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Abortion and the Eugenics Bogeyman

Impugning the normal desire for healthier children won't win converts to the anti-abortion position.
eugenics poster balanced light

Before my wife and I married, we both got tested to see whether we were carriers of the gene that causes Tay-Sachs disease. Why? Because if we were both carriers, and went on to have children, and our children got two copies of the gene, they’d suffer from a gruesome disease that would cause them great pain and likely kill them in their youth. And we didn’t want that. What parent would?

Had we both tested positive, we could have chosen not to marry; or to marry but not to have children; or to marry and adopt children; or to marry and have children using either donor sperm or donor eggs; or we could have taken our chances and aborted any children who tested as having the disease. Those would all be ways of preventing what we didn’t want to happen: having children who suffered from Tay-Sachs.

You might object to some or all of those choices on one or another ground. Perhaps you believe abortion is fundamentally wrong because it is intentional killing of a human being. Perhaps you believe egg and/or sperm donation is wrong because it formally separates biological parenthood from the intentional parenthood. Perhaps you believe adoption is wrong because it alienates the child from their “true” parents, scarring them for life. Perhaps you believe that a life without children is essentially empty, or that there is a biblical commandment to at least attempt to have two children minimum. Perhaps you believe love should conquer all; that if you love somebody, it’s just wrong not to marry them because of some practicality like the fact that you’re both Tay-Sachs carriers.

But do you object to any of these choices because the decision would be based on “eugenics”? Because if you object to any of them for that reason, you would logically have to object to all of them. Because that is what they have in common: they are all ways of making sure that our children won’t be born with a genetic disease.

Is there anyone out there who objects to every one of those possible decisions? Whose view is that we should make decisions about who we marry, and whether we have children, entirely without regard to the likely genetic health of the children thus engendered?

Color me doubtful.

A great deal of what once passed for eugenic “thought” is either nonsense racist pseudoscience or at best highly questionable. But if eugenics means wanting the next generation to have “better” genes, surely one of the few axes of “better” we can agree on is “healthier.” As in, not being born with a painful terminal disease. And it’s very hard for me to see the fundamental moral objection to that as such.

This is all prompted by Michael Brendan Dougherty’s worries about the persistence of eugenic thought in American life, the primary evidence for which that he presents is the very high rate at which women abort when they discover they are carrying a child with Down Syndrome. Now, I’ve known a handful of people with Down Syndrome, and every one of them, even the lowest-functioning one, has been pleasant to know. None seemed to me to be living a life characterized fundamentally by great suffering; they are not analogous to kids who suffer from Tay-Sachs. But I’ve also known some of their parents, and so I’m aware of how much work it is being a parent of a child with Down Syndrome, how much being such a parent comes to define your life. So I’m pretty sure that on some level Dougherty is right. Many parents don’t want to have kids with Down Syndrome because those kids will take a lot of their resources—time, energy, money—that they would rather devote to other things (likely including their other children).

That may not be the most noble motive in the world—but neither is it ignoble. If a father gave up his gambling habit in order to preserve more resources for his children’s education, or for his own retirement, we’d consider that highly praiseworthy—even if we considered gambling as such to be a morally neutral activity. Preserving resources for more worthwhile endeavors is good. The reason Dougherty is disturbed is that, in his view, a fetus with Down Syndrome is already an endeavor with equal worth of any child, and aborting it is categorically wrong.

So here’s my question to Dougherty: assume that Down Syndrome worked like Tay-Sachs, meaning that you could avoid having a child with the condition by pre-marital screening. Would Dougherty oppose such screening? If so, why?

Or, here’s another one: late childbearing significantly increases the risks of your children having Down Syndrome (which is why Down Syndrome births are up in spite of the high abortion rate). Would Dougherty say it’s wrong to take that fact into consideration when deciding at what age to start having children (and at what age to stop)? Would he say it’s wrong for public health authorities to let people know about that fact, and to encourage (via informational campaigns, not physical or financial coercion) women to have children somewhat earlier?

Now, I should pause here and make it clear that I’m aware that the contours of “healthier” are not objective and universally agreed upon. Is it ok to want your children not to be deaf? Not to be gay? Not to be left-handed, or to have a merely average IQ, or to be lousy at tennis? Follow the logic I’ve been following above to its logical conclusion, and you can wind up defending the idea that it’s ok to want to design a perfect child, and to accept nothing less. But just because that end of the spectrum strikes me as absurd, that doesn’t mean that the other end of the spectrum—the one where, for fear of the eugenic bogeyman, we actively ignore information that could prevent horrible and completely preventable pain and suffering—isn’t also absurd. There’s a time to plan for the future and a time to accept whatever the future brings, and moderation in all things is still a pretty good maxim.

My own view is that eugenic motivations aren’t suspect as such, but perfectly normal. They just need to be tempered with a whole lot of humility, the recognition that the fantasy of total control is and always will be just that—a fantasy—and the consciousness that if we can’t imagine the joy of the inner life of someone different from us (someone with Down Syndrome, someone deaf, someone gay, someone who sucks at tennis), that’s our problem, not an objective sign of their deficiency. And coercion in a matter as intimate as childbearing should have to clear a very high bar for justification—and I can’t imagine eugenic motivations ever legitimately clearing that bar. Bearing all that in mind, I don’t see what’s wrong with wanting to have the healthiest children we can, and doing what we can to get what we want. Including thinking about their genes.

Dougherty’s fundamental objection, as I read him, isn’t to eugenics but to abortion as such. Inasmuch as he objects to eugenic motivations, it’s because he worries that by definition any thinking about “better” children makes life into something instrumental, a product, and thereby makes abortion more acceptable. But I don’t think that’s a sustainable view; it makes perfectly normal planning for the future seem corrupt and wrong. Everybody wants their kids to be healthier, including being born healthier. There’s nothing wrong with trying to ensure that—unless there’s something wrong with what you are doing to ensure it, or unless you take your standards of what constitutes “health” to unreasonable extremes.



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