Essay #6 - The Disabled Fetus

   Women who say they are seeking abortions because of concerns about the health of the baby amount to about 3% of abortions performed. Pro-choice rhetoric abounds with phrases like “monstrously deformed” in describing the fetus, setting us up to regard it as an object of horror that no one could possibly be expected to give birth to. When the fetus is described as disabled, our protective impulses go out at once to the unborn child.

   There is a great deal at stake in the controversy about abortion of the disabled beyond the fate of the human lives destroyed in such abortions. For our attitude toward our disabled fellow citizens is closely connected with the abortion of fetuses with disabilities. The clear message given by such abortions is that “people like you should have been aborted.” For example, a doctor taking a group of medical students through a hospital pointed to a patient with spinabifida and said in such a way that the girl (who was able to understand him) could hear, “nowadays a baby like that would have been aborted.” Small wonder that Peter Singer, notorious defender of abortion and infanticide at Princeton, was the target of demonstrations by disabilities rights groups like “Not Dead Yet!”

   A variety of forces in our society are leading us to think of having a baby as like purchasing a consumer product. We want the perfect baby. Children, thus, are viewed as existing to gratify the parents needs rather than being treasured for the unique, and often surprising little creatures they are. They are thus deprived of the sort of unconditional love they need to develop into healthy adults capable of love and commitment.

   The fetal defects which are taken to justify abortion run a gamut from fairly mild problems (e.g., a few webbed fingers or a missing limb) to ones that are nothing short of heart-wrenching (e.g., Tay Sachs). It is becoming possible to diagnose more and more conditions in the womb, and women are often put under intense pressure to abort defective fetuses, often on the basis of uncertain diagnoses. Those who choose to give birth to and rear disabled children are often stigmatized because such children are viewed as a burden on society.

   Some of the arguments against abortion of disabled fetuses have a frankly religious base. Pius XII, for example, condemned the way in which in Germany “physically deformed people, mentally disturbed people and hereditarily ill people have at times been robbed of their lives,” saying that “ The blood of those who are all the dearer to our Saviour because they deserve the greater pity cries out from the earth up to Heaven.” But there are good reasons against abortion (or, of course, euthanasia) in such cases from a secular point of view as well; the German experience stands as a warning to us all. The same people and equipment that were used for killing the disabled were later used for killing Jews. Such killing, then, is an opening wedge for the devaluation of human life more generally.

   Every innocent human being has a claim on our care and support, disabled or not. Often the disabled have a lot to give. Parents and nurses who have worked with such children are often full of stories about the wonderful ways such children have touched their lives. Their courage, patience and generosity are sometimes very humbling and we can come away from them feeling we have received more than we have given. And often such people have unique gifts that can touch the lives of others. There are, of course, some cases in which the baby will have little hope of ever developing distinctively human capacities. But intrauterine diagnosis of such conditions can be uncertain, and even when the child is born it is hard to be sure what they can feel and know since they can’t communicate with us in the usual ways. A Christian can say that human life is not ours to take; God has allowed this to happen and He can bring good out it. But even from a secular point of view abortion in such cases could be condemned as taking a dangerous step down a slippery slope toward more extensive killing and devaluation of human life. We all have an interest in living in a society where those who are helpless and dependent receive loving care, since we ourselves require increasing care as we age, and might at any moment be rendered helpless by disease or accident. By destroying the disabled before birth we create a heartless society and we will all suffer as a result.

   Finally, because raising a disabled child can be excruciatingly difficult, those of us who insist on the wrongness of aborting the disabled should recognize their personal and political responsibility to help those who struggle with this daunting task. Politically we need to work to modify society to make it more supportive of those bearing the burden of raising a disabled child. Those who vote against abortion, but sit idly by while the budgets of groups who provide services to the disabled and support for their caregivers are being slashed, have heard only half of the pro-life message.