Friday, April 3, 2015

Down's Syndrome and Abortion

Here is a post over at the Secular Right concerning the apparently common practice of aborting children discovered to have Down's Syndrome. The post ends with the approval of a quote from Walter Mead:

... because, the argument goes, one ought to spare someone from living a low quality of life.

I'm surprised more people are not discomforted by the creepy overtones of this sentiment. There is the fact that "low quality of life" is almost a translation of the Nazi Lebensunwertes Leben. Or the lurking implication that, since "sparing someone" is something "one ought" to do, there is a moral duty to kill the innocent, whether they wish to be killed or not. In the euthanasia context, at least the standard for "low quality of life" is subjectively set by the one to be killed. But how hard is it to make the jump from self-selected euthanasia to forced euthanasia, that there is a duty for someone with a "low quality of life" to die, since such a person ought to be spared from such a life?

Then there is the idea of "low quality of life" itself. Just what does a "low" quality of life lack that is possessed by a "high" quality of life? I've never seen this spelled out in detail, let alone thoroughly justified. The Secular Right post takes for granted that intelligence is a critical element, perhaps the critical element, in a high quality of life. It's also mentioned that Down's Syndrome children (DSC for short) are more susceptible to debilitating diseases like Alzheimer's, so we can also assume that freedom from disease is also part of a high quality of life.

What is interesting is that philosophers who have thought deeply about the nature of a high quality of life - Socrates or Aristotle, for instance - put neither intelligence nor freedom from disease at the center of it. Instead they emphasize virtue, spelled out, in Aristotle's case, in terms of the four cardinal virtues of courage, temperance (self-control), justice and prudence or wisdom. Of the four, it does seem as though DSC might suffer a disadvantage in terms of wisdom, since intelligence is a part (though only part) of that virtue. But although the Secular Right wishes to condemn DSC for their limited intelligence, I've never heard anyone condemn DSC for being cowardly, or prone to self-indulgent excess, or for wishing evil on others. In fact, in terms of the virtue of justice, DSC seem to be superior to the norm. So in three out of four of the cardinal virtues, DSC seem to be the equal and perhaps even the superior of others. Why is it that the one aspect in which they are deficient, intelligence, should trump all others as necessary and sufficient to condemn them?

We all lack wisdom to one degree or another, as we are more or less perfect in all the virtues. It is the nearly virtuous man, however, who is the most dangerous. The highly intelligent, courageous, self-controlled man -but one who lacks the virtue of justice - can be a terrible force. Stalin was intelligent, willing to take a risk, and a virtual ascetic (except for his smoking). Shakesperean tragic figures like MacBeth come to mind or, for a more contemporary instance, Michael Corleone. Wouldn't it make more sense to search for a genetic test for such individuals and cull them out rather than DSC? DSC, whatever their flaws, aren't really a threat to anyone. Or to cull babies that might be prone to alcoholism, addictive gambling, or cowardice (if we could test for such a thing)?

But the fact is that the "quality of life" in question isn't that of DSC. It's really the quality of life of the DSC's parents or whomever is burdened with caring for them. (This is clear from some of the comments in the Secular Right post). That's the reason unborn DSC are aborted - because the parents don't want the trouble of caring for them, and it's a certainty that DSC will require more and different attention than normal children. I get that - as a father of three normal and healthy children, I am thankful to God for them, and wouldn't relish the idea of raising a DSC. But neither would I kid myself that such a child is better off dead, and any thoughts along those lines are just a rationalization to do something terrible to avoid what amounts to an inconvenience.

I wonder also about later children who are not culled by their parents. What does such a child think when he discovers that his parents aborted one of his older siblings because he didn't measure up genetically? I always knew from my parents that they loved me unconditionally, that they were on my side when no one else might be, and nothing could separate them from me. For many years this was known unreflectively and it wasn't until I was older, and discovered that not everyone had it, that I realized what it was and how lucky I was. When I hear Romans 8:35-39, I instinctively interpret it in this context. That confidence would have been shattered had I discovered that my parents had culled an earlier child, for whatever reason. A measure of conditionality is introduced, made all the worse, perhaps, if justified in terms of a self-serving rationalization about quality of life.

No comments: