Sunday, September 07, 2014

An Obligation to Abort? Moral Guidance vs. Reaction

Dawkins was widely condemned for his tweet a couple of weeks ago claiming that it would be "immoral" not to abort a fetus with Down Syndrome. The claim seems pretty implausible on its face if we read "immoral" in the "reactive" sense indicating blameworthiness or moral criticizability. But if we instead address the question of 1st-personal moral guidance -- if faced with this situation, what should I do? -- Dawkins' response strikes me as more defensible. (Dawkins' own elaboration seems to indicate that something more in this vicinity was indeed his intended meaning.)

Why think that aborting a cognitively disabled fetus is the morally better option? Many would allow that, faced with a choice between a normal/healthy child or a cognitively disabled one, it would be wrong to choose the latter. We expect the more able to child to have more opportunities for a better life, and -- as a matter of moral principle -- we should prefer to bring into existence better rather than worse lives when possible.

If we combine this view of procreative beneficence with the strong pro-choice view that abortion is morally innocuous (effectively just a more invasive, unpleasant form of contraception), then the choice to keep a DS fetus when one could instead abort it and start anew just is, in effect, to choose to have a DS child over a normal one. (Of course there are exceptions that could make a difference: if abortion would be psychologically traumatic for the woman, or if there are fertility issues such that "starting anew" is not a feasible option, etc. The claim is just that in certain core cases -- all else equal -- the decisions can be seen as morally equivalent.)

Some of Dawkins' philosophical critics seem in such a rush to condemn him that they risk making serious philosophical errors themselves.

Iain Brassington at the Journal of Medical Ethics blog writes: "to make that kind of statement is indefensible for more or less the same reason as a statement to the effect that a woman isn’t allowed to have an abortion [...] Choice is minimised."  But the right to choose does not entail that either option is equally choice-worthy.  Sometimes people have a right to choose wrongly.  Indeed, contra Iain, I think it should be uncontroversial that abortion may (in some circumstances) be obligatory: Suppose your fetus is diagnosed with anencephaly, or some comparably serious developmental defect that guarantees a short and (if sentient at all) pain-filled life. You ask yourself the question, "Should I abort this fetus?" Does anyone really think that a sensible morality would remain silent on this question? That all one can do is pick arbitrarily, with no moral reasons favouring one option over the other?

Maybe strangers should remain silent on the question -- none of our business, and all that -- but insofar as we're engaged in first-personal moral inquiry rather than second-personal haranguing, I see no reason to deny that there is an answer "out there" to be found.  And in at least some (extreme) cases, it seems to me extremely clear that the answer to the question "should I abort?" will be yes.

Now, of course, the case of Down Syndrome is less extreme, and so less clear. Even if abortion is the morally best option, permissive moral views could plausibly hold this to be a case of permissible sub-optimality -- i.e., morality may hold that having a DS child is not ideal, but it is nonetheless totally fine. After all, we all do morally suboptimal things all the time!  But bringing a child into the world is a serious matter, so I don't think it's totally outrageous to think that morality might be especially stringent here, and require us to instead really try to do the very best we can. Either way, I don't mean to settle the question here, but merely suggest that the Dawkinsian view may be more defensible than it at first appears -- especially once we clearly distinguish questions of moral guidance from moral reaction.


  1. Why not take it in the most obvious (and I believe correct) way. It is genuinely blameworthy not to abort a fetus with a severe disability. Certainly this is true for any reasonable variant of utilitarianism (so it should hardly be a far out philosophical position)..

    However, I don't need to resort to utilitarianism to make this argument. I think most of us will accept the following claims as true. (In what follows I'm going to assume for argument's sake that if you get pregnant on purpose and abort because of an abortion you will go out and get pregnant again even if it's not strictly speaking true).

    1) While, other things being equal, it may be preferable not to have abortions it's not wrong to have an abortion because having a child would retard career advancement, interfere with your romantic and personal life or other relatively small factors that don't come close to the badness that deliberately maiming someone represents.

    2) Deliberately administering a drug to yourself during pregnancy (say immediately before birth to make it dramatic) which caused your baby to develop down's syndrome, be born without legs or have any other major disability would not only be morally wrong but at least as bad as deliberately maiming a full grown adult (assuming in both cases it is down painlessly).

    3)While babies are alive and surely start to feel pain fairly early on they have no conception of their place in the world, no desires not to die or to accomplish things in their life. In other word's one can't appeal to desire satisfaction in any fashion or some kind of value in finishing projects or accomplishing great works to dodge my argument (indeed people with downs syndrome who grow up and form these desires only to have them smashed by their highly curtailed life spans seem to provoke far more desire frustration than any abortion.

    So here's the question: If some alien credibly forced you to choose to either dose your healthy fetus with a chemical causing it to develop down's syndrome or to abort that child is it moral to choose to dose your fetus with the chemical?

    My intuition screams at me FUCK NO IT ISN'T. Abortion isn't very wrong (and probably not wrong at all) but maiming someone (which I intuitively really feel is equivalent to letting the handicapped baby come to term) is really awful. At least in this situation where there are no thwarted desires or sad relatives I see no reason not to regard similar consequences as similarly bad.

    I think that many people get confused on this point because they assume that if you believe there is a moral mandate to abort people who are like them you must therefore believe their life isn't worth living. NOT SO. The only implication one can draw from this is that they would have a better life without the disability (thus before other people and they themselves have invested in them it's preferable to swap them out with a fully functional version).

    In their hearts everyone agrees with me since the majority who says they would favor carrying (or their wife carrying) such a child to term starts dropping as the possibility they have to make that call for real (instead of just signalling they are a good person) becomes more real. Ultimately, something like 98% of people who actually make the deciscion choose to abort..

  2. Or to put it more simply, I think you get the reasoning backwards.

    If procreation is (ceterus-parabus) good and abortion is at worst minimally bad far from being incompatible with a duty to abort disabled fetuses it actually ENTAILS it.

    I should point out the background assumption here is that you aren't time or opportunity limited in your procreative efforts. Assuming that procreation is either balanced against the harms of resource depletion or you can reproduce at a rate that will overwhelm your ability to care for your offspring (almost certainly true) then abortion is simply the choice to delay one of your children a year not to reduce the number you have.


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