The following ran in the summer 2013 issue of MCCL News.
The New York Times recently published an article titled "My Abortion, at 23 Weeks." The author explains that she was pregnant with twins, a boy and a girl, but that the boy was diagnosed with a herniated diaphragm. He would require surgery and life support for a period after birth.
The author and her husband could not bear "the thought of hearing him gasp for air," so they chose to have their son aborted with a lethal injection into his heart. "He died in a warm and loving place, inside me," she writes. It was for his own good, she thought.
Is abortion justified in the case of a fetal disability, "deformity" or "defect"? Is it justified when an unborn child is expected to die during pregnancy, childbirth or soon after? These circumstances—though they account for only a tiny fraction of abortions—are gut-wrenching. They call for some clear moral thinking.
Two points about the abortion of disabled babies are important. First, ability (or disability) is irrelevant to the worth and dignity of a human being. We do not (or should not) think less of people who have physical and mental handicaps. Parents may not kill their toddler if they learn that she has autism. They may not execute a 10-year-old with spina bifida because they think she would be better off dead.
Since disability itself does not justify killing, the killing of disabled unborn babies could only be justified if the unborn (whether disabled or not) do not have the same value and right to life as human beings at later developmental stages, such as toddlers and 10-year-old children. But this is only a different form of discrimination. Just as ability is irrelevant to human value, so too is age, size and location. All human beings share an equal right to life simply by virtue of their humanity. Killing disabled people, in the womb or out, is morally wrong.
Second, it is deeply mistaken to suppose that the life of a disabled person is not worth living. People with disabilities live meaningful and often happy lives. And caring for them, though difficult, is enriching and rewarding, as parents and caregivers attest.
Sometimes a child in the womb is diagnosed with a disease or condition that is fatal. She will likely die before, during or shortly after birth. Surely a pregnant woman should not have to endure such an emotionally traumatic pregnancy, abortion advocates argue.
But the fact that someone will soon die provides no moral justification for killing her. We may not kill terminal patients in the cancer ward or elderly grandparents in the nursing home. All of us, in fact, will die at some point in the future, but we ought to be treated with dignity and respect in the present. The reality of natural death (by disease) does not mean that unnatural death (intentional killing) is okay.
Moreover, abortion even in these tragic circumstances does not serve the emotional and psychological health of pregnant women. "There is no research to support the popular assumption that terminating the pregnancy is easier on the mother psychologically," explains PerinatalHospice.org. "In fact, research to date suggests the opposite." One 2004 study (published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics and Gynecology) concludes that abortion due to "fetal malformation" is a "traumatic event" that "entails the risk of severe and complicated grieving."
There is another option. Perinatal hospice acknowledges terminally ill unborn children as real patients while providing support to grieving families. This is a wonderful alternative that is ethical, compassionate and healthy for everyone involved. Organizations that help families deal with adverse prenatal diagnoses include Prenatal Partners for Life and Be Not Afraid.
Caring is always better than killing.