Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Abortion Debate No One Wants to Have

Patricia E. Bauer alludes to the outrage engendered by Bill Bennett's recent comments, but notes that there is another abortion debate that noone wants to have.
If it's unacceptable for William Bennett to link abortion even conversationally with a whole class of people (and, of course, it is), why then do we as a society view abortion as justified and unremarkable in the case of another class of people: children with disabilities?
She relates her experience bringing up her daughter Margaret, who has Downs Syndrome. According to Bauer, and despite what we hear from "pro-choice" people, raising Margaret has not been a burden at all. The only burden has been caused by the attitudes of those they encounter in day to day life.
Whenever I am out with Margaret, I'm conscious that she represents a group whose ranks are shrinking because of the wide availability of prenatal testing and abortion. I don't know how many pregnancies are terminated because of prenatal diagnoses of Down syndrome, but some studies estimate 80 to 90 percent.

Imagine. As Margaret bounces through life, especially out here in the land of the perfect body, I see the way people look at her: curious, surprised, sometimes wary, occasionally disapproving or alarmed. I know that most women of childbearing age that we may encounter have judged her and her cohort, and have found their lives to be not worth living.

To them, Margaret falls into the category of avoidable human suffering. At best, a tragic mistake. At worst, a living embodiment of the pro-life movement. Less than human. A drain on society. That someone I love is regarded this way is unspeakably painful to me.

This view is probably particularly pronounced here in blue-state California, but I keep finding it everywhere, from academia on down. At a dinner party not long ago, I was seated next to the director of an Ivy League ethics program. In answer to another guest's question, he said he believes that prospective parents have a moral obligation to undergo prenatal testing and to terminate their pregnancy to avoid bringing forth a child with a disability, because it was immoral to subject a child to the kind of suffering he or she would have to endure. (When I started to pipe up about our family's experience, he smiled politely and turned to the lady on his left.)

Margaret does not view her life as unremitting human suffering (although she is angry that I haven't bought her an iPod). She's consumed with more important things, like the performance of the Boston Red Sox in the playoffs and the dance she's going to this weekend. Oh sure, she wishes she could learn faster and had better math skills. So do I. But it doesn't ruin our day, much less our lives. It's the negative social attitudes that cause us to suffer.

Many young women, upon meeting us, have asked whether I had "the test." I interpret the question as a get-home-free card. If I say no, they figure, that means I'm a victim of circumstance, and therefore not implicitly repudiating the decision they may make to abort if they think there are disabilities involved. If yes, then it means I'm a right-wing antiabortion nut whose choices aren't relevant to their lives.

Either way, they win.
Again, it's just another way that the "me-first" attitude implicit in the pro-choice mindset is manifested. The potential child is less important than the potential consequences--the life-altering changes in-waiting--experienced by the would-be mother.
What I don't understand is how we as a society can tacitly write off a whole group of people as having no value. I'd like to think that it's time to put that particular piece of baggage on the table and talk about it, but I'm not optimistic. People want what they want: a perfect baby, a perfect life. To which I say: Good luck. Or maybe, dream on.

And here's one more piece of un-discussable baggage: This question is a small but nonetheless significant part of what's driving the abortion discussion in this country. I have to think that there are many pro-choicers who, while paying obeisance to the rights of people with disabilities, want at the same time to preserve their right to ensure that no one with disabilities will be born into their own families. The abortion debate is not just about a woman's right to choose whether to have a baby; it's also about a woman's right to choose which baby she wants to have.
Even so, as Bauer argues, the perception, in her experience, is not reality. There is no "perfect" baby--except in the eyes of loving parents.


Anonymous said...

That's a sweet article.

I'm a parent too, although my kids have other issues.

What I'd like to ask you anti-abortion people is this: are you willing to spend your money helping out kids with major disabilities? In my state my wife works for the local Arc. Seems the state is giving her less and less money to help parents with kids with special needs.

Would you support a tax to help people who don't have the resources to provide medical care, training, special equipment? You know, I think the writer of this piece already has resources. But what about parents who don't?

Oh, you're not giving ANY money to parents AFTER their child is born?

I thought so.

We're not going to go anywhere with this discussion if talking about resources for parents without means is not addressed. Seems like you're proud and smug in your anti-abortion sentiments, but honestly, what do you do to help people who struggle raising these kids?

We're not going to get anywhere with this issue when you won't give half an ear to contraception. Do you honestly believe so-called "pro-choice" advocates want anyone to have an abortion?

Marc said...

Dear bravely Anonymous,
I fear you have made some grievous assumptions by cherrypicking one post and extrapolating the entirety of my particular worldview. First, I am intimately familiar with ARC as my wife was a long time employee of a local one, too, but only left to raise our children full time.

Your proposal of earmarking a special tax to help the disabled, while innovative, is probably not practical. Rather, more money should be sought from the general fund of already generated tax revenue. Many people without resources do have social security, but I also realize it is not enough. In other words, I agree that more could be done.

Second, I heartily support contraception, but don't believe that abortion should be considered as just another contraceptive option. The point of the article, and my reference to it, was to show that, whether you are pro-choice or pro-life, we are in a dangerous position in society when we have begun to extrapolate that since it is all right to use abortion as a means of terminating unplanned pregnancies, it is also all right to use it as a means of terminating pregnancies that may result in a disabled child.

Your practical concerns regarding families who may not the resources to support such a child are important, but to me those shouldn't mitigate having a child, disabled though he may be.

Finally, the opinions you express strike me as remarkably similar to the people Bauer alluded to in the conclusion of her piece:"I have to think that there are many pro-choicers who, while paying obeisance to the rights of people with disabilities, want at the same time to preserve their right to ensure that no one with disabilities will be born into their own families."

I also note that you stated , "In my state my wife works for the local Arc. Seems the state is giving her less and less money to help parents with kids with special needs." This could be taken as a complaint on your part that your wife isn't getting paid enough to do her job.

But, perhaps I'm jumping to conclusions regarding these last two points. Wouldn't want to do that now, would I? I'm open to dialogue, Bravely Anonymous, but in the future, please refrain from assuming too much about me or my family. Individuals don't fit into convenient categories, even self-described conservative ones.

John McAdams said...

Just a bit of public opinion data here: about 85% of Americans (in NORC/GSS surveys) think that the fact that a baby would be born deformed is an acceptable reason to have an abortion.

That's deplorable.

Marc said...

John, It certainly is. Thanks for dropping by and giving us that data. I just wonder if such questions asked in the abstract, and even 3rd person, accurately reflect real attitudes. My fear is that, though it may indeed be less than you present, it isn't that much less.