  • 10 Arnold Kling // May 17, 2007 at 6:05 pm

    “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?”

    My answer would be that when you decide to have a child, you run a risk. You should accept the consequences of taking that risk. If you are not willing to take the risk, then don’t have the child.

    If you would have aborted a child with detectable birth defects, what would you do with a child whose defects were only discovered at age 2 months? Kill him then?

  • 11 Arnold Kling // May 17, 2007 at 6:07 pm

    “If you are not willing to take the risk, then don’t have the child.”

    Just to be clear, what I am saying is that if you would abort a defective fetus, then don’t have the child in the first place–abort unconditionally.

  • 12 Julian Elson // May 17, 2007 at 6:38 pm

    Chris, I think any father-to-be who finds himself pregnant should have the right to terminate his pregnancy. So far, I haven’t heard of any cases of men being in this situation, but on the chance that it occurs, you know my answer.

  • 13 LP // May 17, 2007 at 6:48 pm

    Arnold wrote: “If you would have aborted a child with detectable birth defects, what would you do with a child whose defects were only discovered at age 2 months? Kill him then?”

    See, this is why technology is neat. It’s true that, in the past, parents were (or felt) stuck with a child with major birth defects, even if they would have preferred no children over a child with these defects. There was no way to detect them before birth, and the child was unlikely to be adopted once the defects became obvious. Technology that enables early (pre-natal) detection of birth defects is important, because everyone acknowledges that children have completely different moral rights after birth. Aborting a fetus with birth defects is different from killing a child with birth defects, in exactly the same way that aborting a fetus for any other reason is different from killing a child for that same reason.

  • 14 Julian Sanchez // May 17, 2007 at 10:51 pm

    “My answer would be that when you decide to have a child, you run a risk. You should accept the consequences of taking that risk. If you are not willing to take the risk, then don’t have the child.”

    Your position strikes me as pretty bizarre. If your child has a congenital defect that can be cured or ameliorated by post-natal intervention, should you refuse to use it because you “took a risk” and must therefore “accept the consequences”? Given that you’re not objecting to abortion as such, *why* should you accept the consequences? We constantly take risks and then, if they don’t pan out, try to reduce the negative consequences.