Ruth Marcus and the Logic of Abortion

In her March 9 op-ed on aborting unborn infants with Down Syndrome, Ruth Marcus writes that her argument is against government coercion. On the contrary, her argument is actually for it. To argue that people that should have the right to decide whether or not to kill a baby based on its mental health is, ultimately, to argue that they should be compelled to do so. I’m sure Marcus would resist this characterization, but she would do so on illogical and incoherent grounds.

Marcus’s case for allowing elective abortion for Down Syndrome babies appears libertarian at first. She writes:

I respect — I admire — families that knowingly welcome a baby with Down syndrome into their lives. 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.

In other words, what Marcus opposes are not the families who choose to let their Down Syndrome diagnosed children live, but the proposed laws that would restrict families to that option alone. This is a standard defense of abortion choice from a classically liberal perspective. Likewise, Marcus’s comments about the “intellectual capacity” and “life choices” of Down Syndrome children follow a common pro-choice logic. If you know (according to this view) the unborn baby will have a difficult life, abortion is a reasonable measure to prevent a child from suffering. Not one shred of this argument is unique to Marcus. It is a textbook presentation of the Planned Parenthood worldview.

What makes Marcus’s argument galling to many readers is her naked devaluation of children with Down Syndrome. Yes, this is morally offensive, but it’s also extraordinarily clarifying. Marcus’s argument against these laws entails an explicit argument against Down Syndrome itself. In her final paragraph, Marcus appears to concede that her position on Down Syndrome elective abortion may be a slippery slope:

Technological advances in prenatal testing pose difficult moral choices about what, if any, genetic anomaly or defect justifies an abortion. Nearsightedness? Being short? There are creepy, eugenic aspects of the new technology that call for vigorous public debate. But in the end, the Constitution mandates — and a proper understanding of the rights of the individual against those of the state underscores — that these excruciating choices be left to individual women, not to government officials who believe they know best.

Elective abortion for children who are short or nearsighted would indeed be “creepy,” she writes (note the unwillingness to use a moral adjective). But elective abortion for Down Syndrome babies is not creepy. Why not? Because shortness or nearsightedness is not as bad as Down Syndrome. The case for elective abortion of Down infants is, as Marcus has already shared, that their lives are difficult and their minds impaired. That’s not the case with babies who need glasses or can’t reach very high. They may be inconvenienced in some ways, but the family who receives a diagnosis of Down Syndrome is facing life with a child who will suffer, and whose needs may impose great burdens on their family and society.

This is not an argument about choice. It’s an argument about certain kinds of children. And it’s an argument that spews forth not from moral relativism or libertarian absolutism, but from a deep seated conviction that the death of the wrong kinds of children can improve our economics and culture.

Margaret Sanger’s abortion worldview was not about maximal liberality, but about shaping the demographics of society so as to eliminate people that hinder it. Likewise, contemporary activists such as Katha Politt are admirably shedding the euphemistic pretenses of “safe, legal, and rare” to boldly proclaim that abortion is not a regrettable, sad thing, but a positive social good. The pro-choice movement has achieved legal victories through appeals to privacy and self-rule, but its DNA is far more complex than that. Ruth Marcus’s piece leaves unsaid what is nevertheless an undeniable implication of her argument: The world would be better off without children with Down Syndrome. Fleeting hat tips to the freedom of families to decide otherwise fail to disguise this.

The question that ought to be put to Marcus is not, “How can you say these awful things,” but, “Accepting that your logic is true, why should the government allow babies diagnosed with Down Syndrome to be born?” If she replies that it is wrong for politicans to make this decision, the follow up question should be why it was right for politicians decide in 1973 that some unborn weren’t human, but it’s not right for politicians now to declare that some are? Why is her private moral math about why she would abort a child with Down Syndrome good enough to be protected by law, but the moral math of millions of other families who receive and love and care for their children not good enough for that?

“Can” has a weird way of becoming “ought.” It is impossible to defend elective abortion of Down Syndrome infants the way Marcus does without ceding the notion that parents have a moral responsibility not to let themselves or these babies suffer through existence. The legacy of abortion choice is a legacy not of endless libertarian freedom, but of a vision for a better world through death.

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