October 18, 2005


The Abortion Debate No One Wants to Have: Prenatal testing is making your right to abort a disabled child more like "your duty" to abort a disabled child. (Patricia E. Bauer, October 18, 2005, Washington Post)

If it's unacceptable for William Bennett to link abortion even conversationally with a whole class of people (and, of course, it is), why then do we as a society view abortion as justified and unremarkable in the case of another class of people: children with disabilities?

I have struggled with this question almost since our daughter Margaret was born, since she opened her big blue eyes and we got our first inkling that there was a full-fledged person behind them.

Whenever I am out with Margaret, I'm conscious that she represents a group whose ranks are shrinking because of the wide availability of prenatal testing and abortion. I don't know how many pregnancies are terminated because of prenatal diagnoses of Down syndrome, but some studies estimate 80 to 90 percent.

Imagine. As Margaret bounces through life, especially out here in the land of the perfect body, I see the way people look at her: curious, surprised, sometimes wary, occasionally disapproving or alarmed. I know that most women of childbearing age that we may encounter have judged her and her cohort, and have found their lives to be not worth living.

To them, Margaret falls into the category of avoidable human suffering. At best, a tragic mistake. At worst, a living embodiment of the pro-life movement. Less than human. A drain on society. That someone I love is regarded this way is unspeakably painful to me.

This view is probably particularly pronounced here in blue-state California, but I keep finding it everywhere, from academia on down. At a dinner party not long ago, I was seated next to the director of an Ivy League ethics program. In answer to another guest's question, he said he believes that prospective parents have a moral obligation to undergo prenatal testing and to terminate their pregnancy to avoid bringing forth a child with a disability, because it was immoral to subject a child to the kind of suffering he or she would have to endure. (When I started to pipe up about our family's experience, he smiled politely and turned to the lady on his left.)

Margaret does not view her life as unremitting human suffering (although she is angry that I haven't bought her an iPod). She's consumed with more important things, like the performance of the Boston Red Sox in the playoffs and the dance she's going to this weekend. Oh sure, she wishes she could learn faster and had better math skills. So do I. But it doesn't ruin our day, much less our lives. It's the negative social attitudes that cause us to suffer.

I always feel admiration for the folks who are raising disabled kids precisely because we live in a world where you can kill them with impunity and none of us can know what we'd do when faced with a similar choice.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 18, 2005 5:19 PM

It never seems to have occurred to the people of Luggnagg nor to Gulliver that one solution to the Struldbruggs would be to kill them. Our ancestors may have had their defects but we of the 20th Century have managed to come up with new evils they never even dreamed of. I only hope that historians of the 23rd Century are just as hard on us as ur Leftist historians have been on people like Jefferson and Washington for their great sin of owning slaves. Except we will deserve it, because we can't claim ignorance, we willingly and often eagerly do these things.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at October 19, 2005 12:06 AM

She should have poked* the prof with her shrimp fork and loudly announced that it was a pretty ghastly thing to call her little daughter an Untermenschen (sp?) who should never have been born.

*For "poke" you can substitute "stab repeatedly on the top of his pointy skull" if you think it would read better.

Posted by: Mikey at October 19, 2005 9:11 AM

This story gives the lie to the libertarian position of "If you oppose abortion then don't have one." Temptations to do great evil come in various sizes and strength. Our social and cultural space has been warped by making the temptation to abort powerful by making it seem oh so high minded and its consequences abstract. The environment is moving quickly where the temptation is no longer latitudinarian but offered as a positive good.

During his quirky campaign for mayor of New York City in the 70s, Norman Mailer was asked to give his position on abortion. He asnwered that he supported it and as mayor any woman who wanted to abort would be provided by the city with a revolver and ammunition and allowed to shoot the baby. Whether he was being Swiftian sarcastic or Hemingway brutal is unknown. He was never asked again, as best I can remember. If he said the same thing today, NOW would honor him for his pioneering work in expanding the zone of personal autonomy and choice. Howard Dean would proably try to use it to "reach out" to the gun owners.

Posted by: Luciferous at October 19, 2005 10:08 AM