Thursday, February 21, 2008

Disability and Teen Pregnancy

Dominic Wilkinson offers an interesting argument from analogy:
The UK government announced this week a multi-million pound program to make contraception more easily available to young people and to reduce teenage pregnancies...

If they are effective, these measures will prevent the birth of a large number of children whose lives would have been worth living. Is it discriminatory to try to prevent the birth of children to teenage mothers? What message does this send to those children in the community who have been born to teenagers about how we value their lives? ... If we spend millions of pounds to try to prevent the birth of children like them, it might be seen to be expressing an attitude that we do not want them, or that we wish that they were not amongst us.

When we make decisions about which future persons will live – children to teenage parents, or children with disability, the types of objections cited above can be expressed. If we think that such objections are convincing, we should not try to prevent the birth of individuals with disability, nor children to teenage parents. If we think nevertheless that preventing teenage births is ethical, then this may give us some important insights into debates about disability.

Are there relevant differences which undermine the analogy? Disability is a feature of the potential child, whereas in preventing teenage pregnancies our focus is simply on a feature of the mother. (We would not think it desirable for her to become pregnant with any child, no matter its intrinsic features.) So this might be thought to explain why preventing the births of disabled individuals, but not teenage births, risks "sending the message" that the type of child in question is undesirable. What do you think?


  1. When we supply contraceptives—most kinds of contraceptives anyway—, we don't try to don't try to prevent the birth of a child. We may try to prevent the actualization of a possible child, but possible children aren't what we are morally concerned with.

    Second, we do try to prevent the actualization of possibly disabled children. For example, we strongly discourage women over 50 from having children. We strongly discourage women from drinking heavily or smoking heavily while pregnant (this might be somewhat different), and we strongly discourage women who have some pre-existing potentially-child-harming ailment from having children. We don't find it problematic to do any of these things. If children are actualized in any of these cases, then we treat the child as we would anyone else but that is only if they are actualized.

  2. It seems to me another relevant difference in the analogy could be the moment of choice between teenage pregnancies and disabled children. Similarly to Mark's comment, I don't think many people would have an ethical issue with say, some hypothetical contracaption that insured a disability free baby, but the original poster seemed to be comparing the choice of contraception to the choice of aborting a disabled child purely because of his/her disability, which is a different thing entirely. I would certainly be shocked if the government suddenly came out encouraging teenage girls to have abortions!

  3. I actually think the analogy holds 100% (for both contraception and abortion) - I've been using it for a long time as a reductio against those who argue that aborting disabled fetuses sends some kind of a "message" to the disabled "community".

    Like Mark says, "we do try to prevent the actualization of possibly disabled children" all the time - we think it's a responsible thing to do. We also try to make sure our kids don't end up living in poverty (by making sure we don’t have too many, for example), yet we don't have the "poor community" accusing us of "sending a message".

    The whole "argument" is ridiculous and has absurd implications. For example, I don't want to get pregnant right now because I don't have a job; or I'm not in a serious relationship; or I feel that I'm too young/old to have kids now, and so on. These are all legitimate reasons for both contraception (and, arguably, abortion) – they don’t send a message to the kids of the unemployed or the single or the young that I think they would have been better off if they were never born!! So why is "I don't want to have kids that would suffer from a disability" not a legitimate reason? What’s the difference? There is none, and that’s how it should be: let’s not seek to undermine a perfectly good analogy.

    Furthermore, once the kids are born, we continue making sure that they don't become disabled or poor. Should we accuse responsible parents (and governments) of bigotry?

  4. Furthermore, once the kids are born, we continue making sure that they don't become disabled or poor. Should we accuse responsible parents (and governments) of bigotry?

    There is much to be said for the analogy; but at this point you've gone beyond the analogy into absurdity. What makes people uncomfortable about the contraceptive case is that they think it suggests a value judgment about the existence of children who are disabled or poor -- i.e., not worth being allowed to live, or at least less worthy of it than the non-disabled or the wealthy. Whatever the merits of, or problems with, this, there is no significant analogy to cases of "making sure that they don't become disabled or poor", which no one can seriously say involves a value judgment about the existence of the children in question, but only about their well-being (which doesn't, and can't, arise in the contraceptive case, since you can't be making serious decisions about the best way to live for a child that will never exist.)


Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)