Last week the Washington Post featured an essay by editor Ruth Marcus titled “I would’ve aborted a fetus with Down Syndrome. Women need that right.” Marcus takes exception to the recent spate of state laws outlawing abortions chosen specifically to end the lives of children with Down Syndrome, and in doing so, reveals much about the assumptions informing our society’s views on the issue.
Marcus states that “two-thirds of American women choose abortion in such circumstances,” asking rhetorically, “isn’t that the point—or at least inherent in the point—of prenatal testing in the first place?” This question is far from rhetorical, and cuts to the heart of the issue at hand. Many times it is the unspoken premises of our arguments that are the ones that need to be discussed most.
Marcus assumes that the point of prenatal testing for diseases or genetic abnormalities is to inform the parents of any abnormalities for the purpose of determining whether or not the child will live (or, as Marcus would likely put it in the euphemistic passive construction all too common in our discussions of abortion, “whether the pregnancy would be carried to term”). But this is simply a false dichotomy.
Marcus’s argument assumes that if a parent would never consider aborting, there is no point in pre-natal testing for these conditions. Can she really not think of any other purpose for such testing? Many parents opt for such testing, not to decide whether or not their child will live, but to give themselves the opportunity to learn about the effects of any abnormalities discovered and to prepare to raise a child who will live with such challenges. The knowledge gained from the tests equip the parents to give their child the best possible life.
This paragraph was particularly revelatory of Marcus’s thinking:
Certainly, to be a parent is to take the risks that accompany parenting; you love your child for who she is, not what you want her to be.
But accepting that essential truth is different from compelling a woman to give birth to a child whose intellectual capacity will be impaired, whose life choices will be limited, whose health may be compromised. Most children with Down syndrome have mild to moderate cognitive impairment, meaning an IQ between 55 and 70 (mild) or between 35 and 55 (moderate). This means limited capacity for independent living and financial security; Down syndrome is life-altering for the entire family.
Let us tease out the logic implicit here: Love for one’s children is not conditional upon one’s desires for them, but that love does not necessitate preserving the children’s life if the quality of that life is deemed in some way to be deficient. Thus, one’s love for a child is sometimes expressed in ending that child’s life. She concludes: killing your child can be a loving act.
Now, Marcus would no doubt amend that statement, at the very least, to say that “Terminating your fetus in order to prevent suffering can be a loving act,” as this fits the tenor of her article. But here again we see that the unspoken assumptions in any argument are the most crucial.
The first assumption, which indeed is the hinge of the whole abortion debate, is that pre-natal life is morally distinct from post-natal life—in other words, that an unborn child does not have the same status or rights as a born child. We cannot rehearse the whole debate on this point here, but it may suffice to ask the reader to consider the following scenario: two children are diagnosed with a genetic abnormality that will severely affect their health and their families’ fortunes. One child is two weeks old, another is at 38 weeks gestation. Why would it be morally permissible to end the life of one but not the other?
The second assumption touches upon similarly deep subject matter: that at a certain point of suffering or imperfection, human life is not worth living. In Marcus’s view, it would be better for a child with Down Syndrome to die rather than to live with his various challenges.
This is a prime example of a fundamental truth of moral theology: evil is never chosen for its own sake, but always under the aspect of the good. In other words, we always choose evil acts because we’ve convinced ourselves either that they are not evil or that there is some overriding intention or circumstance that justifies them. We always rationalize our choices.
In this case, Marcus has argued that the suffering caused by Down Syndrome (either to the child himself or to the family, for whom the situation is “life-altering”) is so great that, with the “good intention” of alleviating the suffering caused by those difficult circumstances, she would choose to end that child’s life. This is the justification given for many abortions (and is the primary driver for euthanasia as well).
But she undercuts her own argument when she acknowledges that “many people with Down Syndrome live happy and fulfilled lives,” and indeed, the data support a stronger conclusion than this. A study of the self-perceptions of people with Down Syndrome found that “nearly 99 percent of people with Down Syndrome indicated that they were happy with their lives; 97 percent liked who they are; and 96 percent liked how they look.” Another study found that parents and siblings of people with Down Syndrome overwhelmingly felt that having a member of their family with Down Syndrome added happiness to their lives and even made them better people.
Thus when we strip away the rationalization we come to the underlying motivation, which Marcus states bluntly: “That was not the child I wanted. That was not the choice I would have made.” It is not that she thinks it impossible that either her child or family could have a happy and fulfilled life if her child had Down Syndrome; it is simply that is not the life she would choose.
In one way of looking at things, our society is predicated upon two principles: freedom of choice and the avoidance of suffering. (I would say “the pursuit of pleasure,” but the explosion in opioid addiction indicates otherwise.) Yet we are seeing these taken to their destructive extremes. When an individual’s right to choose becomes so sacrosanct as to override another person’s right to live, and when suffering becomes such an unbearable condition that people ask to be euthanized for depression, the perfect has become the enemy of the good, and death is considered better than a life restrained.
This tendency pulls against traditional Christian mores upon which the modern Western world was founded: that life rather than choice is sacrosanct, and that our suffering is made meaningful in the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ. The two worldviews currently live in an uncomfortable and increasingly hostile mixture, but our society will eventually be faced with a choice: either a combination of revolutions in technology and morality will lead to a Brave New World scenario of designer humans living in a soma-induced soporific state, neither suffering nor truly living; or it will undergo a spiritual and moral revolution in which we realize that as much as we try to reinvent ourselves, there are certain things so fundamental that they cannot be erased—those things that make us the image of God—and those are precisely the things that ought to be respected, revered, and placed at the center.