Tuesday, May 15, 2007

"How Much Choice Do You Really Want to Give?

Abortion + Genetic Testing = ??? by Amy Harmon ran in the May 13, 2007, Sunday New York Times Week in Review. The article discusses the idea of using abortion to avoid the birth of a disabled or otherwise defective or undesirable child It's not an awful piece, but I am struck by how hard it is to talk or think about reproductive freedom given the tortured terminology and twisted logic it comes wrapped in.

For example, Arthur Caplan, chairman of the department of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine is quoted as asking, “How much choice do you really want to give?" (emphasis mine.) Casually assumed in this question are the ideas that "choice" comes in greater and lesser amounts; that it is "given" (that is, handed out, it is not some arguably inalienable right) to--to whom? to someone other than the giver; and that the proper dosage is to be determined not by the recipient but by "you", the giver--doctor? legislator? judge? If that's a freedom it seems doomed from the start.

The article reports that Planned Parenthood, when faced with proposed legislation restricting the right to abortion, lobbies for exemptions to allow the abortion of genetically defective fetuses. Seventy percent of Americans polled approve abortion to avoid the birth of a severely disabled child, so it is easy to see why Planned Parenthood would find this support for the otherwise fragile right to abortion irresistable. This is an incoherent position, of course, because it affirms the role of the legislature in deciding what counts as a good reason for utterly private decision and, like the exemption for incest and rape, distinguishes between "blameless" women and those whose problems are somehow their own fault. It is also self-defeating because it depends on a the benighted idea that one is better off dead than disabled and sets reproductive rights at odds with respect for the disabled. The article suggests that a genetic test might someday reveal fetal homosexuality--will Planned Parenthood be able to reject the support of the homophobic hordes?

On a more general level, the article--like the whole absurd but inescapable notion of an abortion "debate"--moves back and forth between posing difficult moral and ethical questions and assuming that answers to these questions binding on individual families can and should be the product of public discussion. “'It will capture where the mainstream of Americans are on prenatal testing and abortion,' Dr. Caplan added. 'Which is, some reasons seem good, and some don’t.'” Under the influence of wingnut-controlled TV news, that's about as clear as the thinking of mainstream Americans is likely to get, and it isn't helpful to pregnant families.

Nor is it helpful to quote self-identified abortion rights supporting law professor Ann Althouse as saying in her blog, "'some religious conservatives say that they trust God to give them the child that is meant to be. But isn’t there something equivalent for social liberals? Shouldn’t they have moral standards about what reasons are acceptable for an abortion?'" The full paragraph from Althouse begins with this splendidly ambiguous declaration: "It is one thing to support abortion rights -- I believe it should be the pregnant woman's choice -- but rejecting interference with that choice doesn't mean you see no question of morality." Exactly right: rejecting interference with that choice does NOT mean you see no question of morality. It means that the choice should be made by those who have to make it, in private, pondering and answering the questions for themselves, without having to account to the public.

Althouse continues: "What are the wrong reasons to abort? Shouldn't we talk about that?" Should "we" talk about the wrong reasons to abort? Not as long as we think it is up to us how much choice to "give" the pregnant woman. Should we instead make the world "'a more welcoming place for people with disabilities'" as suggested by anthropologist Rayna Rapp in the article? Yes, absolutely, and for poor people and people of color and women and children and everyone, but this does not require us to second guess anyone's abortion. Let's turn off the TV and get to work.

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