When we talk about abortion, it’s important to remember that no child is “unwanted,” since many people are willing to adopt newborn infants, regardless of how they came into the world. Nonetheless, the discussion often centers on “unwanted children”—children whose parents experienced an unintended pregnancy or some other circumstance that makes them not want to raise a child.
But not every child who is aborted is unwanted. Some parents choose abortion, even though they desperately wanted to raise their child, because they’ve discovered that he has a disability or congenital illness. In some cases, the disability is so severe that the child may die before birth or shortly thereafter.
So is abortion justified in these cases?
First, it is important to agree that a negative prenatal diagnosis is devastating for parents. Many of them would never think of aborting their child and come to do so only after the “advice” of misguided doctors. As a result, they may think it is better to end their child’s life in the womb than let him suffer after birth.
When I discuss the issue of abortion with people, I ask them if the reasons they give to justify abortion would justify killing a two-year-old. For example, just as we wouldn’t kill a two-year-old because he lives in poverty, we shouldn’t kill an unborn child for the same reason, since both are equally human. We can also apply this framework to a child with a disability, be it a mild one that doesn’t prevent him from having a long life or a severe one that would allow him to live only a short while after birth.
Consider Trisomy-21, also called Down (or Down’s) syndrome. This genetic condition usually leads to stunted growth and intellectual disabilities ranging from moderate to severe. Now consider the infamous 1982 case of “Baby Doe.” Here’s how the Embryo Project Encyclopedia describes it:
Baby Doe was born with Down syndrome and an abnormal connection of the trachea and esophagus. The baby required immediate surgery to correct the defect. However, the parents, with the advice of their physician, chose to withhold surgery and medical care because the child would still be cognitively impaired. Officials at the hospital had the Indiana Juvenile Courts appoint a guardian to determine whether or not to perform the surgery. The court finally ruled in favor of the parents and upheld their right to an informed medical decision. The infant, by then known nationally as Baby Doe, died five days later of dehydration and pneumonia. The Indiana Supreme Court refused to hear the case. Baby Doe died shortly after the refusal, which prevented an appeal to the US Supreme Court.
In 1984, the “Baby Doe amendment” was added to the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act in order to prevent hospitals from withholding food, fluids, or medically indicated care to children merely because they are disabled. But if it is wrong to starve a child to death just because she has Down syndrome, then wouldn’t it be equally wrong to dismember a child in the womb because she has the exact same condition? In fact, there is a term for this kind of discrimination against the disabled: ableism. Commenter George Will, whose son has Down syndrome, wrote the following after the Baby Doe case:
Jonathan Will, 10, fourth-grader and Orioles fan (and the best Wiffle-ball hitter in southern Maryland), has Down’s syndrome. He does not “suffer from” (as newspapers are wont to say) Down’s syndrome. He suffers from nothing, except anxiety about the Orioles’ lousy start. He is doing nicely, thank you. But he is bound to have quite enough problems dealing with society—receiving rights, let alone empathy. He can do without people like Infant Doe’s parents, and courts like Indiana’s asserting by their actions the principle that people like him are less than fully human. On the evidence, Down’s syndrome citizens have little to learn about being human from people responsible for the death of Infant Doe.
Our society has learned that people with disabilities are still people, and so we reasonably accommodate them with things like handicapped parking and braille on signposts. But aborting someone because he is disabled is, to put it mildly, not very accommodating. And when it is done systematically, it is a form of social oppression against marginalized communities. For a disturbing example of this kind of oppression, the nation of Denmark instituted a program of free prenatal testing that has doubled the number of children with Down syndrome who are aborted each year. Some studies have estimated that nearly 90 percent of unborn children diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted.
Just as we wouldn’t euthanize a child who became disabled through an accident or an illness, we should not kill a child in the womb for the same reason.
But what about terminal conditions like anencephaly, which occurs when a child does not develop an upper brain and will die a few hours or days after birth?
Once again, we should be compassionate toward those who receive this kind of diagnosis. But our reasoning has to apply to born children. too. Imagine that a two-year-old finds his dad’s gun and fatally injures himself. As he lies in the hospital, dying from his injuries, we would certainly do everything we could to ease his suffering . . . but most people wouldn’t recommend directly killing the child. (For those who do believe we should kill born people who have certain diseases, I recommend Stephanie Gray Connors’s book Start with What: 10 Principles for Thinking about Assisted Suicide.)
Finally, while the arguments we make to defend the right to life of disabled unborn children should be non-religious in nature (since our country’s laws do not reflect one particular religious view of morality), our response to these cases should marshal the full force of the gospel to comfort those enduring these trials.
We can remind those we speak with that every human being, no matter his functional ability, is loved by God and brought into the world by God to glorify his creation. Even children who live only a few years, days, or even hours after birth can experience the good of baptism and be received by their parents and experience their love, even for a short while. This is far better than compounding the cross of caring for the disabled with the guilt and suffering of being an accomplice to homicide, which is what abortion does.
If you want to see a beautiful example of how a life lived for even a short while can be a source of grace for his parents, I recommend this video about a child with Edward’s syndrome. He lived for only a short while after birth, but his life was still full of meaning . . . and revealed the depth of God’s love, even in the face of the most difficult trials a parent can undergo.