Some Catholic bishops have been criticized for the way in which they have raised the issue of abortion in this year’s election, especially with respect to the voting records of certain Catholic politicians. Commonweal has been one of those critics (see “Communion Politics,” May 21). But if the methods of a few bishops have been counterproductive, the alarm of all the bishops over how American society values new life is well justified.

In a nation where abortion has been a fundamental constitutional right for more than thirty years, the challenge of restoring legal protection to fetal life, and warning of the broader implications of current abortion practice, is daunting. It is also urgent. The logic that justifies abortion solely as an exercise of a woman’s autonomy and privacy is subtly but persistently eroding the foundation of our beliefs in the inalienable right to life and the intrinsic value of each human life. In a culture as economically and socially competitive as ours, where abortion is seen as a routine way of managing fertility, the temptation to eugenics can become almost irresistible.

The specter of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in which human life was bred in state-controlled hatcheries, is dismissed as paranoid fantasy by many. As an extension of individual choice, however, the eugenic revolution is nearly upon us, or so it would seem from a story on the front page of the June 20 Sunday New York Times. Headlined “In New Tests for Fetal Defects, Agonizing Choices for Parents,” the article appeared next to everyday reports on the presidential campaign and the ongoing turmoil and uncertainty in Iraq. Yet in many ways the story was more disturbing than either the prospects for change in Washington or the carnage in Baghdad. Perhaps the Times editors sensed as much, and that explains why major coverage of prenatal testing appeared as the second lead story in the paper on Father’s Day.

Illustrating the story was a photograph of a woman who had learned, thanks to new, more sophisticated prenatal tests, that her eleven-week-old fetus had Down syndrome, and had decided to abort. The woman already had three “normal” children, and she and her husband explained that “the quality of the child’s life, and that of the rest of their family, would be too severely compromised.”

The article went on to take up an inside page of the paper, explaining how the new tests enable women to terminate their pregnancies earlier, thus avoiding the social stigma attached to abortion in many quarters. It detailed the decisions of a variety of couples faced with the prospect of bringing a handicapped child into the world. According to the Times, these tests also give couples the kind of information that compels them to abort fetuses for seemingly trivial or idiosyncratic reasons. An extra finger, poor vision, cleft palates, the wrong sex, and a condition that results in sterility and effeminacy were among the reasons given. More serious conditions, such as cystic fibrosis, were also cited. “Quality of life” was the reason most often given by parents. Some feared the prospect of watching a child suffer, either physically or socially. Others simply stated, “I don’t want to have a handicapped child.” Doctors interviewed expressed concern about the impetus toward a kind of “grass-roots eugenics,” especially when abortion is resorted to for “relatively minor defects.” Still, the doctors featured in the story seemed to consider themselves “health-care providers” whose first obligation was to give a consumer what she wanted, even when the physician had grave personal doubts about the morality of the patient’s choice. A doctor’s obligation “to do no harm” is apparently no longer a consideration, at least when it comes to fetuses. One doctor seemed to take special satisfaction in relating his experiences with prolife couples. “They’ve been against abortion all their lives, but they’ll make an exception for themselves,” he said. Couples already caring for a Down syndrome child often opt for abortion if the next child is similarly diagnosed, he added.

No one should second guess the anguish of parents who learn their unborn child has a disability. Fatal conditions like Tay-Sachs present especially wrenching choices. All parents rightly wish for normal, healthy children. Nor should the rewards of caring for a disabled child be romanticized. Families faced with the emotional and financial costs of such care too often do not receive the acceptance and help they have a right to expect from society as a whole. Combine human weakness and fear with ready access to abortion and it is not surprising that, as the Times reports, “religious beliefs end up being put aside, trumped by personal feelings.”

That need not be the case. Too much is at stake to let personal feelings—and they are perfectly understandable feelings—trump the better angels of our nature. Disabled people warn of the increasing stigma attaching to their conditions in a society where few now question the right of parents to abort a handicapped fetus. Some libertarians have even gone so far as to argue that since the decision to bring a disabled child into the world is now entirely a personal one, society as a whole has no obligation to help care for the handicapped. Ethicists and philosophers warn that the ability of parents to abort a fetus for virtually any reason will change our attitudes toward the children we choose to have. In addition, it may exacerbate already powerful societal pressures on children to fulfill unrealistic parental expectations. It is not hard to see how the logic of the marketplace, where performance and productivity alone count, is at work in the expectations couples bring to procreation and family life. Nor is it hard to see how those expectations are undermining our belief in the intrinsic value of all human persons, regardless of their capacities or achievements. In India and China, the aborting of female fetuses already threatens social chaos as more and more young men have reduced prospects of marriage. What will be the unintended consequences of our intolerance of disability?

“There are few traditions to turn to, and rarely anyone around who has confronted a similar dilemma,” the Times writes of couples making use of the new tests. Is that actually the case? The article itself suggests that in strongly Mormon Utah few women who took advantage of the new tests went on to get abortions, while at one hospital in Manhattan more than 90 percent presumably did so. As this example illustrates, there are traditions and people, religious and otherwise, that couples can turn to. Down syndrome in particular, which is a fairly common congenital disorder, need not “compromise” a family’s “quality of life.” Quite the contrary. Many individuals with Down syndrome are of nearly normal intelligence, can be usefully employed, and contribute to society in a variety of ways. Most important, they are capable of giving and receiving much love and happiness. It is frequently the case that families who welcome Down syndrome children, or children with physical impairments, find their worlds expanded, not compromised (see David O’Brien’s review of Sarge, page 27).

Intelligence or physical capacity is too narrow a measure by which to judge the value of another human being. A truly human life embraces so much more. In caring for those who depend on us, we are reminded of our essential interdependence, and of how our own value as human beings transcends any worldly competence we may possess. After all, such competence is fleeting. Our democratic conviction that all persons are created equal ultimately rests on a belief that we have been created in God’s image. It is an image as recognizable in the disabled as it is in the rest of us. When it comes to decisions about life and death, “feelings” are an unreliable guide. In aborting the “defective,” we are creating a smaller, not a braver or a better world.


Related: Silent Eugenics, by Timothy P. Shriver

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Published in the 2004-07-16 issue: View Contents
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